Apr 09

Court And Spark

Blog 7 + FT15 comments • 1,265 views

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!)


  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 28 Apr 2009 #

    I’m going to need some time to digest the full meaning of this post but it put me in mind of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy which deals (amongst other things) with the development of markets and the interaction of mobs and elites at the end of the 17th and start of the 18th centuries.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 28 Apr 2009 #

    And the salons in that series were centred around intrigue and status with respect to the court, but that may have just been for plot purposes, of course.

  3. 3
    Tom on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Well, intrigue and status isn’t inappropriate: a lot of people who cite Cluetrain are marketers hoping to make a buck out of conversations. And – this is one of the things I like about it – you don’t get that sense from the Manifesto itself, which buzzes with a barely-concealed horror and frustration at business, marketing, etc. It’s a weird cocktail of Tom Peters, Tom Wolfe and Reginald Perrin. And indeed its writers HAVEN’T in general gone on to become enormous names in business consulting, despite having written arguably the most influential business book of the last decade.

  4. 4
    Simon on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Re. big names in consulting – they’re big fish in a small pond; their bubble never popped and threw them into the mainstream. Which is a shame.

    A few of my former sales colleagues in my last job had read the book and thought it was cute, but they preferred to do the same old preferential dealings as before – since the short-term, tangible benefit was more obvious than a nice, fuzzy feeling (and loss of competitive advantage). Utopia, meet realism.

    Ramble over… Nice post, I didn’t really know what a French salon was but like the analogies you’ve drawn.

  5. 5
    Tim on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Tom, what did the book influence? (This isn’t me trying to be snarky but I hadn’t come across this before and it’s the kind of thing I’d imagine the ten-years-ago me being all over.)

    The marketing people I work with (and for) every day wouldn’t, I think, have any use for the 95 theses, they don’t seem to provide routes through the concerns I hear about clarity and consistency and suchlike. I wonder whether that is something to do with ours being a business-to-business environment? That market could only barely be called a conversation, I think.

  6. 6
    Tom on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Yes, there’s probably not a huge amount of business-to-business conversation going on.

    “Arguably the most influential business book of the last decade” actually isn’t that huge a claim in that I can’t think of too many others! (“Who moved my cheese?” maybe :( ) But CTM was very influential in shaping the ideas around ‘social media’, ‘web 2.0’ etc. It’s the Velvet Underground of business books – everyone who read it formed a dodgy start-up!

  7. 7
    Tim on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Outsourcing / offshoring / hardassed supplier (and supply chain) management are all “conversations” in the wider sense but I’m not sure those theses mean much that’s useful in that context.

    One day someone will make a lot of noise and money thinking this sort of think in that sort of area. Maybe they already have, without my noticing.

  8. 8
    Andrew Farrell on 28 Apr 2009 #

    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.

    Once a DM…

  9. 9
    Tom on 28 Apr 2009 #


  10. 10
    Morten Blaabjerg on 28 Apr 2009 #

    Thank you for this beautiful and interesting article, which gives one a lot of food for thought.

    I gather that we do have this odd mixture for the time being of mass media (mob) and blogosphere (salon), which creates such oddities as the race between CNN and some actor to first reach 1 million followers on Twitter. We’re in some weird “in between” phase and nobody knows what’s going to happen. But something will happen, and it will go bad for some. And a lot of people will learn more in the process. This will go on until mass media run out of advertising funds. Who wants to advertise in mass media when you can’t be certain of the effects of advertising? Who wants to blow millions in traditional marketing campaigns, when you can be less and less certain about the outcome?

    I just received a message from a recently approved “friend” on Facebook who wanted me to join the Mona Vie company. I once saw a critical news report about that company, but didn’t recognize it at first. But I did do a quick search on Google to refresh my memory. And it took me less than two minutes to find out I didn’t want anything to do with that company. I realized that the sellers associated with the company were very likely to become so desperate (after buying all those expensive bottles of soft drink), they’d resort to anything to get their investments back. Within 5 minutes I had de-friended the Facebook friend, as I don’t want to receive that kind of doubtful business proposals and decided I wouldn’t miss him anyway. If he was a closer friend, perhaps I’d have tried to get him some help to get out of that mess.

    This goes for just any company in the world and eventually no company will be able to “hide” from the scrutiny of their potential customers, employees and business partners.

    So I guess, to answer, you don’t converse with the mob. They will tear you down. If you don’t wake up and begin to do something different. If this is when you’re out of business, because you didn’t see what’s coming, it is too late. And that’s when it’ll hurt and be bad.

