“When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.”
The first time I read the seminal Internet rant “Attention Fat Corporate Bastards” I was a far-too-young VP of a rather large software company, running a bloated marketing department with a multi-million dollar budget. I really had no idea what I was doing.
It was 1997. The Cluetrain was steaming towards us at full speed, as the real power of the Net started to become apparent. Big companies were already starting to realise how leaky they were becoming.
Coders in the trenches were having email conversations with actual customers in the real world. Disillusioned sales reps were hanging out on ICQ at night, swapping war stories with dealers and even their friends at the competition.
Even senior execs (*cough* mentioning no names *cough*) were participating in this leakage. Cautiously creeping through Usenet and saying things that didn’t exist in any “corporate positioning cascade” or sanctioned message track. And all this without a single PR person in sight.
That essay, penned by a Usenet contributor who only ever signed himself “@Man” (and sometimes added “World-Class Data Snuggler / First Interskate Productions” in his sig), hit me like a brick between the eyes.
It inspired me then. It inspires me still.
As David Weinberger (accurately) paraphrases, I’ve “… long championed understanding the Net as, well, a conversation that needs to be respected. Keeping that conversation as open and vibrant as possible is more important than your business’s tawdry ambitions.”
For almost 15 years, I’ve been quoting the words of this anonymous dude in conversations, email messages, business meetings, and just about every social media conference presentation I’ve given (and I’ve probably done far too many of those).
I believe it is still, to this day, one of the very best descriptions of the way businesses should think about the Net. “Think of a table for two”. That just nails it.
In my talk at the mesh conference yesterday, I used the same line to close my talk on the general brokenness of social media (Thesis: social media broke marketing by giving customers back their voice. Marketers freaked out and seized control of the shiny new channels, trampling all over the much more important cultural shift underlying it all. Result = marketing has broken social media).
@Man’s brilliant aphorism was very well received, as it always is, but it left me feeling guilty…
Whenever I use the line, I always give credit to @Man, of course. But it occurred to me that for all the hundreds of times I’ve quoted the guy, I have absolutely no idea about who he is. What did he do? What prompted this fantastic rant? Where is he now?
I’ve found scattered traces across Usenet archives and the Web, but the two email addresses I found for the chap are now, sadly, not working.
I remembered the line was also quoted at the start of one of the chapters of The Cluetrain Manifesto, so I asked the authors earlier today if they had any clues. Alas, another blank.
If anyone out there knows of @Man or has any idea who he is/was, I’d love to know. Just to shake the bloke’s virtual hand, if nothing else. Or perhaps @Man is deliberately anonymous and has no wish to be contacted. I respect that, of course.
Anyway. For all the many, many times I’ve read your words, quoted them, and reminded myself of their simple, timeless truth: thank you @Man. Whoever you are.
Rage on, good sir.