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The Illusion of Corporate Transparency: The Cluetrain Manifesto 10 Years Later

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To commemorate the Cluetrain Manifesto's 10th anniversary, social media executive Keith McArthur challenged bloggers worldwide to pick 1 of the 95 theses in the book and reflect on its current relevance. This is my contribution.

Ten years ago today, a hopefully prophetic obituary for the pre-internet business power structure was published. Called The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, it started as an online conversation on how the internet was changing the business world. Commerce was about conversations, not transactions, and the web gave us all a voice. Websites, message boards and chat rooms were supposed to tear down bureaucracies. The book served as a call to action for businesses to join the internet conversation in honest human ways or perish on the sidelines.

Sadly, in many key ways, it's still business as usual.

Cluetrain's 64th thesis stated: "Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall." The flood of participation from the masses was supposed to blow the executive doors open. Conversations would subvert hierarchy. Hyperlinks would replace the corporate pyramid. Whether we liked it or not, the authors warned us, organizations were becoming bottom-up democracies. We would soon have open access to everything.

Ten years later we've come a long way toward the illusion of transparency and effective participation but not much closer to achieving it.

In the financial sector we've made little progress toward visibility and bottom-up control. Matt Taibbi told us as much in his Rolling Stone article The Big Takeover. On AIG and the global economic meltdown, Taibbi pointed to a political trend decades in the making: "the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations." AIG was making "colossal, world-sinking $500 billion bets with money it didn't have."

Senior executives in all industries may be more visible today but most are still delivering carefully crafted, 'flack'-approved messages. Being able to watch GM CEO Fritz Henderson on YouTube or read his blog posts adds warmth and gives us the illusion of a closer relationship, but that hasn't subverted GM's hierarchy. The Obama campaign enabled millions of voices to be heard and we have unprecedented access to reams of information but now that he's in office, how much political power do we really have? We can follow Sun Microsystem's CEO Jonathan Schwartz on Twitter but his posts, like most executives participating in this powerful social network, are little more than 1-way broadcasts. For the most part, barriers remain and decision-makers still operate in secrecy at the top of the corporate pyramid.

Companies were also supposed to let their customers and suppliers into the product-design process early on. This participation, Cluetrain hypothesized, would deliver better products. To support that argument 10 years later we would have to overlook two wildly successful products built in complete secrecy since then: Apple's iPod and iPhone. According to Wired Magazine's Leander Kahney, Apple's product design process involves "locking the doors and sweating and bleeding until something emerges perfectly formed."

Cluetrain's name stemmed from this quote from a veteran of a failing company in '99: "The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery." Ten years later, with respect to corporate transparency and effective market participation, we're still waiting.