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Just One Question for Christopher Locke
The Cluetrain Manifesto is not your (insert appropriate parental unit)'s set of 95 theses. The Wall Street Journal called it "the pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant creation of four marketing gurus who have renounced marketing as usual." One of those marketing gurus, Christopher Locke (who doubles as the strident and razor-sharp pundit Rageboy), was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer just one question...
A few years ago, you could make an interesting distinction between people who thought there was something special about the Internet and those who saw it as no big deal. Now of course, everybody sees it as a big deal, mostly because of those weirdball IPOs and the overnight billionaires they've spawned. But I think the distinction is still valid. Most companies with net-dot-dollar-signs in their eyes today are still missing the "something special" dimension.
Yahoo has already made it, financially speaking, but forms a good example nonetheless. Despite the funky hacker roots of the initial directory Yang and Filo built, Yahoo now describes itself as a "global media company," thus claiming a closer "spiritual" kinship with Disney than with the culture that originally put it on the map.
To this mindset, the net is just an extension of preceding mass media, primarily television. The rhetoric it uses is freighted with the same crypto-religious marketing jargon: brand, CPM, eyeballs, demographics. And guess what. It works. If nobody was getting rich off this crap, you wouldn't hear about it half as much.
It's the fast new companies that are reaping these monetary rewards. But guess what again. They're reaping them from a fast new market -- one that, for the most part, has only discovered the Internet in the last couple years. The people who make up this new market naturally bring a lot of baggage from their previous experience of mass media. To someone who just got an AOL account last Christmas, I suppose a web page looks like a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w TV show.
But this is where the something-special effect comes in. It seems to be widely assumed that if you missed the early days of Usenet and didn't use Lynx from a Unix command line, you missed The Magic of Internet Culture. I don't think so.
Sure those were very different days and there was a certain fervor -- almost a fever -- back then that was hard to mistake for sitcom fandom. But I think the Internet still has a radicalizing effect today despite all the commercialism, despite all the the banner ads and Special Promotions and You-May-Already-Be-A-Winner Sweepstakes.
The something special is what cluetrain calls voice.
Imagine for a moment: millions of people sitting in their shuttered homes at night, bathed in that ghostly blue television aura. They're passive, yeah, but more than that: they're isolated from each other.
Now imagine another magic wire strung from house to house, hooking all these poor bastards up. They're still watching the same old crap. Then during the touching love scene, somebody farts -- and everybody hears it. Whoa! What was that? People are rolling on the floor laughing. And it begins to happen so often they have to abbreviate it: ROTFL.
What was once The Show, the hypnotic focus and tee-vee advertising carrier wave, becomes in the context of the Internet a sort of media McGuffin -- an excuse to get together rather than an excuse not to. Think of Joel and the bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The point is not to watch the film, but to outdo each other making fun of it.
And for such radically realigned purposes, some bloated corporate website will do every bit as well as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!"
So here comes Joe Sixpack onto AOL. What does he know about netliness? Nothing. Zilch. He has no cultural context whatsoever. But soon, VERY soon, what he hears is something he never heard in TV Land: people cracking up. "That ain't no laugh track neither," Joe is thinking -- and goes looking for the source of this strange new, rather seductive sound.
So here's a little story problem for ya, class. If the Internet has 50 million people on it, they're not all as dumb as they look, but the corporations trying to make a fast buck off their asses are... how long before Joe is laughing as hard as everyone else?
The correct answer of course: not long at all.
TCP/IP is inherently seditious. It undermines unthinking respect for centralized authority, whether that "authority" is the neatly homogenized voice of broadcast advertising or the smarmy rhetoric of the corporate annual report.
And TCP/IP has also threaded its way deep into the heart of Corporate Empire, where once upon a time, lockstep loyalty to the chairman's latest attempt at insight was no further away than the mimeograph machine. One memo from Mr. Big and everyone believed.
No more. The same kind of deconstruction that's being practiced on the web today just for the hell of it, is also seeping onto the company intranet. How many parodies are floating around there, one wonders: of the latest hyperinflated bullshit restructuring plan, of the over-sincere cultural-sensitivity training sessions human resources made mandatory last week, of all the gibberish that passes for "management" -- or has passed up until now.
Step back a frame or two. Zoom out. Isn't that weird? Workers and markets are speaking the same language! And they're both speaking it in the same hipshot, unedited, devil-take-the-hindmost style.
It may be irreverent of eternal verities, but it's not all jokes. Whether in the marketplace or at work, people do have genuine, serious concerns. And they have something else as well: knowledge. Not the sort of boring abstract knowledge that "Knowledge Management" wants to manage. No. The real thing.
But this whole gamut of conversation, from infinite jest to point-specific expertise: who needs it?
Companies need it. Without it they can't innovate, build consensus or go to market. Markets need it. Without it they don't know what works, what doesn't; don't know why they should give a damn. Cultures need it. Without play and knowledge in equal measure, they begin to die. People get gloomy, anxious and depressed. Eventually, the guns come out.
There are two new conversations going on today, both vibrant, exciting; both mediated by TCP/IP technologies but having little to do with technology otherwise. Unfortunately, there's also a metaphorical firewall separating these conversations, and that wall is the traditional conservative fearful corporation.
So what is to be done? Easy: Burn it down. Bulldoze it. Cordon off the area. Set up barricades. Cripple the tanks. Topple the statues of heroes too long dead into the street.
Sound familiar? You bet it does. And the message has been the same all along, from Paris '68 to Berlin to Beijing: Let the kids rock and roll!
So open the windows and turn up the volume. If the noise gets loud enough, maybe even CNN will cover.
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