Cluetrain at Fifteen
I started writing for Linux Journal as a contributing editor in 1996 (here's one piece), and went full-time 1998, not long before I began co-writing The Cluetrain Manifesto with Chris Locke, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. The Cluetrain website went up in March 1999, and we finished writing the book at the end of August 1999. The book was published in January, 2000, and a tenth anniversary edition arrived in 2009. But the last words of the original were written fifteen years ago this month.
Despite its antiquity, Cluetrain's popularity persists. The book continues to sell, in many languages. The word "cluetrain," which didn't exist before 1999, now appears in more than 11,000 other books (a number that increases at a rate of more than one per day). It also gets tweeted a lot.
Look up markets are conversations Cluetrain's most quoted line and you'll get millions of results. What was once a revolutionary yell by markets at marketing is now marketing canon. Not exactly what we had in mind, but there it is.
What we had in mind was much fresher to me in the Summer of 2000, when I worked with Jason Schumaker, another Linux Journal editor, on an interview about Cluetrain and its relevance to Linux. What we ended up with was too long for both the magazine and our website at the time, so the project got sidelined and eventually buried in archival directories, where it stayed until this morning, when I found it during a search for something else. Reading it, I realized that I had come across a kind of time capsule.
So, rather than let it keep languishing, I decided to put the whole thing up, as is (or was), in time for Cluetrain's fifteenth anniversary.
I've made only a few changes. The main one is putting all seven parts into one long page. The rest are all minor copy edits and fixing of fixable links. (Noting how many links are now rotted is itself an interesting subject of historical inquiry.)
An epilogue follows at the bottom.
Part 1: Making Trouble
Part 2: The Red Pill Story
Part 3: Markets & Marketing
Part 4: Markets as Conversations
Part 5: The Linux Conversation
Part 6: The Linux/Cluetrain Connection
Part 7: The Cluetrain Movement
September 6, 2000 — Doc Searls joined Linux Journal as Senior Editor early last year, in a move he describes as a "defection" from his prior career as a marketing guru, counseling the likes of Novell, PGP, Logitech and Hitachi. "I was tired of attacking markets," he says. "I wanted to go over to the other side — to markets that make themselves without interference from marketing. That's what Linux is about, and I love that."
At about the same time Doc was making another kind of trouble. With two other marketing defectors (Christopher Locke and David Weinberger) and one of Sun's top Web developers (Rick Levine), he co-write The Cluetrain Manifesto — a 2500-word, 95-thesis document — and nailed it up on the Web.
Within days, Infoworld, Suck, Salon and dozens of other pubs and sites were buzzing about it. But the bat really hit the hive when Cluetrain showed up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal's Marketplace section. In his Front Lines column, Tom Petzinger called the Manifesto "pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant," among other nice things. It wasn't long before the co-authors had a deal with Perseus Books and a commitment to finish writing a manuscript by the end of August.
The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual was released in January and immediately burned up the charts. With little promotion, the book became a bestseller on New York Times, Business Week and Borders lists. It hit #1 on the Fatbrain Business Bestsellers list, and a slew of top positions at Amazon.com, including #1 in Marketing & Sales (with an Editor's Pick) — a position it has held since March.
Coverage has been heavy. The Standard ran a long excerpt in January. Fast Company ran a feature in the March issue. Upside ran another excerpt in the April issue. Since everybody else seems to be jumping on this thing, we thought we'd join the fray. After all, Doc is right here on our masthead, trying his best to leverage the Cluetrain buzz into the Linux conversation, where his specialty is the business side of things.
But first, let's look at the document that started it all...
As revolutionary tracts go, The Cluetrain Manifesto is like nothing — and everything — else. The authors borrows its name from Karl Marx, its form from Martin Luther, its spirit from Martin Luther King and its manners from Hunter S. Thompson. In bold, rude language, Cluetrain speaks new truth to old power:
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp.
deal with it.
Its 95 Theses begin by speaking about markets...
1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
Then about the Web...
7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
Then about the open-source-like nature of networked markets...
11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
Later they adopt the second person voice and know-it-all attitude of a Slashdot posting:
74. We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
77. You're too busy "doing business" to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we'll come back later. Maybe.
82. Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do you mean she's not in?
83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
Our conversation with Doc covered a lot of topics and took place over several months, which is why we break it into seven short sections, with links to each at the top of this one.
Linux Journal: This book is a first for you.
Doc Searls: Yeah. At 53, that keeps alive my reputation as a late bloomer.
Linux Journal: And it's a hit.
Doc Searls: Right. Combine those two things, and you get an obsessed author.
Linux Journal: Do you spend a lot of time following the charts?
Doc Searls: I did for a while, mostly because Amazon makes it so easy. I've knocked them for their patent strategy, but I give them credit for finding lots of ways to get everybody — including authors — hooked on their service. For the first couple of months after the book came out, I kept a browser window open to The Cluetrain Manifesto page on Amazon so I could check our standing constantly. Amazon updates its rankings every couple hours, for millions of books, which is perverse.
Linux Journal: You were like a day trader watching one stock.
Doc Searls: Right. The book would go from #45 to #15, then back down to #23 and up again #17, then below #100, then up again, like a monkey on a bungee cord. I also obsessed about customer reviews. Until we hit about 40 reviews we were averaging 5 stars. Then a couple of jerks — anonymous cowards, of course — one-starred us down to four and a half. Since then the a-hole gallery has banged us down to four stars.
Linux Journal: Do the bad reviews bother you?
Doc Searls: Only the ones that are wrong. Knock our attitude or whatever you like, but get your facts straight.
Linux Journal: Such as ?
Doc Searls: Such as, "there's nothing new in the book." There are a pile concepts and observations in that book that are completely new, either with the original Manifesto or with the book itself.
Linux Journal: Such as...
Doc Searls: Such as conceiving markets as conversations, the industrial age as an interruption in our understanding of markets in conversational terms, and the way the Web returns markets to their ancient nature as social places. Sus as the way industry conceived business in terms of shipping, management in terms of org charts and companies in terms of forts. Such as the observation that the Net as something built by hackers for everybody rather than by e-business just for suppliers. Such as the new balance of power that tilts in favor of demand demand rather than supply.
Linux Journal: You do get a lot of grief about attitude.
Doc Searls: Right. When we wrote the Manifesto for the Web, Don Norman, wrote and told us, point blank, "your attitude sucks." My wife agreed with him. She thought we were arrogant and pretentious. But Don ended up writing a very kind blurb for the book, and my wife agreed with that, too.
Linux Journal: What turned them around?
Doc Searls: In Don's case, the success of the site. It changed things. Suddenly people were using our language, and talking about "clueful" and "clueless"companies. In my wife's case, for years she had heard carry on about how markets are conversations — to audiences who forgot the point within minutes. Now they were getting it. The gonzo attitude made a huge difference. So did the teamwork. Conversation among the four authors added enormous value to the original idea.
Linux Journal: Isn't ninety-five theses a bit much?
Doc Searls: Craig Burton says "a cluetrain manifesto with 95 theses is missing a clue."
Linux Journal: Then why so many?
Doc Searls: It worked for Martin Luther. We were looking for a similar effect.
Linux Journal: That's pretty arrogant, just like some of your reviews say. Where did that arrogance come from?
