Cluetrainers In The Age Of Conversation

cluetrain0 This post is my contribution to the “Cluetrain Plus Ten” project, in which 95 bloggers provide commentary on each of the 95 Theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. I chose Thesis 15, which runs as follows:

“In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”

As it happens, I was working on a brochure when I first read The Cluetrain Manifesto. I’d already realised that being “the internet guy” in a curious but not tech-savvy department gave me certain leeway to break from my duties. The Manifesto required a longer break than I generally risked, but it was worth it.

The brochure languished. I started proselytising. Then I got a different job, started my own blog and online community, and spent a few years grappling with the grubby reality of conversation online. I forgot the Cluetrain Manifesto, but when I heard about this project I jumped at the chance to revisit it. So – Thesis 15: let’s go!

1. I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris

Talleyrand soon perceived that power struggles would no longer take place on a chessboard where one move followed the other with ceremonial slowness, but within a stream far stronger than everything it swept along.” – Roberto Calasso, The Ruin Of Kasch

cluetrain1 “The 18th century French court”: this is a curiously specific comparison for a business or marketing manifesto to make. It also turns out to be a very rich one. It may be that the Cluetrainers just picked it because it’s loaded with age and fustiness and, well, Frenchness, but if so they got very lucky.

Because the 18th Century in France is famous as the “Age Of Conversation”. Paris and its surrounding estates were home to a series of glittering salons – generally centred on well-born ladies who would invite guests from literary, cultural, political and aristocratic circles to come and talk. The salons were characterised not just by their dedication to conversation and the prominence of women, but by a relative lack of hierarchy.

What was the relationship of salon to court? The court, of course, was the epitome of hierarchy, a pyramid of deference whose apex was an absolute monarch in the shape of one Louis or other. Communication up and down this pyramid may well have been rigid, difficult to initiate and highly ritualised – and this is the sort of thing the Cluetrain Manifesto is reaching for with its metaphor.

2. Time To Hear (Who’s Listening)

cluetrain2 But of course that’s only half the story. Within any institution conversation occurs naturally as well as officially, as the Cluetrainers recognised. Every company contains what the blogger Rands calls “the Pond” – the pool of ambient, unrecorded but essential information that on-site workers can tap into but remote workers find hard to access. The same applies at court: however regimented a court is, you find out a hell of a lot more being there than not.

(There’s a reason so many of the great classical writers – like Ovid and Thucydides – were exiles from the centres of power: the ancient world’s “remote workers”, cut off from the Pond, they had to rely on the written word as an information vector so their writing became extraordinarily nuanced and detailed.)

So in the 18th century opposition of court and salon you have an early model of the two conversations the Cluetrain Manifesto outlines: the one happening within the organisation, and the one happening outside it, separated by a wall of convention the Manifesto sought to tear down. Court is where a lot of the useful information happens, but its surface doesn’t reflect that – you have to live in the Pond to access and understand it. The Salon, meanwhile, raises conversation to an operating principle, but who’s listening?

The question is, how opposed were these institutions? This is the subject of some controversy among historians, which this Wikipedia entry nicely summarises. Basically, one argument is that the salon model created an idea of a literary and cultural “public space” which didn’t exist before the 17th century. The other says that the salons were far more closely tied to the court – they were often founded by aristocratic women, after all, and some accounts suggest they largely talked about court politics.

This historical disagreement may not seem to have much to do with 21st century business. But one of the ways historians argue that the conversational salons drew on the closed court is in terms of language – which brings us right back to Thesis 15.

3. Perverted By Language

cluetrain3 The words the salons used to describe their ethos – politeness, honesty, civility – are self-consciously courtly. This is because the salon enjoyed a dual role vis-à-vis the court. It was a zone of freedom and opposition to court life and hierarchy, but also an alternative, a court-in-exile waiting for its chance to inherit and reform the institutions whose style it sometimes aped. It’s similar to the uneasy relationship through the 00s between the blogosphere and “mainstream media”: a mix of contempt, half-forgotten admiration, envy and impatience.

The tenets of the salons are also strikingly similar to the stock advice offered to businesses engaging with social media: be authentic, be transparent, always be polite. And so I wonder if the relationship between the new marketing and the old business isn’t like the relationship between the salons and the court.

What’s happening isn’t as simple as business learning to be informal. At the same time as the idea of engagement, of re-establishing personal connections, filters through to business, so the would-be inheritors of business – the self-described mavens and connectors who throng the salons of web 2.0 – themselves adopt some of its airs and graces. The bullet-pointed, Digg-optimised language of marketing blogs; the vogue for “personal branding”; initiatives like Seth Godin’s “Alt-MBA” – these things are pure salon formalism. Rather than the revolution in language predicted by Thesis 15 we’ve arrived in a kind of hybrid zone where a stilted, aphoristic faux-informality predominates and Tweets and blog posts read like business books in waiting.

4. The Sound Of The Crowd

cluetrain4 So business – and marketers – still ain’t speaking human. This is a shame, if only because the Cluetrain Manifesto takes such obvious joy in its own impish language (even though the gonzo, post-beatnik style it’s aspiring to is as much a product of a time, place and society as anything heard at Versailles). But the Manifesto also bears some of the blame, because of how easily its central metaphor – “markets are conversations” – slipped down.

“Conversation” has become a cliché at best, a fetish at worst. I’m not suggesting another word would do better, but this one has significant problems. Like “community”, “conversation” has certain overtones of amity, civility, a willingness to seek a resolution or work together. In the “Markets Are Conversations” chapter of the Cluetrain Manifesto book, the writers present a stirring picture of the original markets, in which men would look one another in the eye and honestly discuss the merits of goods on sale.

This is certainly how a lot of people – me included! – would like conversations to work, but markets were also places where you might fight, flirt, steal or be stolen from, get a cudgel on the head and your purse cut, rabble rouse, accuse and make demands. None of which stopped markets working, but they weren’t pre-lapsarian utopias of fair debate and exchange. Similarly, ‘conversations’ online in the last few weeks have involved angry hashtag swarms, pandemic panics, viral videos of rogue employees and a battle between a TV station and a TV star to see who can raise the biggest online crowd. Just another couple of weeks on the Internet, really.

As The Cluetrain Manifesto hits 10, the main question I’d ask of it is “how do you have a conversation with a howling mob?” – or more prosaically, “do conversations scale in a realtime web?” When we hold up the 18th Century French Court to ridicule, it’s worth remembering what happened to it. And those well-to-do thinkers gathering in the salons to preach the gospel of conversation? When the revolution came, it wasn’t much to their liking either.

(If you liked this post, you might want to look at my market research/social media blog, Blackbeard Blog. Most of its entries are shorter than this, too!)