‘Long live the open Internet’: Cluetrain authors offer an updated guide to the Web

Two of the original Cluetrain authors, 
Doc Searls and David Weinberger, have issued a new manifesto for the Web.
Two of the original Cluetrain authors, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, have issued a new manifesto for the Web.

If you’ve ever said, “markets are conversations” you’re quoting the words of The Cluetrain Manifesto, the ’90s-era opus on the promise of the Web. David Weinberger and Doc Searls (two of the original authors of Cluetrain) are publishing another provocative work today called New Clues. I caught up with them this week to hear about the project. None of us wants to be clueless, so go ahead, check it out; here’s the link to their page: New Clues.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, published as a page with 95 statements on the Internet in 1999 was a rallying cry to geeks that the mainstream media and businesses were clueless about the Web.  What’s New Clues about and why is it time for this?

David: The Cluetrain Manifesto was an attempt to explain to businesses and the media what they were getting wrong about the Web. In the broadcast era, a mass audience was fed what the media owners thought they wanted. It was one-way communication. The Web lets us communicate directly with one another about what matters to us. The Web’s been a social world since it began.

A pall has descended even among those of us who have believed in the Net as an opportunity for transformation. What seemed inevitable 15 years ago now is at risk. So Doc and I thought it was time for a re-assessment.

For many people, the Net now feels like just another way commercial media feed us content and toys. We can treat it like that. Or we can remember the Net’s original and true essence: it is a set of connections open to anyone. We have built wonders with it. Those days are far from over. But we have to take back the idea and meaning of the Net. We have to make sure that it stays open to everyone, every idea, and every connection.

Doc: In fact Cluetrain was addressed to everybody. It began, “People of Earth,” and ended up getting translated into fourteen languages — all by volunteers. The book version, which came out in January 2000, was published in nine languages, as I recall.

It’s also important to remember that we wrote the website in early ’99, at the height of the dot-com boom. We watched clueless old companies (publishers, retailers, you-name-it) and new ones get the Net wrong — in large measure because it got people wrong, and how the Net was comprised of people more than technology.

I remember vividly what adrenalized us (or at least me) most. It was a little .gif that Chris Locke sent to the other three of us, and which became our alpha clue. Well above the list of 95 theses, Cluetrain says, “if you only have time for one clue this year, this is it: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.”

As I read New Clues, I expected you to spend more time on Net Neutrality. Are we all sick of talking about it?

David: We talk about Net Neutrality not as a policy but as a characteristic of the Net. By its definition, the Net is a set of agreements that commit participating networks to transmitting data without discriminating among them based on origin, owner, destination, content, etc. The Net is neutral. The question is how we preserve that essential neutrality.

Doc: We are sick of talking about it because the talk doesn’t go very far. Meaning most of it has gone toward politics with little outcome beyond solidified disagreements.

Who are the bad guys in your New Clues world?

David: Right at the beginning we distinguish three bad guys. First there are the Fools who behave badly because they don’t know any better. A lot of bad online marketing fits into that category. Then there are the Marauders who know exactly what they’re doing and who care only about themselves and their shareholders. The worst of the access providers go in that bin. But the clues really focus on the third category: us. The users of the Net. We have too easily forgotten what makes the Net such an epochal opportunity for transformation: it is a connective environment that is ours. It is not just a set of fancy apps and glitzy sites that feed us listicles and manage our social network for us. It is an opportunity to build a new world together, one that more closely represents our interests and what is best about us.

Doc: We talk about fools, marauders and our own evil inclinations. Fools are the resolutely clueless. Marauders see the Net as way to frack data out of everybody and everything. Our own evil inclinations come out when we “exchange the truly valuable for the merely shiny.”

Among the truly valuable things we give up are our privacy, our sovereignty and our agency as human beings in the world. And what we get for that is mostly bad guesswork by search engines, social networks and marketers who think we are ready to buy crap all the time.

You deliver some knock-out punches to the media in New Clues, like “… how about calling ‘native ads’ by any of their real names: ‘product placement,’ ‘advertorial’ or ‘fake fucking news’? ”  What’s your advice on improving this?  Can it be remedied?

David: Clues #64-66 criticize news media for accepting “paid content” that erodes the line between news and ads. But today of all days it’s more important to stand in solidarity with journalists in gratitude for their courage and contribution than to harp about some business practices we happen to disagree with.

Tell me why you are publishing New Clues online – not as a blog post, not as an article, not as a book?

David: To be clear, we are posting it as a Web page. But because we’re doing this as an Open Source publishing project, that’s just one incarnation of it. We’re super excited about this. Like every writer, we want our ideas to be absorbed by our culture as far and wide as our culture would like. So we’re making the barriers to that act of cultural appropriation as low as we can. We’ve put the text into the public domain so no one has to ask us permission to use any or all of it.

And we’re using GitHub, which is usually used to make Open Source software reusable, to host the content in forms that computer programs will find easy to use. So if you want to write an application that displays the clues in a different way, or enable a different type of interaction, or whatever you’d like, go ahead!

Doc: We don’t want it to be ours alone. Although it’s a site, it’s also a collection of elements that can work as building material for makers of all kinds.

As with Cluetrain, we aren’t in it for the money, or the control, or for any commercial or personal purposes. We think the world can use New Clues — but only if we make it as useful as possible. Open sourcing does that.

You’re publishing during the week of #CES – was that a coincidence?

David: Does ignorance count as a coincidence?

Doc: I had all but forgotten about CES until some of the people we vetted New Clues with brought it up. For what it’s worth, I went to CES every year for years, and don’t miss it a bit. The stuff that matters most wasn’t there, and still isn’t there. In my humble opinion.

Halley Suitt Tucker is an author, entrepreneur, TechStars alum, and two-time successful Kickstarter campaigner. She lives in Arlington.
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