On the Continuing End of Business as Usual

How’s this for coincidence: I’m sitting here readingcover-small Cory Doctorow‘s book Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, copyright and the Future of the Future when I pause to check Twitter for a message I’m expecting, and see a tweet pointing to Cory’s review in BoingBoing of the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Small karras.

Of course, he nails it:

Cluetrain influenced an entire generation of net-heads (as generations are reckoned in what we called “Internet time” back in the paleolithic era), for better and for worse. Better: entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and accidental entrepreneurs who discovered that talking with people in the normal, recognizable, human voice was both possible and superior to the old third-person/passive-voice corporatespeak. Worse: the floodtide of marketing jerks who mouthed “Markets are conversations” even as they infiltrated blogs and other social spaces with badly disguised corporate communications beamed in from marcom central.

Yep.

The long gist:

First things first: the original, core material stands up remarkably well. Depressingly, the best-weathered stuff is that which describes all the ways that big companies get the net wrong. They’re still making the same mistakes. Some of the more optimistic material dated a little faster. There’s a lesson in there: it’s easier to predict stupidity than cleverness.

The supplementary material is very good as well. The original authors take a very hard look at their original material and do a great job of explaining what went wrong, what went right, and where it’s likely to go now. I was especially taken with Chris Locke’s “Obedient Poodles for God and Country,” a scathing critique of the market itself, asking big questions that the first Manifesto dared not raise — strangely, I was least taken by Locke’s original piece in the Manifesto, which says something about Locke, or me, or both. Searls’s new piece has an inspiring — if utopian — look at how business might yet reorganize itself on humane principles using the net; and Weinberger’s philosophical look at the threats facing the net and analysis of the utopian, realist and distopian views on the net’s future play against one another is an instant classic.

The afterwords by the new contributors are likewise extremely engaging stuff, as you might expect. McKee is extremely blunt in recounting the mistakes Lego made with the net early on, and the story of how they turned things around is a true inspiration. Gillmor’s ideas on the net and news and media are a neat and concise and compelling version of his extremely important message. Rangaswami’s piece is characteristic of his deadpan, mischievous boardroom subversion, and has to be read to be believed.

As updates go, Cluetrain 2.0 is a very fine effort. If you didn’t read the first edition, this is your chance. If you did read the first edition, it’s time to go back to the source material again. You’ll be glad you did.

So, in the best spirit of logrolling, I suggest you do the same with Content. Hardly a page goes by when my brain doesn’t hiss Yesss!! Here, for example, with the closing lines of a 2006 piece for Forbes titled “Giving it Away“:

There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words. What a fine thing that is for writers.

Indeed. If you had told me in 1980 that thirty years hence anybody could write whatever they pleased, with ease, and publish it through a worldwide system that nobody owned, everybody could use and anybody could improve… and that this writing could be read on phones or lightweight personal displays, anywhere in the world, at little cost, by anybody… and that far more money would be made because of this new system than any company would make with it (including the phone and cable TV companies whose wiring this new system employed)… I’d call that a utopia. Especially if you also told me that I’d become a familiar writer in this new space, starting after the age of fifty.

I’d also want to fight to keep it open and free. Which is why I second what John Perry Barlow says in his forward to Content:

Had it been left to the stewardship of the usual suspects, there would scarcely be a word or a note online that you didn’t have to pay to experience. There would be increasingly little free speech or any consequence, since free speech is not something anyone can own.

Fortunately there were countervailing forces of all sorts, beginning with the wise folks who designed the Internet in the first place. Then there was something called the Electronic Frontier Foundation which I co-founded, along with Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore, back in 1990. Dedicated to the free exchange of useful information in cyberspace, it seemed at times that I had been right in suggesting then that practically every institution of the Industrial Period would try to crush, or at least own, the Internet. That’s a lot of lawyers to have stacked against your cause.

But we had Cory Doctorow.

Had nature not provided us with a Cory Doctorow when we needed one, it would have been necessary for us to invent a time machine and go into the future to fetch another like him. That would be about the only place I can imagine finding such a creature. Cory, as you will learn from his various rants “contained” herein was perfectly suited to the task of subduing the dinosaurs of content.

He’s a little like the guerilla plumber Tuttle in the movie Brazil. Armed with a utility belt of improbable gizmos, a wildly over-clocked mind, a keyboard he uses like a verbal machine gun, and, best of all, a dark sense of humor, he’d go forth against massive industrial forces and return grinning, if a little beat up.

Indeed, many of the essays collected under this dubious title are not only memoirs of his various campaigns but are themselves the very weapons he used in them.

And this is the thing. Cory not only fights knaves, but shares his sharpened weapons with the rest of us. For years I’ve looked to Cory to serve as our Alpha Sense-Maker whenever some big dumb .com, .org or .gov makes a hostile and clueless move against the rest of us. Take a chapter called “Facebook’s Faceplant“, which I recall as “How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook” in the November 26, 2007 edition of InformationWeek. This came out right after Facebook made public its much-anticipated monetization plans, which nobody liked but which Cory contextualized best:

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: “So-and-so has sent you a message.” Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn’t telling — you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren’t helpful messages, they’re eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote “Hi again!” on your “wall.” Like other “social” apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, “I know something, I know something, I know something, won’t tell you what it is!”

If there was any doubt about Facebook’s lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you’re the kind of person who likes the sound of a “benevolent dictatorship,” this clearly isn’t one.

The short version of what followed is that Facebook grew up. The emails I get forwarded from Facebook today are now full text, and the company has long since dropped its creepy advertising plan. WIPO, the RIAA and the U.S. Congress are less likely to get the clues, of course. But at least we still have Cory sharpening them, for all of us.

It takes time to make the best future. That’s why the original subtitle for this blog, back when it started in the fall of 1999 (thanks to the kind insistence and assistance of Dave Winer), is also the title of this post.

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