A small band of provocateurs calling their project "the Cluetrain" issued a challenge to corporations late in March: wake up to the fact that the Internet is anarchic and beyond your control, learn how to use the Net to talk with your customers and employees like real people, and lighten up a bit.
The Cluetrain Manifesto is a set of 95 theses - a la Martin Luther - squarely aimed at anyone doing business online. And who isn't these days? If you haven't done so already, catch a ride at http://www.cluetrain.com.
One of the site's ringleaders is Chris Locke, who has been writing a caustic, unpredictable, funny and surprisingly influential e-mail newsletter called Entropy Gradient Reversals for the past three years.
Locke also started the electronic commerce newsletter Internet Business Report in 1993, and the visionary protoportal MecklerWeb, in 1994; before that, he earned his chops in the artificial intelligence field.
Locke compares his persona in Entropy Gradient Reversals to that of a court jester, mocking and parodying the antics of the corporate world. With Cluetrain, he and his co-conspirators are taking a somewhat more earnest tack - and one that's provoked a lot of people, he recently told me.
"It's as if the jester took off his mask and started talking about all the things he saw going on in the court," Locke said.
The reaction has been electrifying - you need only check out the Cluetrain site's long page of responses to the manifesto to see how enthusiastically many people are responding, from students to IT professionals to CEOs.
The Cluetrain Manifesto boils down to a simple realisation: markets and companies are comprised of people - not users, eyeballs, clients, seats or consumers.
Locke et al. can be forgiven for stating the obvious, because this basic fact tends to get submerged under the deluge of hype that is washing over the Net right now.
In the 20th century, every revolutionary movement, from modernism to Maoism, eventually wound up as nothing more than a trendy corporate marketing technique.
I was beginning to worry that the Internet was headed for the same fate. The early part of this decade saw a host of wild-eyed, utopian fulminations from publications claiming that the Internet was going to throw a monkey wrench into the workings of capitalism, society as a whole and maybe even human evolution. Far-out stuff, and more than a little idealistic, but it sure was fun to think about.
The Internet rhetoric of late has been substantially more corporate. Now, instead of promising new world orders, the latest Internet start-ups are delivering ever faster and more efficient ways to do the same old stuff: work, shop, pay taxes, get married, have babies, grow old and die.
If there's a whiff of revolutionary fervour still clinging to the Net, you're likely to encounter it in TV commercials for the likes of Cisco or Microsoft - where it's little more than a pose.
Cluetrain is a powerful reminder that the Internet is not just another marketing gimmick, and that the suits still have a thing or two to learn from the nerds - not to mention from the ordinary people who, more and more, are using the Net to find truly new ways to meet, talk, play, or just hang out with one another.