    The blogging aristocrats may not like it very much either. They are no less safe than the Gorbachevs of this world are safe from the Yeltsins.

  11. 11
    emergency cell phone chargers on 29 Apr 2009 #

    Interesting and useful info – thanks for informing all of us. Nate

  12. 12
    Michael Karesh on 29 Apr 2009 #

    Fantastic piece. I’ve been reading through the theses in order, and finally one with a real critique that reflects my own experience engaging with people on the Internet.

  13. 13
    koganbot on 29 Apr 2009 #

    Tom, some quick thoughts about whether my idea of the hallway-classroom split is relevant either to the Cluetrain Manifesto or to the French court and salons. Of course, my idea definitely came from my experience growing up in post-WWII United States (I’m guessing that the average Cluetrainer is ten to twenty years younger than I am, and the average saloner a couple of centuries older).

    I’d thought of the hallway-classroom split as behavioral and psychological, the behavioral split being that in the classroom you talk about a subject matter and in the hallway you talk to and about each other; the psychological split being that, if you buy into the division, you buy into the idea that these are the behaviors that are expected and appropriate in actual classrooms and hallways. But I wasn’t saying that actual classrooms and hallways were always and only homes to the expected/appropriate behavior. (And of course I was saying that one could reject the split, which is mutually impoverishing to both hallway and classroom, and I was claiming that good rock critics did indeed reject the split.) By calling the split “psychological” I was implying that people take it with them wherever they go; that for people whose psyche is under the split’s sway, the whole world is a hallway (even if they call the hallway “real life” or “the street” or such), which is to say that for them the whole world outside of selected official venues is a response to the classroom, even if they’d like to pretend that “real life” is prior to and more real and basic than the classroom. But also, classrooms – real classrooms – are an attempt to put the hallway at bay. In the hallway, you’re working out who you are in relation to others (e.g., social differentiation, romance, gang warfare, etc.), whereas the classroom wants to at least go through the motions of setting that quest (or battle) aside for the length of the class period, instead making the main issue the study of a subject matter – though of course what you do in the classroom will have an impact on your social relations.

    In any event, there’s not obviously a one-to-one parallel between hallway-classroom and “human speech”-“corporate speech,” or “salon”-“court,” etc. (Presumably the court has official and less official speech. And what would count as “subject matter” in corporate as opposed to noncorporate speech?) The reasons hallway-classroom jumped to mind, though, are that the salon is an entity that in some way may be rejecting the behavioral splits of its day (it’s not official but it’s about the official) and that the Cluetrainers themselves, while perhaps in a similar role, seem to be rather naively acting out the hallway’s claim to be more real than the classroom.

  14. 14
    Tom on 29 Apr 2009 #

    Yeah, the classroom-hallway split was definitely at the back of my mind writing this (and thinking about other things too – the distinction between research and non-research, or qualitative research and ethnography, for instance).

    What the Cluetrainers are doing maybe is trying to *establish* such a split rather than break it down. So, replace the business-consumer split (which isn’t classroom-hallway because it involves different people) with business-human, and then privilege the human as being ‘more real’?

  15. 15
    Sabina on 30 Apr 2009 #

    (Posted on Frank’s LJ but should carry it over here too:)

    Not hallway/classroom (necessarily) but salon/court: watching a Chinese historical TV drama out of the corner of my eye today, and was struck by the public and performative aspect of court discourse – you have information being presented to the ruler, various ministers reacting, debating solutions, etc., but the real decision is never made at court; a lot of work is being done via informal groups both before and after the court session to figure out 1) who the stakeholders *really* are 2) what the stuff that is said at court *really* means 3) what is not said at court and should be 4) what is not said at court and *shouldn’t* be and 5) what the decision arrived at in court ought to be. The ruler himself takes part in these informal groups. In biz school this is presented as a cross-cultural studies thing: North American companies view meetings as a space for debates and decision making, East Asian companies view them as a space where orderly consensus is enacted, the debates and decision making having taken place earlier and privately/informally. However my impression is that 18th-century France was, well, more like 18th-century China in this sense… I would guess, commonsensically, that the more prohibitions and articles of etiquette there are surrounding the “court” situ, the more the actual nexus of information exchange and decision making shifts elsewhere/underground.

    …This is perhaps more organizational behaviour than marketing? But the one is just marketing within rather than without, if community building is seen as falling under the marketing function (or: erasing the business-employee split rather than the business-consumer split).

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