Doc Searls: Two things. One was knowing that we were speaking for markets — for all the people business-as-usual called "consumers" and e-business called "eyeballs." We've all been fed up with that shit for a very long time. It was back in the Seventies, for gosh sake, when the movie "Network" gave us that famous "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" line. It galled all four of us that even the dot-com companies brought that same TV mentality to the Web, and that it was time to call bullshit on all the whole thing. The other was Chris Locke, our gonzo voice. Chris is the one who came up with the "we are not eyeballs or seats" line, and it galvanized us. He also did a great job articulating the fundamental nature of original markets and the failures of industrial movements like Taylorism.
Linux Journal: And how did the rest of you fit in?
Doc Searls: David Weinberger brought in lots of original thinking about the nature of business and management. In one chapter, "The Longing," he asks the question What is the Web for? An amazing question, with an equally amazing answer that's very germane to the Linux movement.
Linux Journal: You going to give away the answer?
Doc Searls: No, I'm an old marketer, so I'll tease you. The answer is in the book.
Linux Journal: What kind of marketing produced Cluetrain's success?
Doc Searls: Word of Mouse. And Word of Command Line, in the case of many Linux Journal readers. In fact, there is a lot of overlap between the open source world and Cluetrain's founding constituency.
Linux Journal: ESR has a blurb on the back cover.
Doc Searls: Eric is a good personal friend both to me and to the whole Cluetrain cause.. He was one of the first persons to sign the Manifesto, and he was the first to come through with our best blurb. Chris Locke calls him "a rhetorician of the first water." And it's true. He's amazing.
Linux Journal: Tell us more about the Linux/Cluetrain overlap.
Doc Searls: First, the Net that makes everything possible — including all of e-business — is pretty much an all-geek production where it really counts. In the book we embrace and credit that fact. Second, there is an attitudinal affinity. Gonzo marketing might be anathema to Business as Usual, but it's a comfortable concept with a crowd where everybody is free — and expected — to speak his or her mind, and to give a shit about protecting other people's feelings where matters of principle are at stake. The hacker community's anti-commercial sentiments, which ESR writes about in Homesteading the Noosphere, also tend to resonate with Cluetrain's attitude.
Linux Journal: You got a little help from Slashdot, too, no?
Doc Searls: Jeff Bates, better known as Hemos, gave us a terrific review on March 30. So did Jason Bennet, in the same posting. But by then the book was already a best-seller, so I can't say how much influence those reviews had. They certainly didn't hurt, and we really appreciated them.
Linux Journal: How did you four authors get together?
Doc Searls: At least two conversations were going at the same time in late '98: one between Chris Locke and myself, and the other between Chis and David Weinberger. Chris connected the three of us, and when that three-way conversation began to gather steam, Chris pulled in Rick Levine.
Linux Journal: How well did you know each other?
Doc Searls: Chris knew David Weinberger for a long time. I knew Chris about four years, and I was a fan of David's commentaries on NPR. All three of us were irreverent writers — Chris especially. Through RageBoy™, his alter id, Chris was already the Hunter S. Thompson of the computer industry. Rick was one of Sun's top Web people. Rick was also the one true hacker among us, and the guy we brought in to make the Web site work. It turns out he was a terrific artist, thinker and writer as well. He's also the only one of us who appeared to be fully stable.
Linux Journal: Did you meet often?
Doc Searls: No. Before we got the book deal, we never met at all. I live in the Bay Area. David lives in Boston. Chris and Rick both live in Boulder, Colorado. After the book deal came through, we got together as a group only twice — in June and August of last year — both times at Rick's house.
Linux Journal: So what did you find yourselves agreeing about in those first conversations?
Doc Searls: We kept asking ourselves what it was that blinded so many companies — also the press and the population in general — to the obvious. While the supply side saw the Net as TV with a buy button, the demand side — the markets themselves — were morphing into places where supply and demand meet, talk and do business on a one-to-one basis. Yet socially both sides carried on as if nothing had changed. The demand side was still accepting the "consumer" and "eyeball" insults while the supply side continued to wage military marketing campaigns to "target" and "capture" people, as if they were animals. We knew if we called attention to a few facts, in the right way, the obvious would become apparent to everybody. Which is exactly what happened.
Linux Journal: Where did the Cluetrain name come from?
Doc Searls: It came from Tony Wessels, who now works at Borland/Inprise. One day a few years back a bunch of us were standing around talking about dumb companies in Silicon Valley. About one company Tony said, "the clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery." When I told that story to Rick, Chris and David on a conference call one day, the name "Cluetrain" instantly materialized. We looked to see if the domain name was available. It was, and we had our brand, all in about 30 seconds. Later, when I told Tony I wanted to credit him as the originator of the story, he said he didn't remember telling it. But I still want to give Tony the credit, whether he likes it or not. He is the one who said it.
Linux Journal: What exactly were you hoping to accomplish?
Doc Searls: My goal was to burn down Marketing as Usual. I wanted to discredit it completely. The marketing ideals Peter Drucker, Theodore Levitt and Regis McKenna wrote about were not what companies wanted out of marketing. Instead of "satisfying the customer, no matter what," they wanted "strategies" that assaulted "consumers" with unwanted "messages." I wanted us to stand up for markets, for customers, for what was really going on. While marketing sat in its war rooms, pushing virtual ships around imaginary glass tables, markets were busy forming new continents, oceans and weather systems. At a higher level, the Net was a brand new creation that transcended both business and marketing and put both in a whole new context — one they could no longer command and control. That's what Cluetrain was about. To me, at least.
Linux Journal: And that's why Cluetrain is more diagnostic than prescriptive.
Doc Searls: Right. We wanted to talk about why markets were getting smarter faster than business. There wasn't much we could say to business other than "wise up."
Linux Journal: This is where "The End of Business as Usual" came from as a subtitle, then?
Doc Searls: I think it grew out of conversations with our agent (David Miller of The Garamond Agency), our editor (Jacqueline Murphy) and others at Perseus Books. Burning down marketing was too narrow, I guess. We wanted to go for all of Business as Usual. By the way, that subtitle was something of a punchline to three lines that were cut from the cover to make room for the quote from Tom Petzinger of The Wall Street Journal. Those lines were, "Markets are conversations. Talk is cheap. Silence is fatal." Those actually served as a kind of thematic outline for the book while we were writing it.
Linux Journal: What is "Business as Usual" and what' s killing it?
Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.
Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.
Doc Searls: Yeah, but it's more than that. It's what gives all of us pointy hair.
|You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. |
You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
—Morpheus, "The Matrix"
Linux Journal: Which is?
Doc Searls: There's a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie's premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we're saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of "best practices" or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I've come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It's the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.
Linux Journal: And that's the red pill answer?
Doc Searls: That's part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We're not conscious of this programming because it's unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn't ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call "the new economy." We're still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.
Linux Journal: What are you saying isn't real?
Doc Searls: Most of what we call "markets" are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territories, spaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the "market" label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like "Men 25-54." We also give it to characterizations like "upscale suburban Volvo drivers." Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.
Linux Journal: Give us an example.
Doc Searls: The word "content." It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did "content" suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are "content," and every artist is a "content provider." Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like "goods?"
Linux Journal: So, why?
Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we're hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn't stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let's re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.
Linux Journal: So when you say somebody "adds value," you're using a shipping metaphor.
Doc Searls: Absolutely.
Linux Journal: What's so bad about that?
Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren't cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution's conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn't talk about "aggregating" and "capturing" them. We also wouldn't talk about "moving content" through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.
Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?
Doc Searls: It's absolutely different because it's infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It's the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.org, Untied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.
Linux Journal: So you're saying there's a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn't all that's happening in the post-industrial world.
Doc Searls: Right.
