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Blog Topic 1: The Cluetrain Theses & Variations on a Theme

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Reading the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto calls to mind any number of examples of people trying to futilely quantify concepts that are, in fact, limitless. It is all-too-easy to think of John Barger (blogger and self-proclaimed inventor of the term “weblog”) painstakingly attempting to identify and organize every literary theme in human history on index cards spread across the floor of an empty gymnasium.

How can any one person — or even group of people — identify the infinite strata that orbit any set of basic themes? Anything relating to literature or art or human nature is simply too intricate and valuable to ever really be thoroughly accounted for in a list. Which is why, when trying to pare down the quantity of the Cluetrain theses, I turned to an analogy that was more limited in scope, but that had been successful in capturing the character of an unquantifiable theme.

In 1873, Johannes Brahms wrote a piece of music that would come to be known as “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” After years of piano lessons, as I read the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, I kept thinking back to this work and its unlikely similarities to the document that would ultimately preempt a 21st Century phenomenon.

What was Brahms’ “theme?” Was it literally new versions of a piece of work previously composed by Haydn? Was it a mood? A title? A subject?  As a kid desperately trying to pick out the complex combinations of notes on the keys in front of me, I saw it as none of these things. To me, the “theme” was the scale, the letters A through G that have comprised every piece of music since the beginning of time, long before their alphabetical labels were attached. Every song, in effect, is a variation on this theme.

Brahms, for what it’s worth, had ten variations. All of them were based around the central concept of Haydn’s original piece, but reflected very different styles, cultures, and eras. Like people’s postings on an online message board or comments on a blog, they reveal surprisingly complex views of something that on paper seems much more flat and one-sided.

Similarly, I feel the Cluetrain Manifesto to be a repeated ten-measure passage with endless possibilities for alternative interpretations. Ten – a number more suited to commandments than theses, and for good reason. Because unlike Martin Luther’s list of grievances, the Cluetrain Manifesto offers more useful suggestions than it does demands for redress.

Though hardly inclusive of every detail of the Cluetrain list, the following represents what I feel to be the main arguments of the document:

  1. The online community is a market comprised of human people.
  2. The people that comprise this virtual bazaar have distinctive, flawed, and personality-laden voices that will prompt resurgence in the power of human-sounding, conversational language.
  3. People use these unique human voices within the online marketplace to create conversations on a variety of levels both within and beyond groups established in the outside world.
  4. The freedom and anonymity of online market dialogue encourages a great degree of openness and transparency more typical of a conversation between friends than corporate robo-speak.
  5. Because of this openness, online markets are smart, well informed, and critical. Therefore, they have real power. Participants are aware of this power and will use it to offset the corporate communications dominance of the last century.
  6. Companies have historically failed to really connect with their customers and define their products and missions in human ways. The conversational marketplace of the web gives them the opportunity to change this and participate in vibrant human dialogue that can improve and popularize their products and services.
  7. Companies will fail in their missions, sales, and efforts to communicate online if they do so in closed, one-way, and inhuman ways and with an inhuman voices not reflective of individual employees, which are their greatest resources and communicative tools.
  8. Participation in the online conversational marketplace by both companies and individuals must be egalitarian and non-vertical. Attempting to create contrived online hierarchies will only subvert inclusion in the conversation.
  9. Everyone wants to talk to one another – companies want to talk to customers and employees, employees want to talk to companies and customers, and customers want to talk to companies and their employees. Every online conversationalist likely has served in all three of these roles at some point. The trick is for everyone to converse online in human language – the only effective dialogue on the web.
  10. In this new online marketplace of conversation, individual human beings wield the most power. In order to harness this power, companies must lower their ivory towers and break down their walls, instead showcasing the faces and voices within.

Jingle Bells” includes no fewer notes than Bach’s Cello Suites or “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones – all of them are variations on the theme of music, the theme of the scale. When you add factors like differences in sound between pianos, the number of possible combinations you are left with can best be represented not by seven notes, but an eight that has collapsed onto its side from the sheer burden of possibility – ∞: an infinity.

Cluetrain is much the same. If the theme is a marketplace of human conversation, then the variations are as limitless as human character. Anyone could take the ten theses I identified and add all sorts of caveats, addendums, and combinations thereof to create a list of infinite length. Likewise, someone could just as easily argue for even more fat to be cut — for the ten to be reduced to five. Which in and of itself  illustrates the entire premise of Cluetrain – we can all be right in the marketplace of conversation so long as we’re open and honest about our opinions and use them to advance a meaningful conversation and produce unique but complementary sounds.

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