Insights

Book Review – The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual

from The Art Newspaper
January 2000
By Adrian Ellis

The web should liberate business-and museums-from the fear of being exposed as human, says The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto is a diatribe about the failure of businesses to understand the nature of the internet and then threat that this failure represents to "business as usual".

Despite its stylistic shortcomings and hyperbolic tone, it has been uniformly well reviewed for three reasons. First, it encapsulates two or three insights that seem to explain certain other phenomena that we all encounter when we use the net. Second, it suggests that most businesses that are investing in the web as a marketing tool misunderstand the nature of the medium and will, despite riding high in the short run, eventually fail-the sort of giant-slaying message to which net buffs generally respond well. Third, it is written by corporate public relations gamekeepers turned dissident e-frontier poachers.

An ambitious new website was, coincidentally, launched last month, presaged by mass mailings to subscribers of relevant magazines-a vast portal, or gateway, called www.MuseumNetwork.com. It seeks to provide information on, and in time create links through to, some 33,000 museums around the world. The strategy is, presumably, to capture "territory" and volume in the short term, in true, new frontier, dot com style, so that, over time, market dominance may be converted into a revenue stream from advertisers. LVMH, the luxury goods group, recently invested $10 million in ICON, the Philadelphia-based company that created the portal (The Art Newspaper, No. 101, March 2000, p 3).

The portal itself and many of the museum sites that can be accessed through it represent exactly the type of phenomenon that the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto rant about in their book, which makes for an interesting and timely juxtaposition.

So, Cluetrain first. The guts of the argument, which are boiled down into ninety-five sound-bite sized theses, can be assimilated in a few minutes from the site www.cluetrain.com. Here is my précis:

The fundamental characteristic of the net is that information flows are multidirectional ("hyperlinked") and difficult to control: the net connects people to each other and allows them to have multiple conversations at enormous speed across enormous distances. The net is therefore quite unlike most media traditionally used by organizations to communicate with customers, such as billboards or television advertisements, which are more suitable for monologues than for complex, multiple conversations. The net lets you answer back and lets others hear you answering back.

This characteristic of the net is therefore subversive. Web-based communication undermines respect for centralized authority, whether that "authority is the neatly homogenized voice of broadcast advertising or the smarmy rhetoric of the annual report".

The honest, messy, authentic, unhierarchical voice of net-based exchanges characterizes both discussions about organizations (user groups, listserves, chat rooms, e-zines etc.) and intranet discussions within those organizations. But the same organizations that have invested in the creation of intranets are also deeply worried by the unregulated, unvarnished character of intranet exchanges.

Organizations are therefore anxious to keep a "firewall" between internal intranet discussions about their products and services, their strengths and weaknesses and, on the other side of the firewall, external discussions conducted by non-employees on the net. They wish to control, ever more tightly, their image, branding and strategic positioning through the traditional vehicles of corporate, public and investor relations.

Companies are therefore tending to invest in ever more lavishly illustrated but substantially vapid websites, stuffed with corporate gobbledygook and treated with increasing skepticism and disdain by a knowing net community. Those new to the web rapidly learn quickly from older hands to distinguish between the dead voices of corporate PR and the warm live voices of authentic conversation, and to gravitate towards the latter for information and insight about products and services.

The Cluetrain presents organizations with an exquisite dilemma: either stoop to join in these samizdat conversations about your products and services, on equal terms with users, and thereby gain both their respect (aka "brand loyalty") and information about their preferences (aka "market research"); or stand aloof from the hyperlinked consumers and see their faith in and understanding of-your markets ebb away. "The web liberates business from fear of being exposed as human, even against its will."

So how do museum web sites – as a genre revealed in all their glory on MuseumNetwork.com – measure up on the Cluetrain continuum between corporate bluster and authentic, warm voiced humanity? You are, of course, a click away from being able to judge for yourself. But, as intimated earlier, I would say they were doing pretty badly, based on an afternoon knocking round in MuseumNetwork.

A majority of museum sites are parodies of their corporate cousins-slick and inhuman firewalls around, rather than entrances to, the institutions they represent, with little or no indication of the texture of debate raging within those institutions. The larger the institution, generally, the greater the conformity to the corporate model.

Few official sites give the virtual visitor a sense of the institution's vitality, its dilemmas and choices, other than accidentally. Discussions about the dilemmas facing cultural institutions – often intelligent and well informed – are taking place continuously on the net.

Museums are currently grappling with difficult dilemmas of cultural and social purpose and viability, a desire to expand their role within a changing political and social agenda, and a degree of ambivalence about their centrality to civic debate. But very few of the sites that are the locus of these discussions are posted in the links pages of official museum sites. They exist in a parallel universe. Meanwhile, the official sites, for the most part, hold you as long as it takes to download a map or jot down entrance hours, or exhibition dates, and move on.

If the Cluetrain thesis is correct, then the exquisite dilemma the authors have formulated for the corporate sector may be coming soon to a museum near you. For the sites to be otiose is one thing-boring, but tolerable. Much more serious is the suspicion they instill that the otiose nature of their sites may indicate a shaky and inappropriately sanitized relationship with museums' core constituencies, whether on the net or off it. And what about MuseumNetwork.com? Their site says:

"There is nothing quite like MuseumNetwork.com. The riches and resources of the world's cultural institutions are priceless assets for mankind, and the internet provides unmatched access to these treasures. Also, museums now have access to countless millions of interested and motivated virtual visitors. Worldwide, MuseumNetwork.com is an organization of people who fully understand the specialized needs of the museum community, of the educational establishment, and of the commercial organizations who serve the museum sector. Yes, we believe that MuseumNetwork.com will be profitable for its shareholders and museum partners. But the real bottom-line delivery will be measured in the enrichment of mankind via the explosion of access that we help facilitate. As backers and creators of MuseumNetwork.com, we are passionate about this initiative, and immensely proud to stand on the threshold of a new era in museum accessibility."

Try the Cluetrain test.