Linux Journal: When does it end?
Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that "content" insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like "B2B" and " B2C" — labels for "business-to-business" and "business-to-consumer" — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? "B2B" might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition "to" was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.
Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor's perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?
Doc Searls: It's a fact. But it's not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. "Consumers" aren't a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That's why it's now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic "thank you for calling" voice from phone mail hell.
Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What's relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn't the modern world too radically different?
Doc Searls: It's not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer's market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn't the case — at least not by traditional means.
Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.
Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn't do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker's methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don't want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.
Linux Journal: It also isn't just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.
Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a "customer support" 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We're in a world now that's very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver's cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he's too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It's the same today on the Net.
Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?
Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There's a good chance it labels an ancestor's role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer... those names were earned by craft. Those crafts' contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.
Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.
Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, "I'm a potter's son." And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.
Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an "interruption."
Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We've long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.
Linux Journal: I notice that nobody today goes by "Middle Manager" or "Fork Lift Operator."
Doc Searls: Right, because now we have jobs, not crafts.
Linux Journal: Unless we're geeks who give ourselves names like "BugBlaster."
Doc Searls: Right. Or radio guys with names like Doc.
Linux Journal: Was Doc your radio name?
Doc Searls: It was Doctor Dave. After I got out of radio, I started an advertising agency with two other guys — listeners of mine, actually — one of whom was also named David. He was much more possessive about the name than I was. So the other people in the office called me Doctor Dave. After a while that wore down to just "Doc."
Linux Journal: How exactly did crafts turn into jobs?
Doc Searls: Hard to tell. The Industrial Revolution we learned about in high school is a story told, as always, by history's winners. We remember reverently the spinning jenny, the steam engine, the cotton gin and the rest of those modernizing inventions. Not what we lost when we went to work in the factories.
It didn't take long before relatively few producers came to serve vast numbers of consumers, and wealth was concentrated among the few at the manufacturing end of this system. Castes began to develop. On top were big industrial producers that operated out of those tall, phallic buildings that David Weinberger calls "Fort Business." Consumers were the peasant class, only worse. Once "market" became a verb, "marketing" treated consumers like mold in a petri dish, looking to "stimulate" single-cell mental states like "awareness" and "preference." That's when marketing wasn't "attacking" markets by waging "campaigns" to "penetrate" or "impact" one "target group" or another.
So we have a long-standing case of amnesia about what markets really are. That's why, in the Manifesto, we start out saying "We are not eyeballs or seats or demographics..." Something in us — something fundamental and very human — remembers what markets really were in the first place. We never forgot.
Linux Journal: This is a key point of the book, especially in your chapter.
Doc Searls: Actually, Chris Locke brings it up in the first chapter, and I unpack it in the fifth chapter, which opens with the line, "The first markets were markets."
Linux Journal: They had no metaphor, then.
Doc Searls: Right. A market was a place where people gathered to do business when they weren't developing government, mathematics, theater and other civilized activities. Markets were places where people you knew sold stuff you cared about, and where people you respected talked about stuff that mattered. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras all taught in the agora, which was — and still is — the Greek marketplace. Out of the agora came philosophy, democracy, mathematics. It was where people came to hang out, to meet, to talk, teach and argue. It was where supply and demand, consumption and production, selling and buying — all those reciprocal economic activities — met face-to face, talked about stuff and did business together, mostly on a first-name basis.
Linux Journal: And the same is true today, only the agora is the Net.
Doc Searls: Exactly.
Linux Journal: But you're saying we don't see it it, because we're stuck in this shipping mentality.
Doc Searls: Right. And we've abstracted markets in lots of other ways, all of which derive from the objectification of markets to serve the shipping mentality.
Linux Journal: Give us some examples of objectified markets.
Doc Searls: Okay. Most of the time when we talk about "markets" as nouns, we mean just one of two things: a category or a population. A category might be consumer electronics, cosmetics, boating, toys, or travel." A population might be men 18-24, TV viewers, ice cream fanatics, game players, travelers or whatever. We call all those things "markets." as well. All are objectified in the sense that they are separate and apart from us. They are distant from the meaning of the original word.
Linux Journal: We also use "market" as a synonym for demand.
Doc Searls: Right. And there is nothing wrong with any of those uses, except to the degree their distance from ourselves allows us to dehumanize and insult the real people they mask.
Linux Journal: How about "market" as a verb?
Doc Searls: The verb has been in use for hundreds of years, usually as a synonym for "sell." The earliest examples of its usage refer to prostitution. But marketing — the noun form of that verb — started getting popular during the depression years. As it has grown in popularity, its meaning has become progressively more vague. Remember the movie "Big?" The Tom Hanks character, playing a boy in a man's body, says "what's marketing?" to the head of a toy manufacturing company, and the old man replies, "Exactly." Well, that's what marketing has become: a big, vague occupation that salutes ideals — such as Theodore Levitt's "satisfying the customer, no matter what" — while beating the shit out of that customer from a distance with advertising munitions and other instruments of assault. The ideals of marketing have always been about as far from its practices as Christ's beatitudes were from the Crusades.
Linux Journal: So marketing is about attacking.
Doc Searls: Absolutely. Marketing is the military wing of Business as Usual. It's about "strategic campaigns" to "target," "penetrate" and "impact" populations, "capturing" and "branding" them like cattle. They do this with both advertising and PR. Which is why those professions are widely despised.
Linux Journal: So the reason we hate advertising and PR is because it wants to attack us.
Doc Searls: Right. But mostly we hate the most aggressive forms of marketing, which are all advertising. Stupid ads on TV. Email spam. Junk mail. Billboards. In Attention Fat Corporate Bastards, @man compares marketing to a guy who sits down while you're having lunch, tries to sell you stuff, and doesn't go away. I quote his advice at the top of my chapter in the book: "When you think of the Internet, don't think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two."
Linux Journal: Meanwhile we just put up with it.
Doc Searls: We put up with it less and less. That's why John Grassi, one of the most active writers on just one of the Cluetrain discussion lists, says "I predict that by 2020 consumerism as we know it today will be as popular as breathing someone else's cigarette smoke has become in the last 20 years."
Linux Journal: Why does marketing — advertising, PR and the rest of it — persist in rude behavior people clearly don't like?
Doc Searls: Because they aren't interested in talking directly to those people. That would put them out of a job. That would be selling. There's nothing the marketing profession hates more than to be confused with sales. Marketing is more strategic than that. More removed and elevated. So marketing objectifies markets as "targets." They call the live beings in those targets "consumers," not customers. Their job is to "stimulate" consumers and make them "aware." Like yeast in a petri dish.
Linux Journal: That's an extremely cynical view.
Doc Searls: It's the honest view. It's also the customer's view. The customer happens to be extremely cynical, and for good reasons. He or she has been treated like shit by marketing for a very long time.
Linux Journal: But that's not what they teach about marketing in business school. As you said earlier, they teach about satisfying customers — finding what they want and giving it to them. How do you reconcile that with your account of marketing in practice?
Doc Searls: Marketing isn't paid to pursue its ideals. It's mostly paid to objectify and attack markets "strategically." Customers don't pay for marketing, advertising, PR, promotional materials or any of that stuff. Meanwhile in business school they don't teach you how to be a customer. They teach you how business works. And business has been about shipping for longer than we've had b-schools.
Linux Journal: So you're saying b-schools are only about the shipping model.
