I am so pleased that David Weinberger and Doc Searls have issued New Clues, an update on fifteen years since the Cluetrain Manifesto, which has been so seminal in the development of the Internet. Their principles have stood the test of time, most importantly that the Internet is us, connected, and that from us does the Internet derive all of its value. The authors emphasize that the Internet is not a medium nor is it content, it is a conversation. And while I don’t agree with all of their theories and thinking and certainly do not endorse some of the word choices, it’s an important read.
The two sections of New Clues that I focused on most intently are “Marketing still makes it harder to talk” and “The Gitmo of the Net (the rise of the app economy).” Let me take these in order.
The critique of marketing is quite severe:
- A conversation is not business tugging at our sleeve to shill a product we do not want to hear about — do not target us.
- Personal is human, personalized is not. Specifically, they detest the use of robots, but they also dislike humans trained to be robotic (customer service personnel who pretend to be your friend by using your first name).
- Native advertising is undermining trust. It is actually product placement, or in its worse iteration, “fake f*&%ing news.”
I spoke with Weinberger about the possibility that communications thinking could be personal while advertising is personalized. My thesis was communications as the one-to-one genuine conversation with each participant able to express his or her opinion in such a way as to improve the product. His reply was quite positive, “Communications and PR should encourage the consumer voice. It has to be straightforward. When there is negative commentary, put it up and tell what you are going to do about it.”
Weinberger seems deeply concerned about over-reliance on data to push messages to sub-groups of consumers. “The difference is voice,” they write in New Clues. “Humans have a real one, machines don’t.” Again, this is an opportunity for communications thinking to project the views of individual users outwards to stimulate further discussion, in contrast to mass blasting or micro-targeting of advertising messages.
Their condemnation of native advertising is severe. “When you place a native ad, you’re eroding not just your own trustworthiness, but the trustworthiness of this entire new way of being with one another.” Here I take issue with the authors’ blanket condemnation. The media world has shifted from mainstream only to additional categories of born digital and social. The business models of the latter two rely on paid media. Therefore it is incumbent on us in the communications field to have distinctive native programs that stimulate sharing of content or improve the state of knowledge.
The authors’ critique of apps is brutal:
- “Web pages are about connecting. Apps are about control.”
- “We lose the commons we are building together in an app-based world.”
- “Every new link makes the Web richer, every new app makes us users and not makers. This quote is classic: ‘Sure apps offer a nice experience. But the Web is about links that constantly reach out, connecting us without end. For lives and ideas, completion is death. Choose life.’”
My response to them is that all apps are not created equal, that some are more open than others. For example, a core part of The Huffington Post editorial concept is reader-generated commentary, which adds huge value to the conversation. The lack of access to data about users of an app also seems to me an unfair critique. There needs to be return on investment and there can also be some form of value exchange, such as Twitter’s metrics on users that enable communications firms to better tailor the content to interested users. In addition, given the explosive use of mobile as the preferred consumption “screen,” the delineation between web links and apps feels misplaced – it is much more about a seamless user experience than it is about the technical click.
What I love about Searls and Weinberger is their genuine optimism about the Internet as a force for good. “We the people of the Net cannot fathom how much we can do together because we are far from finished inventing how to be together…The Internet has liberated an ancient force, the gravity drawing us together.”
The communications industry has to be a distinctive part of this further development of the Internet, from genuine storytelling to encouraging participation in product development. We are the most open of the marketing disciplines, as the one reliant on multiple stakeholders. By keeping our high standards for accuracy, honesty and transparency we will do much to improve the quality of the discussion.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.