Book Review – “Tell Me Something Good”: Cluetrain and Conversations

Review Citation:

Levine, R. (2000). The cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Books.

“The Cluetrain Manifesto” is a collective work written by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger and published in 2000. Its tagline is “the end of business as usual”. The specter of this book is the Suit. The Suit is the Executive VP, a “fat cat”, closed-minded person who sees markets and consumers as on the receiving end of whatever his company wants to say or sell. The “end of business as usual” is this person’s organizational demise, and the social effect of the Internet (and company intranets) is what causes his crumbling.

An overarching topic throughout this book is the conversation: between the members of communities of the marketplace, the members of communities within the workplace, and, best of all, among them all. When I think of what I am looking for from a conversation, the first phrase that comes to mind is “Tell Me Something Good”, hence the bit of collateral entertainment by Rufus and Chaka Khan!

The assumption of the authors is that this conversation is largely going unnoticed by business leaders. While they present several true stories of companies that don’t “get” the existence and importance of the conversation, there are just as many or more generalizations about “Mr. Big” and the “clueless suits in the executive suite.” While this can make for entertaining reading, it presents a more impassioned “manifesto” than a classic business book. This seems to be what the authors are going for, though.

The challenges this book presents to the reader are around the conversation. The chapters include a history of the human voice and relationship, both in commerce and in social intercourse, stories and thought about the authenticity of this voice online, and more thoughts around what this means to all of us. The tone is irreverent, but completely appropriate with the premise: to shake things up and get businesses to wake up to the reality of the social web.

Since the book was published in 2000, the technologies described as key seem quaint today. E-mail is considered boundary breaking by the authors. By comparison, in Donald Tapscott’s new book Grown Up Digital, he quotes a teenager telling him that e-mail is a “more formal technology and is what he would use if he had to send a thank you note to a friend’s mother.”

One chapter speaks of the longing for the return of the human voice. I can see the evolution that takes us to Twitter, Facebook and other technologies that we take for granted and see as more disruptive than e-mail. These all better enable the conversation and allow it to be more subtly experienced, according to each person’s preferences and the scenario of the moment. In my earlier analysis of the article on Social Aspects of New Media, and the subsequent presentation and discussion, I considered the Yin and Yang of people and technology. The drive from early IRC chat to chat rooms, then e-mail and the proliferation of personal home pages, newsgroups and forums, blogging and then on to Twitter and Facebook, all speak to a deep desire to find the way to best express who I really am in this new space, this cyber-space. This happened mostly under the radar of established business because it certainly didn’t fit the recognized methodologies of media and marketing, and they couldn’t see any money in it.

I find it very interesting how the authors’ flip attitude toward the state of business conversation and the radical use of social technologies has moved to where we are today in our ways of thinking about social media. A number of businesses do understand that this is happening, and that the groundswell is taking place with or without them. We study them in academic settings, and companies of all sizes and industries are desperately trying to figure out what this conversation means for them.

The chapter on the hyperlinked organization also presented a few stories and then presented the thoughts of the authors based upon their experiences and observations. Bringing their projections and desires to the present day, I feel that companies are still having a difficult time walking away from the older command and control mindset, despite the upswing in the publication of how-to and best practices books around teams and virtual teams. Observation of a living thing, like a great team or a mediocre team, is different than prescribing how to make a team perform. One story Weinberger told was of an experience with a colleague and their differing work styles (pp. 134-135). The colleague asked when the next wave of marketing materials would be ready and the author replied he didn’t know. You should read this entire story for yourself, but the difference was that Weinberger knew he had a wildly creative team that would move heaven and earth to make the best possible materials and the team would be ready when they were ready. His colleague wanted to manage by a deadline. Weinberger doesn’t discount the occasional need for milestones, but takes issue with the attitude toward his team that would prefer to manage using the fear inherent in a deadline. His point is well taken. However, I believe most of what the business world does today is still driven by deadlines and not so much by the readiness of the deliverable to be completed in a quality fashion.

This book has challenged me to “free up” my voice in my work. I maintain a number of different kinds of communications and the exhortation to speak with my unique voice is a welcome one. As to the currency of the book, it is showing its age somewhat as the business world has moved a little closer to acceptance and incorporation of social media, but there are still enough companies that need to get aboard the “cluetrain” that makes the authors’ voices relevant. Don’t read this book for cutting edge thought, but as a call to freedom for your voice in the community.

One thought on “Book Review – “Tell Me Something Good”: Cluetrain and Conversations

  1. Jeff, good to see that your bring in when the book was published and explain the book’s relevance today. You have done the best job of summarizing the book and its premise. Taking its message and incorporated it into your own communications shows it is still valuable. Would have liked to see you bring the class topics into your reflections. Meg

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