Doc Searls: No, but I am saying that marketing as a teachable discipline is only about seventy years old, and is therefore understood almost entirely in an industrial context. It may say it's about demand, but it's for supply. It's ideals are wonderful. I love Theodore Levitt, Peter Drucker, Regis McKenna and all the marketing thinkers who have inveighed on behalf of customers for decades. We need our ideals and our idealists. The problem is always in practice. Christianity is supposed to be about forgiveness and unconditional love. But go find those ideals in everyday Christianity. You won't. It's just too hard to apply those virtues in the real world. They don't seem practical, and they are way too personal.
In marketing, as in religion, the distance between lofty ideals and common practice isn't just huge; it's institutionalized. Theodore Levitt is the Saint Paul of Marketing. He founded the church, and taught that the purpose of marketing is "to satisfy the customer, no matter what." Wonderful. But that's not what marketing's customers pay for. They want marketing to wage "strategic" campaigns to "capture," "penetrate" and "dominate" markets, which they conceive as battlefields where bloody wars must be fought against evil opponents. And that's exactly what marketing does. It is conceived and executed in military terms, for military purposes. Al Ries and Jack Trout, who coined the term "positioning," express this mentality best in their book Marketing Warfare, where they say "marketing is war, where the competition is the enemy and the customer is the ground to be won." For years I idolized Ries and Trout. Then I began to realize that getting treated like dirt is not what the customer wants. It's just what marketing gets paid to do.
Linux Journal: You should know. You were one of those marketers.
Doc Searls: Right. And the gig was up when it dawned on me that my customers were paying me to abuse their customers.
Linux Journal: How so?
Doc Searls: Marketing, public relations, advertising... these businesses suffer from a deep and awful flaw that guarantees a delusional perspective: their customers and consumers are different populations. The people who pay for the goods are not the people who receive them. Look at advertising. Right now thousands and thousands of "creative" types like I used to be are being paid to come up with the right "message" for their advertising to "deliver." The problem is, there is no demand for messages. Nobody is standing out there in the marketplace saying "I want a message." On the contrary, the MUTE button on your remote control testifies to a negative demand for messages. One of these days, perhaps through a Linux-powered TiVo machine, MUTE buttons will send "we don't want this" messages directly back to the people who pay for the advertising. The moment that message starts a conversation, the business model of TV as Usual falls like a house of cards.
Linux Journal: Do you think all advertising goes away eventually?
Doc Searls: No. There are lots of places and cases where advertising is wanted and has real value. Classifieds and yellow pages are two forms of advertising that answer customer demand for hard information. Trade publication advertising, like we have in Linux Journal, is, at its best, an alternate form of editorial content. Same with fashion magazines. These function as catalogs for their category of interest. Subtract the advertising from Vogue or Linux Journal and both magazines lose much of their appeal. Subtract the advertising from network TV and all you actually increase its value. That's what the very presence of the mute button tells you. Mass market TV advertising is unwanted, inefficient, expensive, wasteful and almost entirely unaccountable. How long will the advertisers tolerate that?
Linux Journal: Do you think mass media go away?
Doc Searls: For some things, yes; for others, no. Programs you can't store and forward — live stuff like news and sports contests — may always be supported by advertising. The rest of it works better as a library of stuff you can buy a la carte like pay-per-view is today. Blockbuster with a keyboard. In the long run TV merges with the Web, both though appliances like Intel's Linux- and Mozilla-based set top box, and through high resolution video screens that can be driven by a variety of devices.
What we call a TV is just a tuner, a switching network, an audio amplifier, a couple of speakers and a display tube driver. I think embedded Linux will put a lot of companies in business making components for Audio/Video/Web/Computing components. I also think we'll see advertising, subscription and pay-per-use models co-existing and ultimately sorted out by increasingly efficient conversations between supply and demand. There's no way mass market advertising can survive in the system that emerges, because there won't be a mass market. There will be large conversations and small ones. The largest will be around popular cultural interests like the evening News and sports playoffs. And maybe around surviving TV shows. The smaller ones will be supported mostly by usage fees. That will depend, of course, on working out directory and security issues. I don't see much energy around that one yet. But there will be.
Linux Journal: Can't a conversation rise around demand for what we now call mass media?
Doc Searls: Sure. But who pays for it and how, once the advertisers abandon it in favor of more efficient and accountable marketing methods? Also remember that mass media is an advertising concept. It has been with us only since the dawn of commercial network broadcasting. Its economic purpose has always been to serve advertisers, not listeners and viewers. The programs we consume are just bait. Chum on the waters — something to bring the fish to the hook. There are only three broadcast models where the viewers pay for the goods they watch. The first is public TV, the second is premium program services — HBO, Showtime and all that — and the third is pay-per-view. I don't count cable or satellite TV, since those work as public utilities.
Linux Journal: So what happens to AOL/TimeWarner and other mass media giants?
Doc Searls: They continue to do what they've been doing until the advertisers quit supporting it. Gradually, that will happen. Media giantism made business sense in an industrial world where only giant companies had the means to make large quantities of single products for large populations of customers spread from coast to coast and beyond. Because they could afford only to make a few one-size-fits-all products, they needed to guide whole populations, like herds of cattle, to the troughs where only those few products were sold. Thus consumer marketing was born, and with it concepts like "branding" — a term Procter & Gamble borrowed from the cattle industry and started using around 1930, when the company's soaps sponsored daytime serials on radio. That world is getting antique, fast.
Linux Journal: How long have we been using the term "consumer?"
Doc Searls: I believe it started with Procter & Gamble, but didn't get big until the age of television. It was, and still is, extremely demeaning. My friend Jerry Michalski says a consumer is nothing more than a "gullet" — a simple animal that lives to "gulp products and crap cash." Like I said earlier, marketing thinks of consumers in terms of very low-level mental functions. It tries to "stimulate" them, like microbes in a petri dish, so they show "awareness" of a "brand." It dehumanizes consumers because it only see them in large numbers, like mold in a petri dish.
Since most of us make our livings in this system, our point of view on the matter is that of the large producer. We aren't even interested in seeing small numbers of consumers. To frame our perspective we need the office high-rise, the ivory tower. Consumer marketers are still living in these ivory towers. And those of us who imitate them are virtualizing the same obsolete construct.
Linux Journal: Consumers haven't always been powerless, though. Look at Consumer Reports.
Doc Searls: Go back one more stage, to Consumer's Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports. Both Consumers Union and Consumer Reports were born in the Thirties and conceived, literally, as a union movement: a way consumers could gather strength in numbers and win a few battles for Demand against the overwhelming forces of Supply. I'm glad both those institutions are still here, but I think they are now captive to their own "brand," as it were. They are even more vested in the old power relationships than the giant consumer marketing companies, all of which are now forced to adjust to a reality where production and consumption are one click apart. To Consumer's Union, consumers are still weak and easily flattened by big bad producers. That's their legacy. It's a Ralph Nader kind of thing. I like Ralph, but he's still operating in an old reality.
Linux Journal: What is the new reality?
Doc Searls: Networked markets — the Net-connected version of markets as we knew them in the first place. These are the true markets — the real places — that thrived at crossroads and alongside harbors, serving the villages and cities that grew around them. These markets were the most important institutions in civilization. More important, I believe, than church and possibly even family. Check your surname.
Linux Journal: And you're saying the Net has restored a real market relationship between those reciprocal functions again.
Doc Searls: Yes. Markets are places again. Not distant abstractions. And they can be as local or as widespread as the conversations that comprise them.
Linux Journal: Can you turn marketing swords into conversational plowshares?
