dillo2Most people reading The Cluetrain Manifesto go straight to its 95 Theses, and usually quote the top one. I won’t mention it, because I would rather focus on Cluetrain’s main clue, which most people miss. It says this:

“if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp.

deal with it.

This statement expresses the full Cluetrain spirit —not only because of what it says, but because it adrenalized us, and guided everything we wrote in the Manifesto from that moment forward.

If Chris Locke hadn’t sent that little .gif to David Weinberger, Rick Levine and me, it’s possible (or probable) that Cluetrain would not have been written. The One Clue was, and remains, that important.

I think there are four reasons why Cluetrain’s One Clue rarely gets quoted:

  1. It’s separated from the 95.
  2. It’s a graphic, so people can’t copy/paste text out of it.
  3. It’s too hard for business people to accept.  And, because of that,
  4. It’s not yet true.

I have come to believe it is mostly #3 and #4.

Cluetrain went up first as a website, in April 1999. Its first edition as a book went out in January 2000. (“Just in time to cause The Crash,” some have said.) It was niched from the start as a business book (subhead: “The end of business as usual”). And, from the start, it has been  stocked with marketing books in the business sections of bookstores, libraries, and  Amazon. Most of its readers are also marketing folk. They’re the ones who made the book a bestseller, and they are the ones tweeting about it as well. (Typically, many times per day.)

Irony: the One Clue was spoken straight to marketers, yet many of them (even clueful ones) are still treating us as seats, eyeballs, end users and consumers, and not as fully empowered human beings. Worse, many of them (or their systems) are spying on us in ways that simple manners would never allow in the physical world.

I started ProjectVRM because I believed #4 was true: our reach did not yet exceed marketers’ grasp. I also felt that marketers (and all of business) would benefit from increased native individual power. But something needed to be done before that could prove out.

We adopted the term VRM — Vendor Relationship Management — because it worked as the customer-side counterpart of CRM — Customer Relationship Management, which was already a many-$billion B2B business. In fact VRM is broader than that, because it applies to relationships with organizations, government agencies, and even each other. But the baby was named, and we stuck with it.

ProjectVRM is coming up on its 8th birthday in September.  We’ve made huge progress over the years. There are now many dozens of developers around the world, working on VRooMy tools, services and code bases. But we will not have succeeded fully until the One Clue proves true — or at least accepted , and therefore a just a historic artifact, rather than a glaring irony stuck in the craw of Business as Usual.

One tool still missing in the VRM box is the ability to set one’s own terms, conditions, policies and preferences, in one’s own way, for every company or service one deals with.

This capability was foreclosed early in the Industrial Age. That was when mass manufacturing, distribution and (eventually) marketing needed scale. Thus “standard form” or “adhesive” agreements, for many customers at once, became the norm in big business throughout the Industrial Age.

I expected them to be obsoleted as soon as we got the Internet. Instead they became far more widespread and abused on the Net than in the physical world.

An example is websites. We need to be able to say, for example, “I will only accept the following kinds of cookies, for the following constrained purposes.” Or, “If we already know each other, and it’s cool with me, you can follow me as I go about my business, but only for purposes I allow and you agree to.”

We would say this in proper legalese, of course, and in forms that are readable by machines and ordinary muggles, as well as lawyers — like we have with Creative Commons licenses.

Writing these personal terms and policies is a challenge raised by references to “boundaries” in the Respect Trust Framework, which I visited in Time for digital emancipation  and  What do sites need from social login buttons?

We created Customer Commons to do for  personal boundaries what Creative Commons does for copyright. That’s why I want to see at least some of those terms inside Customer Commons, and put to use across the Web, before ProjectVRM’s 9th birthday.

Meanwhile, big thanks to the Berkman Center for giving us a great clubhouse for all these years. It’s been huge.