5 Ways to Save the Soul of the Internet

03/18/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

"Sharing makes us all smarter."
--David Weinberger

Five years before the dawn Facebook, The Cluetrain Manifesto was written by David Weinberger, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, and Doc Searls to examine the impact of the Internet on marketing, and, more importantly, to defend the Web as a primarily social space where people could connect with other people and talk about what mattered to them in their own voice. Co-author and philosopher David Weinberger says:

We thought -- and I still think -- that we were articulating something that was widely understood. The people who were on the Web at that point -- and still now -- did not view themselves as markets or targets of marketers. We were not there for that reason at all.

Fast-forward 16 years to an age where marketers have gotten "too good" at using the Web to promote their products. Weinberger warns that we need to be vigilant in order to preserve what the Internet and the Web started out as. "I'm in love with the Internet; I think the Internet is an awesome, unexpected and irreproducible opportunity to transform our institutions and some of the ways we live together, not just for the better but for the vastly better," says Weinberger, who feels that the Internet is such a transformative technology as long as we hold true to the idea that the Internet is primarily about connection and not solely about content.

Weinberger offers these ideas to businesses and marketers on how to preserve the humble beginnings of the Internet.

"Just make the place better. People who love the Internet are making things, building things and doing everything they can to make it better."
--David Weinberger

5 Ways to Save the Soul of the Internet

1. Make the Internet a better place. Speaking for the entire Internet, Weinberger urges all people, whatever they do, to make the place better. "We now obviously have entire content industries that will churn out whatever; a good idea or a bad idea, as long as somebody clicks on it, they're happy," says Weinberger. While he admits to enjoying the benefits of personalized content, he fears that it degrades the environment when businesses start to conceive of the Internet solely in terms of content and miss the connection. In his view, "the Internet is primarily about connection, and the content that matters is the content that serves connection."

"Businesses must recognize the power of collaboration and why collaboration and sharing makes their business better in every measurable way."
--David Weinberger

Weinberger calls out native advertising as an example of a practice that he feels does not make the Internet a better place. The aim of native advertising is to trick the reader into thinking that an item of fake news is actual news. Weinberger's view may seem to contradict the perspective of marketers, who are trying to figure out how to get the most paid views, how to get the most eyeballs and how to monetize the fact that these markets consist of individuals, which gives rise to the whole influence, patronage system as well as native advertising. He feels strongly that it's morally wrong to pay people to have opinions and lie about the fact that they are getting paid for it, but he says that if marketers are going to do things like native advertising, they can at least be more ethical about it. Weinberger has actually worked with companies to help them produce ethical guidelines for how to do native advertising without making the place "much worse."

2. Let intranetworked employees converse directly with intranetworked markets. The most famous line from Cluetrain is "Markets are conversations," which means that the power has slipped from the business as the central and best source of information about its own products to the customers, who are in simple conversation with one another. These conversations take place in an unmistakably human voice that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking -- a voice that stands in stark contrast to the voice of the company. According to Weinberger, for companies to begin to sound human and connect with their customers, they need to employ real human beings to speak on their behalf and deliver genuine knowledge. Only when companies get out of the way and let intranetworked employees converse directly with intranetworked markets will a new conversation take place -- one the promises to be the most exciting conversation the business has ever engaged in.

"I've learned the dangerous lesson of the Web: You succeed by giving up control, and that's the inverse of the normal campaign."
--David Weinberger

3. Recognize and reward the ability to share and collaborate. At the social level, we've seen an enormous, unprecedented move from hoarding to sharing, and the empirical evidence shows that socially sharing makes us smarter. "Great things happen when we network people and allow them to collaborate at scale and iteratively," says Weinberger. Because collaboration and sharing make businesses better in every measurable way, he encourages business environments to recognize the power of collaboration and structure themselves around that and reward individuals who do not hoard. "In order for the economics of sharing to work, the reward system, the separate system, needs to work in that direction as well," says Weinberg.

"Markets are conversations. A conversation isn't your business tugging at our sleeve to shill a product we don't want to hear about. If we want to know the truth about your products, we'll find out from one another. We understand that these conversations are incredibly valuable to you. Too bad. They're ours."
--Doc Searls and David Weinberger, "The New Clues"

4. Enable customers to talk amongst themselves. Cluetrain recommends enabling your customers to talk amongst themselves, encouraging them to tell the truth and participating in those conversations with the caveat of not trying to own them and not even necessarily putting them on your site. Weinberger shares the fact that many companies have asked him and his co-authors how they could get a conversation on their site, and his answer is "You probably can't." Instead he recommends finding the conversations:

If you do something interesting, people are already talking about what you are doing. Go find them and lurk. Just shut up for a while and listen and see what sort of conversation it is and how you can participate as an equal member. At the point that you have something to say, enter the conversation and state clearly who you are and frankly acknowledge their problems and issues. Don't pretend your product is perfect, because they're smart enough to know that nothing is perfect.

"The Internet is us, connected. The Internet is not made of copper wire, glass fiber, radio waves, or even tubes. The devices we use to connect to the Internet are not the Internet. The Net is of us, by us, and for us. The Internet is ours."
--Doc Searls and David Weinberger, "The New Clues"

5. Never forget the wonderfulness and awesomeness of the Internet. Weinberger and Doc Searls posted "The New Clues" in January as an attempt to reflect on what the Internet looks like 16 years after Cluetrain. The single theme of "The New Clues" is that while a lot of things have gone wrong, we should never forget the wonderfulness and awesomeness of the Internet. While Weinberger does not claim to know how to fix it, he is convinced that the place to start is to remember what the Internet was:

Remember what it was that people saw in the Internet that got them so excited that we built this place together. All of us, one link at a time, one person at a time, we built this place into something that is unlike anything that humans have created before. So remembering the origins of the Internet seems to be the best way to start down the path of consistently making the place better.

It takes courage and generosity to publicly share on the Internet. To establish authentic connections, marketers and businesses must work hard and deliberately deliver value to the Internet and their target audience. In summary, remind yourself of this very powerful new clue about the Internet from David Weinberger and Doc Searls: "There is great content on the Internet. But holy mother of cheeses, the Internet is not made out of content."

Content matters, but connections matter more. And that's what the Internet is all about.

I strongly suggest and truly hope that you watch the full interview with David Weinberger here.

Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3 p.m. ET as we host CXOTalk, connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.