Doc Searls: I don't think so, especially since the dream marketers have had for decades is finally coming true: our department heads are finally among the joint chiefs in the executive suites. Suddenly marketers are in the Inner Circle, with a new title: Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). "Yes, Sir! We built a sticky trap of a Web site and capture fifty thousand eyeballs, Sir!"
Linux Journal: What suddenly made marketing so in-demand at the top corporate level?
Doc Searls: Money. The new captains of industry — venture capitalists — have been pouring billions of dollars into companies with a single instruction: brand your company, your products, yourselves. Maximize your value in the IPO market by making everything you do as familiar as possible. Be "strategic" about it, of course, but attack on all fronts. Buy radical creative from your new interactive agency. Fancy up your Web site to give surfers a great "experience," and capture their eyeballs while you're at it. "Personalize" consumer "interactions" by taking names and tagging them like migrating geese, so you can track them from one end of the Web to the other, pausing now and then to send them some "personal" email. The result is not only a lot of absurd Web sites, but a flood of wacky and useless advertising in traditional media. In San Francisco, along a permanent traffic jam on Highway 101 approaching the Bay Bridge, there's a billboard for a dot-com with "Big" in its name. The board says nothing about what the company is or does. And I don't remember the name. What's the point? It doesn't matter. In a few months they'll burn through their latest venture round. Then they'll either get more money, hold an IPO, or evaporate. Meanwhile, spending that much money on marketing requires a top-level "officer."
Linux Journal: What should CMOs really be doing?
Doc Searls: CMOs should be in charge of making sure everybody in the company participates in the market conversation, which means talking to customers. CMOs should have the email addresses of at least ten customers in their address books. They should start discussion groups about the company's own products and listen to what gets said (an old and inspired Microsoft trick). They should scour discussion groups that are already out there for useful intelligence, and then strike up correspondences with the people who demand most from the company. They should build useful and informative Web sites. They should eschew Web economy bullshit and noun-compound buzzphrases, and adopt the language customers use when they talk about what the company does.
Linux Journal: You say "markets are conversations." Why?
Doc Searls: The conversation metaphor works extremely well. It applies to categories, and gives them better meaning than any of the alternatives. "The sports car conversation" means the same thing as "the sports car market," only somehow more so. Conversations are also personal. Fundamentally they happen between two people because human beings are built to pay attention to only one voice at a time. Conversations have always been the primary way we inform each other. Consider the root of "inform." When we inform each other, we form each other. We shape each other's knowledge. If you tell me something meaningful, I don't just understand what you say. I am formed by it. My knowledge grows and takes on a new shape. In this sense we are authors of each other. And the instrument of authorship is the human voice.
Linux Journal: So "markets are conversations" has multiple meanings.
Doc Searls: Yes. When we say "markets are conversations" in Cluetrain, we mean that conversation is both a useful metaphor and an accurate synonym for a market.
Linux Journal: Conversation also invites better prepositions.
Doc Searls: Right. Conversations are with or among other people. You can't have a conversation at, to or through other people. Look over the several dozen English prepositions and you can see where they apply to conversation and where they don't.
Linux Journal: And marketing doesn't like to use those friendly prepositions.
Doc Searls: No, it doesn't. With too few exceptions, marketing uses prepositions that are non-conversational -- what technically are called prepositions of direction -- because marketing is still about moving messages and doing things to people. We target messages to or at populations. We said earlier that while advertising might inform people, far more often it just annoys them. Even the most successful advertising is extremely inefficient. Conversation is close to 100% efficient, because we can usually tell when we are make sense and when we don't.
Linux Journal: When did you come up with the idea that markets are conversations?
Doc Searls: In the mid-Eighties I wrote a white paper on Workgroup Computing for Motorola that got a lot of notice at the time. It was the first time in the computer industry that I got noticed for my thinking and not just my copy or my flack work. I was quite proud of it. But when I showed it to Reese Jones, who founded and ran Farallon Computing (now Netopia), he told me I was wrong. Reese was a brain researcher at Berkeley when he founded the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group (BMUG) there. His first invention, PhoneNet, re-conceived networking as something that could run over dry pairs in existing phone wire. It was brilliant. It was also based on his belief that computing and telephony would someday merge, and that telephony would be the host technology, simply because it did a better job of supporting conversation. He told me that all human interaction rose, fundamentally, from conversation. The human mind was built to understand just one other person talking at a time. Even when a person spoke to a group, all the lines of communication were one-to-one. Group activity all depended on conversation. Hearing this was an epiphany for me, because I had been struggling to find a better metaphor for markets than battlefields. I was so tired of hearing every story reduced to a "battle" in a "war" between vendors. I was good at spinning those war stories, too. My agency was doing PR for Sun's SPARC efforts back then, and we made great hay by picking a fight with just one of the several other RISC microprocessors that were in the market back then. We'd feed editors stories that turned into "SPARC squares off against MIPS in the RISC ring. Who will win?" Ignoring, of course, the RISC chips from Motorola, Intel and everybody else. Today we see headlines like "The Browser War, Part Four: Mozilla Strikes Back! Helsinki or Redmond: You Choose! Or Sibling Cannibals: Which Baby Bell Will Eat the Others?" There are variations on a bunch of archetypal conflict themes. Clash of the Titans is a big one. We have that now with AOL versus Microsoft. David versus Goliath is another. That's the underdog versus overdog theme.
Linux Journal: Meanwhile, real markets are positive-sum.
Doc Searls: Right. Whole business categories grew out of little more than buzz and novel products. I saw that conversation made a better metaphor than battlefield mostly because it was more accurate: it just made better sense of what was really going on. Unfortunately, it was a very hard idea to sell. It didn't take.
Linux Journal: Why not?
Doc Searls: All by itself it's not a very combustible idea. It had to be enlisted in a cause. In some cases military metaphors do make sense, and I think we have one of those cases with Cluetrain, which is a counter-attack on marketing by four defectors and a fellow traveler. I had been flying solo with the idea for a long time, but hadn't really fleshed it out. Once the four co-authors began talking about it, the idea grew. All three of the other guys added enormous value to it.
Linux Journal: Also a lot of attitude.
Doc Searls: Certainly. I was well-mannered and thoughtful about the conversation idea, and that doesn't tend to catch fire. Now, as part of Cluetrain, the idea is almost thermonuclear. I just did a lookup on "markets are conversations" at Google and got over 25,000 results. A large percentage of are influence directly by Cluetrain.
Linux Journal: What do you make of the Linux Conversation, which by your definition is the same as the Linux market?
Doc Searls: There are three vastly different conversations going on. The first is inside the Linux and open source development community, where Linux Journal lives. The second is in the trade and business press. And a third is in the investment community.
Linux Journal: What's happening in each?
Doc Searls: The Linux and Open Source communities may talk about a lot of things, but mostly they talk about development, just like they always have. They care first and foremost about writing good code and putting it to use. At this level, Linux is a preferred building material and Open Source is a preferred building method. The important dimension in this conversation is size. It keeps getting bigger as more and more developers get involved. This summer, after Inprise/Borland comes out with Kylix, its Linux suite of visual development tools, we can expect to see tens of thousands of Windows developers coming over to Linux, and in many cases porting over or rewriting existing Windows applications. As Eric Raymond often points out, most of these applications are not for sale. They're the get-it-done code that makes the world run. On the one hand, this added population will reduce the influence of the hacker culture at the core of the movement. On the other hand, Linux and Open Source will, by growing, finish taking over the software development world more or less the same way the Internet took over the network world: by becoming the New Reality. There will be other kinds of development, on other platforms, using other methods; but the context will be Linux and Open Source. This is one reasons why Craig Burton says it's critical for every business -- vendors and customers -- to have an Open Source strategy, even if they are not writing, selling or using Open Source applications today. Everybody sooner or later will face the fact that there is a quiet, steady, drift of history going on here, driven by technologists solving problems. What they're doing is changing the world by rebuilding it in ways that work for everybody, and not just for certain large suppliers.
