Cluetrain: We have met the internet’s enemy, and he is us

When the Cluetrain Manifesto first appeared in 1999, the consumer internet was still in its infancy. The vast majority of people still used dial-up phone services to get online, if they got online at all, and GeoCities and Yahoo were the kings of the web — the closest thing to social media was AOL’s Instant Messenger. But the authors of the Manifesto saw what was coming: a world in which users, consumers and people in general would be connected in more ways than anyone imagined.

That world is the one we live in now — a world in which we can get instantaneous news and photos and video from people halfway around the globe, posted through half a dozen different free services, on handheld computers that contain more processing power than NASA had when it landed a man on the moon. But there is a new risk, the Manifesto authors argue, and so they have released an update to the original document.

The first Manifesto was meant as a wake-up call for corporations and governments, a warning that the web and social tools were going to empower people in a host of different ways, and that this power shift would disrupt markets of all kinds — commercial, intellectual, political. And that has definitely come to pass, just as the authors said it would: Old players have been laid low or even destroyed, and new ones have emerged.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter — and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations.”[/blockquote]

We are the new threat

Now, however, two of the authors of the original Manifesto — Doc Searls and David Weinberger — have come out with a new document, because they see a new threat, or an additional one: namely, the risk that corporations and governments are taking control of the internet in a host of different ways, creating silos and restrictions that threaten to shut down many of the web’s best features and give the power back to those it was taken from.

Asia great wall of china

The worst part, the authors say, is that this is happening because we as users are allowing it to happen — and in some cases even encouraging it to happen. As Pogo said in the comic of the same name: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The new document warns of the Fools (corporations that don’t really understand the internet) and the Marauders, who plunder the web for their own purposes, but it also warns of a third group that poses a risk to the open web:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Most dangerous of all is the third horde: Us. We all like mass entertainment. Heck, TV’s gotten pretty great these days, and the Net lets us watch it when we want. Terrific. But we need to remember that delivering mass media is the least of the Net’s powers. The Net’s super-power is connection without permission. Its almighty power is that we can make of it whatever we want.”[/blockquote]

Declaration of independence

In many ways, the new Manifesto is a declaration of independence for the net generation, a statement of principles related to openness, inter-operability and freedom in general. The new document doesn’t mention the term “net neutrality,” but it’s clear that the idea behind that phrase is something the authors feel strongly about: the first commandment of the internet, they say in the update, is: “Thy network shall move all packets closer to their destinations without favor or delay based on origin, source, content, or intent.”

The internet is not something that can be controlled or owned, the Manifesto update argues. The web derives whatever value it has “from what we have built on it — the Net is of us, by us and for us.” The internet isn’t for any specific thing, according to the authors: it is for connecting people and information of all kinds together, a general-purpose tool that is more like a shared language than a physical thing.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, and China Telecom do not own the Internet. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are not the Net’s monarchs, nor yet are their minions or algorithms. Not the governments of the Earth nor their Trade Associations have the consent of the networked to bestride the Net as sovereigns.”[/blockquote]

The app economy is making this problem worse, says the Manifesto: Everyone loves apps and games because they give us something to do on the bus, but “as we move from the Web to an app-based world, we lose the commons we were building together. In the Kingdom of Apps, we are users, not makers.” Whereas each web page or link makes the internet as a whole richer, the authors argue, a new app is a silo that enriches only the company behind it.


Be the web you want to see

Another major risk that comes from us, the authors say, is the hatred and outrage and meanness that now spreads as quickly or even more quickly than news and information does: the continuing “demonization of them — people with looks, languages, opinions, memberships and other groupings we don’t understand, like, or tolerate.” Hatred is present on the Net because it’s present in the world, they say, “but the Net makes it easier to express and to hear.” And that is another force that is holding the internet back.

Since the problems stem from us, the only solutions to them also have to come from us, says the Manifesto: we as users and citizens have to vote for the values we want to see on the internet with our clicks and our wallets and our voices. Support the businesses that truly “get” the web, the authors advise, and support the open web — and remember that “anger is a license to be stupid [and] the Internet’s streets are already crowded with licensed drivers.” Most of all, they say, “live the values you want the Internet to promote.”

Like its predecessor, the Manifesto update contains some flowery language not unlike the famous hippie poem The Desiderata from the 1970s. Undoubtedly, some readers will dismiss it as the ramblings of a couple of old farts who don’t get the modern internet. But anyone who has felt constrained by Facebook’s version of reality or worried about net neutrality will find much to sympathize with in the latest version of the Cluetrain. And since it’s an open-source document, if you don’t see something you can always add it yourself.