The following article, “Authors of ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ assess cyberspace 10 years later,” by Colleen Walsh, appeared in the June 18, 2009, issue of the Harvard Gazette.

Internet luminaries gathered at Harvard Law School (HLS) on Tuesday (June 16) to examine an influential 10-year-old work that discussed the influence of the Web on the world of business — and the world in general.

In 1999, four authors with an intimate knowledge of the Web and with ties to companies like IBM, Sun Microsystems, and the Linux Journal, posted a series of 95 theses online detailing how the Internet was revolutionizing the way business is conducted — by connecting consumers and markets to each other with amazing immediacy. Their treatise was called “The Cluetrain Manifesto.”

“A powerful global conversation has begun,” the authors wrote. “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.”

Their manifesto — with theses like “Markets are Conversations,” and “We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it,” and “Don’t worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it’s not the only thing on your mind” — described the Web as an open conversation, a kind of utopian ideal for the free exchange of information and ideas — as well as an opportunity for the proliferation of more equitable marketing.

In the manifesto, explained Doc Searls, one of its four authors, “‘We’ were ordinary folks and ‘you’ were the people misunderstanding us — and misunderstanding the Net as well — and we felt that the Net had enormous potential beyond just IPO scores.”

Searls, along with co-author David Weinberger — both currently fellows at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society — were part of the discussion, which was moderated by Berkman co-founder and HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain in an event titled “Cluetrain at 10: So How’s Utopia Working Out for Ya?”

The Web application Twitter quickly took center stage as Zittrain asked the authors if it fit into their Cluetrain ideal.

“Is Twitter exactly what you were talking about, empowering the little guy … or is it exactly the kind of modality that can be subverted by the forces against which you railed?” asked Zittrain, noting the inclusive nature of the real-time social networking site, but also the emergence of “Twitter brand managers” who can “tweet” for you.

It’s a bit of both, Searls responded.

“It’s very much Cluetrainesque in the sense that everybody can participate, everybody has a voice. … [There’s] lot’s of invention, lots of unpredictability. … Where it’s not [Cluetrainesque],” he added, “is that to some degree it’s a silo — one company is in the middle of it, one company is staying in the middle of it.”

In an examination of the Internet’s ever-growing influence in the political arena, the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean took center stage. The former governor of Vermont was the first to successfully harness the power of the Internet and tap its ability to connect with grassroots supporters.

Dean, said Weinberger — an Internet adviser for the campaign — took the popular “broadcast model” — in which a message from the top is transmitted down to the “troops” — and reversed it by starting conversations at the bottom of the pyramid, among the troops themselves. The result was a social networking site set up around a variety of different interests.

“There was a ‘pilots for Dean’; there were ‘educators for Dean’; there was even ‘Howards for Dean’,” said Weinberger. “[That] essential idea of peer-to-peer conversation as an empowering, important, and human way of undoing the pyramidal structure — you see that in politics more and more and more.”

Asked by Zittrain to give predictions for the future of their egalitarian Cluetrain ideal, Weinberger’s response was somewhat pessimistic, while Searls had a brighter outlook.

“I think human beings are terribly resourceful,” said Searls. “And I think that the ability of anybody to connect with anybody and do anything … [is the kind of] resourcefulness [that] subverts hierarchy.”

Weinberger admitted to being a “frightened utopian.”

“I do worry a great deal about the attractiveness in many ways of lock-down, non-generative devices,” he said, noting the restrictions of companies like Apple, which strictly controls the applications available for its popular iPhone.

The movement toward these sorts of restrictive models was absolutely in the “wrong direction,” he said, citing the example of China, where Web sites are monitored and the Internet can be locked down.

That sort of state intervention, he said, “should get us working even harder to make sure [the] Internet … stays free.”