Linux Journal: So things are going great in the development world.
Doc Searls: Absolutely. Condition normal. We're taking over, and there's nothing anybody can do to stop it.
Linux Journal: Then what about the press coverage of Linux?
Doc Searls: They never got it, they still don't get it, and they will continue to not get it until the revolution is over, Linux has become ubiquitous infrastructure, and Open Source is the most common development method.
Linux Journal: But they still write about it as if there's a Linux vs. Microsoft war going on.
Doc Searls: They've cast Linux as the latest actor to play the David role in the David vs. Goliath story that they've been running for decades, like one of those Broadway standards where new stars come in every couple years to play the same old parts. In the early Eighties, Goliath was IBM and David was Apple — a role Steve Jobs was born to play. Never mind that the real Goliath was Microsoft, which eventually played the role, whether Bill Gates liked it or not. When the Net came along, Marc Andreessen played David. After Marc joined up with Steve Case (a rival Goliath), the press needed a new David, so they cast Linus in the role. That's the show they're running today.
Linux Journal: It's a fun show. What's the problem with that?
Doc Searls: It's a tendentious story. It leads to biased and false conclusions. In any war story, somebody wins and somebody loses — or both sides lose. But in today's markets, both sides often win. Losses are only in relative degrees of success. Intel beat Motorola in the microprocessor "war," but did Motorola really lose? Maybe it lost a little pride, but it continued to grow and make money. PowerPC is doing pretty well, last I looked. Even SPARC is doing fine, although we rarely hear about it any more.
Another problem is that the combatants often aren't fighting. Or if they are fighting, the fight isn't what matters. That's what's happening with the Linux vs. Microsoft story right now. They do happen to make good enemies for story-writing purposes. Microsoft is despised in the Linux community, and Microsoft is the most paranoid company in history, constantly on the lookout for threats. A couple months ago Steve Ballmer said he looked forward to "meeting Linux in the marketplace." Those were fighting words that clearly meant "step outside." So we've got something like a WWF match going on here.
But Linux is miscast in the role. It's not a company, a brand or a vendor. It's free, handy infrastructure — just like the Net. As with the Net, it works for everybody because nobody owns it and anybody can add value to it. There's no Microsoft here, and there cant' be. As with the Net, Microsoft has no choice but to add value to Linux or get subtracted from the conversation.
Linux Journal: Do you think they'll wake up and "embrace and extend" Linux the way they did with the Browser?
Doc Searls: Doesn't look like it, so far. Actually, it shouldn't be hard for them to embrace Linux, and even Open Source. They do tend to follow what markets want, and a mass defection of developers will certainly get their attention. But they're not up against a Netscape here. There's no Marc Andreessen to piss them off and no enemy company they can muscle out of a category. There's a market that's changing very fast, and it's giving them a new definition, whether they like it or not.
Linux Journal: What definition is that?
Doc Searls: Leading supplier of tools and pre-fab materials. Not a bad position to be in, but not the Empire they're used to being. The world we're building with Linux and Open Source is very much like the construction business. We're talking about a multi-trillion-dollar business here. Its largest companies are bigger than Microsoft in revenues, if not in stock valuation. But they're not household brands, because they're not interesting except to architects and contractors. When you want to put up a home or a building today, you don't stop and say "Geez, I guess I have to go with the Weherhauser platform, because they only mill lumber to work with their own tools, roofing materials, windows and cinder blocks." You choose architects and contractors who in turn chose among all kinds of what we might call Open Source goods and the suppliers who provide them. There's nothing secret about how to mill lumber, make grout or build an electric screwdriver. Yet there's plenty of business in all those categories.
The guys building network and enterprise infrastructure don't care about the Microsoft vs. Linux story. They're looking for better ways to develop and build -- I hate to use this word -- solutions. But I mean it literally. They're in the problem solving business. They dropped Apple and Novell and Digital and SCO five years ago because Microsoft NT offered more and easier ways to solve problems. Now Linux and Open Source are doing the same thing, but in a much more profound and far-reaching way.
Linux Journal: And because the source code is open, there's a lot more to talk about.
Doc Searls: Right. That's why enterprises are soaking up Linux operating systems and applications, and running them right next to Microsoft operating systems and applications. In many cases, nothing is being displaced. It's all additional. The logic is AND, not OR. Where Linux does damage is more often against other forms of Unix. But that's a less interesting story. Who cares if Linux does away with AIX and Irix? Not even IBM and SGI.
Linux Journal: What's going on with the Linux investment conversation?
Doc Searls: Right from the beginning, I expected Linux to blast off the pad like a rocket and just keep going, like the Net stocks did five years earlier. I was half right. Last summer through Christmas, Linux was an oil gusher in Antarctica, where the penguins live. Red Hat, Cobalt, VA and Andover all blasted to record or near-record opening day stock valuations, all based on the same commodity: the world-changing promise of free technology that supports an endless variety of new businesses while demanding fundamental changes for all of the old ones.
Linux Journal: What happened?
Doc Searls: The whole bubble burst. Linux was just part of it.
Linux Journal: What caused the burst?
Doc Searls: I think it was just the realization that the market for companies is secondary to the market for goods and services. For six years we conflated the two. Finally we started to see the difference. In the meantime, a lot of people got real rich. They lost a lot of money (or value, actually) in the last few months, but chances are they're still a lot richer than you and me.
Linux Journal: What do you mean by the "market for companies?"
Doc Searls: The stock market, the mergers & acquisitions market... together those constitute the market for companies. New dot-com startups should have values that derive from their ability to sell their goods and services in the real world. They should have real businesses, not just the potential for real businesses, or the promise that some day, maybe after the next ice age, they'll have a real business. But the stock market at its wackiest just valued promise. Or the potential of promise. It was a tulip bulb bubble, and it burst.
Linux Journal: So a lot of these start-ups are not in business to sell goods, but to sell ideas to venture capitalists.
Doc Searls: Bulls eye. Last year I was at a party where I met a young man, under thirty, on his third startup, I think. He was all enthused about this new business, which sounded to me like every other new business, circa November 1999. They were going to "portalize" something involving "B2B commerce," yada yada yada. I got annoyed after awhile and asked a very rude question: "How are sales?" He didn't miss a beat. "Great!" he replied. "We just closed our second round." You could have knocked me over with a potato chip. There it was, plain as day. His business wasn't whatever e-cliché he was yammering about; it was selling his company to investors. And so far he had taken in, probably, between twenty and fifty million dollars. All of which was for burning in the next few months, just to raise a billion dollars in an IPO. That was the business model. Goods and services were a secondary consideration.
Linux Journal: But this guy still needs to care about that consideration.
Doc Searls: Sure, but not the way, say, a normal business cares about making a profit, getting out paychecks and paying the bills. Business is grounded in a very different reality. Your purpose is to make money from an IPO or from selling out to somebody else for millions or billions. Your personal risk is usually zero. Your operations are governed by the need to ramp up and look valuable in time for an IPO. You don't have expenses in the usual sense. You have a "burn rate." Just like a rocket. In fact, that's exactly how many VCs like to describe their business. They fund rockets, not businesses. Achieving orbit is the goal. Not creating and running a business in any sense we would have understood prior to a few years ago.
