So What's The (Tipping) Point?

Mar 26, 2000 (Updated Mar 28, 2000)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:densely packed with interesting tidbits and thought provoking premises, and

Cons:No real conclusions are drawn... The facts are left to dangle, and while a theory is grasped for, it doesn't hold weight.

After finishing The Tipping Point I attended a reading Malcolm Gladwell gave at a local bookstore. As he went through the passages in his book, highlighting many key elements of his thesis on the epidemiological spread, from person to person, of behaviors, ideas, and information, a balloon of cognitive dissonance grew in my mind.

In both the book and the reading, Gladwell spent a chunk of time on the phenomenon of Sesame Street's stickiness--how the show was carefully engineered by cognitive psychologists to hold the interest of young children.

The dissonance arose because this lengthy illustration is almost tangential to his thesis. Sesame Street did not spread in an epidemiological fashion. So, in the Q&A portion of the reading, I raised the point that Sesame Street serves as more of a vaccine, innoculating children from the foreseen epidemic of illiteracy. Gladwell responded that, this illustration is meant only to explain a core tenet of his thesis, the concept of 'stickiness.'

This illuminates the main problem with the argument Gladwell builds--it doesn't tie together. The foundation of his book is how three rules -- the Law of the Few (how it takes a small number to cause a major change), the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context (environment counts) -- govern the spread of informational epidemics. So why is his lengthiest stickiness example not presented in the context of information spread?

The answer is obvious: the Sesame Street story is literarily sexy--it's funny and revealing and makes you think about something you took for granted in a new way. It's a good read. That it's not germane to his book is inconsequential. To Gladwell's credit, elsewhere he discusses the stickiness factor in the spread of information (specifically relating to rumors and fashion trends), but none get the play that Big Bird does.

The point of this explication is to make sure you don't read The Tipping Point thinking you'll walk out with a new understanding of how information spreads. This book leads to many more questions than it answers. And once you understand that, this book is a delightful read. Thanks to a remarkable wealth of research, Gladwell presents an intriguing collection of data, information, and anecdotes that will keep you turning pages through to the end.

What Gladwell also provides are some tools for thinking through the spread of information. As a brief exercise, I found The Tipping Point to be relevant to the structure of Epinions.com. Epinions is modeled after word-of-mouth communication--when making a decision, particularly a buying decision, you often turn to friends with expertise in the area you're researching. Additionally, if someone has a particularly engaging experience, they'll want to share it with others. Epinions is a forum to allow that kind of interchange without geographic bounds.

The Law of The Few states that it only takes a small number of people to cause a word of mouth phenomenon to 'tip.' The personality types that are key to this process are Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Mavens are folks who accumulate vast knowledge on certain topics, and then share this understanding with others. Connectors are social butterflies with massive rolodexes who are instrumental in the spreading of information--they tell everybody about this thing they've just found out from some Maven. Salesmen convince that this information is valuable, worthwhile, important. Through their charms, you have trouble understanding how you survived without this knowledge.

In the exercise of mapping this to Epinions, there is one clear analog. Mavens are what Epinions calls 'experts' -- specialists in various categories, folks you can turn to when trying to found out where you should start.

Where Epinions doesn't succeed is encouraging Connectors--apart from those folks who actively maintain their Webs of Trust (and I'm not referring to 'trust sluts,' but to people who honestly build significant networks), Epinions doesn't encourage the connection and spreading of ideas. It's difficult for a connector to tell everyone, "Hey, check out this great opinion I just read!" A notable exception, and a man who qualifies as both Epinions Maven and Connector, is Chris Bickel (http://www.epinions.com/user-chrisbickel/)--he both wields music expertise, and, through his Alternative Culture Resource for Epinions users (http://members.aol.com/smashismo/altculture.html), is using his connections to spread the word about 'outsider' opinions.

And who is the Salesman? Why, Epinions itself. Through its presentation, Epinions must convince you that certain opinions really are worthwhile (those that are sorted near the top) and should be considered in any research you're doing. Epinions must appear responsible and accountable to earn your trust that this is information to dwell upon.




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