Think about it. If you want to start a restaurant or open a service station, you have to go down to the bank and borrow money, securing the loan with your house or something else you value very much. Then you work your ass off for many years of your adult life, just to break even, get ahead a bit, grow slowly, and pay off that loan. This is how 99% of the businesses in the yellow pages got their start and continue to exist.
But if you want to start CoApathetic.com, you go down to your friendly VC, pick up a few million secured by nothing more than stock in the business. You give up nothing but your time and energy — which only builds your value, by the way. You build up your "business" over the next couple of years by selling more and more promise to more and more VCs, even while you've sold little or nothing to actual customers. You might occupy a whole building somewhere South of Market in San Francisco. You might buy Super Bowl adds at $2 million a pop. You might have a hundred or more hardworking employees, and not a drop of revenue from sales. But selling stuff really isn't your business. Your business is selling stock in that IPO. Your business is to turn your VCs millions into billions. This is a highly proven business model, because it happens all the time. That's how those VCs get the billions they constantly spend on new dot-com start-ups.
Linux Journal: And if you fail, there's no punishment.
Doc Searls: In fact there's a reward. Now you're even more qualified for the next .com gig, because you've been around the block once already. Nice deal.
Linux Journal: And this is the "new economy?"
Doc Searls: It was until the bubble burst.
Linux Journal: Does that cynical description apply to Linux businesses?
Doc Searls: No. That's what so galling to those businesses right now. All the major Linux companies, both post-IPO and pre-IPO, have real business models. Red Hat and VA Linux were in business for years before their IPOs, selling real goods and services to real customers. They've taken losses, but that's because they took the venture money and played the dot-com game. But only after they had substantial businesses already built. There is a big difference between a growth strategy for a valuable existing business and a growth strategy for a business that's all promise. There is a also a big difference between getting caught up in a mania and trying to maximize an asset, even a relatively evanescent one like Red Hat and VA have had for the last several months. Red Hat and VA are real companies. There not some kid's wet dream.
Linux Journal: They're also in it for the love and the fun of it.
Doc Searls: Right. Speaking for myself, I'd much rather bet on that. As a writer, I'd much rather cover it, too.
Linux Journal: So do you have faith in Linux and open source in the long run?
Doc Searls: Absolutely. You betcha. We're going to continue to be misunderstood by the mainstream media. But eventually we'll take over the world and it won't be a problem.
Linux Journal: Or we'll have other problems to worry about.
Doc Searls: Right. That's what life's all about.
Linux Journal: What's the connection between Linux and Cluetrain?
Doc Searls: Both are enemies of pointy-haired thinking. They mock Business as Usual by exposing its bad habits and false assumptions.
Linux Journal: Well, so does Dilbert. Cluetrain is a bit more ... hostile than that.
Doc Searls: Yeah. It's a wheelbarrow full of bricks to throw through the glass windows of Fort Business. Which is a David Weinberger concept, by the way. One of my favorite from the book.
Linux Journal: So Cluetrain is not your mother's marketing document.
Doc Searls: Not unless your mom has a strong discordian streak. Basically, it's an anti-marketing document.
Linux Journal: The book's subtitle is "The End of Business as Usual." Does Linux play a role in that?
Doc Searls: I think Linux plays a character like Iago in Othello: the brilliant servant who conspires against his trusting master — nnocent, smart and traitorous to that which the master holds dear.
Linux Journal: Which would be what, Computing as Usual?
Doc Searls: Right! Computing as Usual is Desdemona, the master's beloved. The master is Business. Linux will convince Business to kill Computing as Usual, just like the Internet convinced Business to kill Networking as Usual.
Linux Journal: How did that happen?
Doc Searls: Remember all those companies who thought they owned the networking business back in the Eighties? Novell, 3Com, Tandem, IBM... even Sun. None of them did. They've survived only to the degree that they got with the new program, the new context, which is the Internet. The Internet convinced business to kill off the whole notion that a network was a private thing. So the companies that helped you build out the Net itself did best — notably Cisco.
Linux Journal: Sun?
Doc Searls: Sun did quite well, although their "We put the dot in the dot-com" advertising campaign is silly and an insult to the good work they have done. Why not point to the cages where the big Web servers live at Exodus? Go from one cage to the next, each withSun after Sun after Sun. Physicalize the facts of the matter, which is that Sun kicks butt in the big time Web services business. But no, they've got to "brand" the old fashioned way, with silly TV advertising.
Linux Journal: And now Sun's claiming to be a Linux company.
Doc Searls: They talk just enough Linux to get past the bouncer at the party. But Sun is as closed as Microsoft. They just hang out with a more technical community. Look at Java and Jini. Both are brilliant and wonderful and closed as a clam.
Linux Journal: Who's doing it right — or at least cluefully?
Doc Searls: Of the Big Boys, nobody is embracing Linux more aggressively than IBM. I don't want to say the company "gets it," top to bottom, but it's very interesting to see a company that size, with that legacy, not only adopt Linux all over the place, but try to deal with the implications. There are very tough questions Linux raises for a company so huge and bound by tradition. "Usual" for them goes back to the Forties.
Linux Journal: What kind of questions?
Doc Searls: Questions like, How can you support open source development and still make employees sign agreements that grant the company rights to their every inventive thought? I know IBM is looking seriously at that problem. Intel is doing the same thing. So is HP, though it's not as clearly identified as a "Linux Company."
Doc Searls: That's right. HP wanted to see a real market where buyers and sellers of open source development could meet and do business. That first move was very clueful of HP. Of course, this doesn't mean the whole company is clueful. None are. But there are major signs that some of these big guys get some of the clues.
Linux Journal: Including Sun?
Doc Searls: Sure. Every company is very clueful about some things and clueless about others. Sun has always been clueful about technical markets, and about the tidal drift of large networks. Again, look in the biggest server cages for the evidence. And look back at the history of the Web's promulgation. It was John Gage of Sun who turned me on to the Net. I have enormous respect for many individuals there, including Bill Joy, who is not only brilliant but good company. He and I were stuck in an airport in Tucson once in the late 80s. I was a stranger to him, but he took the time to teach me about hockey, Michael Moore movies, microprocessor design philosophy and lots of other stuff. He's a great guy. Funny, too. When Java first came out, and there wasn't a simple or coherent explanation of what it was, anywhere on a Sun site, I asked Bill to define it simply for me. "It's an argument," he said. At first I thought he meant something about logic, or programming. But when I asked him to explain, he said "it's something I spend all my time arguing about."
Linux Journal: What about Berkeley UNIX? Bill Joy wrote the first version of that OS, and it hasn't had the high profile success of either Sun's Solaris or Linux — even though the BSD license is more permissive than the rest of them.
Doc Searls: First, BSD is highly successful. Look at the top sites on the Web. Many of them are running on BSD or Solaris. Linux may be more popular overall as a Web server OS, but the last I looked, only two of the top fifty sites — Real and GoToNet — were running on Linux. The rest were all BSD, Solaris, some other breed of UNIX, or NT. And don't forget that Apple's OS X is BSD at its core. Second, Linus has played a very different role in Linux's history than Bill did in BSD's. Bill moved on from BSD, and I'm sure his fingerprints are all over Solaris. Linus stayed with Linux. BSD forked into factions. Linux didn't — although I've talked with some people who insist it has.
Linux Journal: Such as?
Doc Searls: Such as companies that only release products for one or two distributions. One guy — a Linux Journal advertiser I met on a plane — told me that Linux is no less forked than UNIX was in the eighties.
Linux Journal: Do you think Linux would fork and diffuse more if Linus moved on?
Doc Searls: I'm sure of it. Linus tries to minimize his influence when he talks to guys like me; but the Linux conversation gravitates around him. When Linus speaks, the whole community listens — plus a significant number of people outside the community. Go to one of his talks and you'll see it at work. The Linux community is devoted to Linus, and the outside world respects that fact. This is called leadership, and it's a good thing in this case. Somebody owns it.
Linux Journal: Does that make Linux more closed than BSD?
Doc Searls: Not at all. There are differences in licensing and leadership that make the code — open source in both cases — more or less useful for different purposes. At its base meaning, "open source" says one thing: you can see the source code. It's open to view. After that, however, you run into all kinds of other issues, mostly around licensing. Licenses are inherently restrictive. The GPL serves good purposes, but no license works for everybody, which is why we're seeing so many of them.
Linux Journal: How?
Doc Searls: As more and more businesses get deliberate about how they use Linux and Open Source, we can't help seeing more and more licenses to describe various business strategies and market realities. The thing to remember is that all of these licenses serve an open source strategy. They all move toward an open source world — or a world built on open source infrastructure. This is a fast-moving tide, which is why we have so many licenses already, and why the number keeps growing. Recently we've seen IBM, Qt, Ricoh and Python added to the approved list at the OSI site. More are bound to come.
Linux Journal: Cluetrain is a cause now. Is that what you wanted?
Doc Searls: No. We wanted to have an effect, though the effect we were wanted was to end Business as Usual, not start something new. We thought something new was already happening anyway. Chris Locke goes into this very nicely at the end of the book. "Will Cluetrain be the next big thing? Not if we can help it," he says.
Linux Journal: I hear Cluetrain was a rallying cry in the Seattle and D.C. trade protests.
Doc Searls: If it was, I don't like it. Too many problems come from what Esther Dyson calls "I'm right, you're evil" thinking. Cluetrain is often mistaken for anti-corporate, socialist, communist, or leftist in some way. None of that is true. Cluetrain is anti-clueless. A lot of intellectual battles are being fought right now with old conceptual weapons. Both Capitalism and Marxism are profoundly material conceptual systems. But the world we're making is an increasingly immaterial one. That's why I argue against software and business method patents.
Linux Journal: Bottom line, what should clueful companies be doing?
Doc Searls: Standing with customers rather than against them. Clueful companies hang with customers. They're comfortable working inside market conversations, and they trust everybody in their own companies to participate.
Linux Journal: Saying and doing are a lot different. Many companies will need a sex change before they'll get close with customers.
Doc Searls: This is one place where I think command & control management still has extreme relevance. The CEO needs to drive the movement, inside the company, to give everybody permission to participate in market conversations. They have to face the fact that there is a huge backlash against the abuses that marketing has been heaping on people for a long time. I love what @man, whom I quote at the the top of the Markets Are Conversations chapter, says in a beautiful essay called Attention Fat Corporate Bastards! He compares marketing to a guy who interrupts your lunch, sits down with you, tries to sell you stuff and doesn't go away.
That's the reason why John Grassi, one of the most active writers on one of the Cluetrain discussion lists, says "I predict that by 2020 consumerism as we know it today will be as popular as breathing someone else's cigarette smoke has become in the last 20 years." That's exactly what was going to happen anyway. Cluetrain just helped hasten the development. I think it will be true by 2005, frankly.
Linux Journal: It's like Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point."
Doc Searls: Exactly.
Linux Journal: Is there a backlash yet?
Doc Searls: No, but there are parodies. The Gluetrain Manifesto is so funny it nearly killed me when I first read it. A few days ago, The Cynic's Manifesto showed up in email, and I quickly hosted it on my own weblog site. I'm sure there will be more.
Linux Journal: What's next? Another book?
Doc Searls: Right now I'm doing three things, which is too much, but that's what I tend to do.
The first is forging ahead with my Linux Journal work, which is focused on Linux in business. Linux is still vastly dis-understood by business. Now that it's seen as last year's fad, we have to fix that, which I consider my personal job. I'm also excited about some of the ways the Linux movement is branching out. Embedded Linux is hot. So is the Jabber movement, which I think will change instant messaging into something useful to everybody and put XML on the map in a big way at the same time. I also like the weblog movement. Slashdot, Linux Today, Kuro5hin and Advogato are are probably the best examples of 'blogs in the Linux world. My own weblog is a reincarnation of the Cluetrain "cluelog," which I experimented with from November to May, taking advantage of my friend Dave Winer's generosity. We'll watch whole markets grow out of the weblog phenomenon, which is comprised entirely of clues. I'm also excited that Don Marti is coming on board as our Senior Technical Editor. Don is a brilliant hacker, a fun writer and an first-rate trouble-maker. I can't wait to work with him. In fact, I'm excited about all kinds of things happening at LJ.
The second is to get going on the follow-up book. It's important to finish unpacking what "markets are conversations" is all about, and to start telling some of the stories that come from readers. Cluetrain was diagnostic. Now we need to get prescriptive. The best prescriptions are the real-world clueful experiences that people and companies are having out there.
The third is to get on top of the demand for speaking engagements. All four Cluetrain authors are fully booked these days. I must get three or four requests every week, from all over the world. A lot of them involve both Linux and Cluetrain. It's wild. Fortunately I'm getting a booking agency, so I should be able to hand all Cluetrain-related inquiries over to them soon.
Linux Journal: You working alone this time on your book?
Doc Searls: Yes. David Weinberger and Chris Locke are working on their own books, too. Rick Levine, as I said before, is too sane for all that. He's busy running a startup called Mancala.
Linux Journal: So these Beatles only got together for one album.
Doc Searls: Yeah, Meet the Cluetrain. One was enough.
Linux Journal: Any title yet for your book?
Doc Searls: The working title is The Market Conversation, although Joyce likes Markets are Conversations. But I might need something sexier than those. I thought about Talk or Die, but that's a bit too dramatic. Markets, with a subtitle, might be good. Suggestions are welcome.
August 25, 2014—Well, not much happened by 2005. That's why I started ProjectVRM in 2006, when I was given a fellowship at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The purpose of the project was to foster development of tools and services that make individuals independent from the big .coms, .orgs and .whatevers of the world — and better able to engage with them. From my work at Linux Journal I had learned a lot about what moves developers, and I've always been good at marketing ideas, so I was optimistic about the prospects.
Today there are many dozens of VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) developers and other interested parties. We have an active list with more than 600 participants and meet twice a year at the Internet Identity Workshop (which I co-host with Phil Windley and Kaliya Hamlin) at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (We have had many other gatherings as well, both online and off.)
The follow-up book I talked about at the end of the interview took two shapes. One is a new chapter titled "Markets are Relationships," in the tenth anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The other is a new book: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, published in May 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press. It reports on VRM progress and where it will lead, which is toward the end state we spoke of in Cluetrain. The whole book, by the way, expands on a Linux Journal piece by the same title, published in March 2006.
Maybe John Grassi's prophesy in 2000 — "by 2020 consumerism as we know it today will be as popular as breathing someone else's cigarette smoke has become in the last 20 years" — will be proven right in the next six years. I am certain that it will be proven right eventually, just like Phil Hughes' prophesy for Linux, made when he started Linux Journal in 1994.