This celebrated New York Times bestseller -- now poised to reach an even wider audience in paperback -- is a book that is changing the way Americans think about selling products and disseminating ideas.
For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanize the forces of resistance so effectively in part because he was what Gladwell calls a "Connector": he knew just about everybody, particularly the revolutionary leaders in each of the towns that he rode through. But Revere "wasn't just the man with the biggest Rolodex in colonial Boston," he was also a "Maven" who gathered extensive information about the British. He knew what was going on and he knew exactly whom to tell. The phenomenon continues to this day--think of how often you've received information in an e-mail message that had been forwarded at least half a dozen times before reaching you.
Gladwell develops these and other concepts (such as the "stickiness" of ideas or the effect of population size on information dispersal) through simple, clear explanations and entertainingly illustrative anecdotes, such as comparing the pedagogical methods of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues, or explaining why it would be even easier to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with the actor Rod Steiger. Although some readers may find the transitional passages between chapters hold their hands a little too tightly, and Gladwell's closing invocation of the possibilities of social engineering sketchy, even chilling, The Tipping Point is one of the most effective books on science for a general audience in ages. It seems inevitable that "tipping point," like "future shock" or "chaos theory," will soon become one of those ideas that everybody knows--or at least knows by name. --Ron Hogan
(1) "Network externalities" and "network effects" from economics and
(2) WOM (word of mouth) research from social/cognitive psychology
...and shamelessly rehashing them with a doozy touchy-feely spin on "small things can inspire big things" a la "Pay it Forward" (that Helen Hunt/Kevin Spacey rigmarole) -- and lo and behold, you have a tipping point for a book that people are stomping over each other to buy and magically provoke their thinking about marketing or sociological phenomena.
Indeed every once in a while we need a business book that summarizes and makes sense of all that goes on in academia, so even such blatant intellectual debauchery would be fine as long as the BASIC professional integrity of attribution was upheld. The very least one can expect from such a self-proclaimed "biography of an idea" endeavour is an honest acknowledgement of WHERE the idea came from.
As though it was not embarrassing enough that epithets like "maven" and "connector" are well established in WOM or network externality research since nearly 20 years, we were also fed with the MOST commonly used illustrations -- faxes becoming important because other people had faxes, or some quaint fashion catching up overnight (Hush Puppies in this case, but it could be any number of things), or how broadband has swept our world, or the success of a TV show -- these are all primetime textbook examples to explain the very fundamental concepts of network externality in ECON 101. Some arcane mention of epidemiologists' theories does not count because the whole hypothesis here is to provide something that is "beyond the world of medicine and diseases". Not one mention of the "Network Externality" in the book or in the glossary at the end.
To its minor credit, the book is written with a readable flow although expect to have each and every minutiae explained in a "for dummies" style. For e.g., the perfectly simple notion that yawning is visually and aurally contagious is explained over 2 pages of relatively small print with about 100 mentions of the word yawn. Yawn. Such excruciating fleshing out of material is understandable of course, given how little of substance there really was in this "thinking" to begin with.
The text wallows in its conflicting logical morass. Remember, "small things" are supposed to make a big difference. A winding 40 pages are devoted to crime combat in NY under a newly appointed police chief. Forgive me if this concerted annual effort by a legitimate full-fledged police force does NOT sound like a "small thing" to me.
We are told "What must underlie successful epidemics is a bedrock belief that change is possible". Unfortunately, all the examples Gladwell cites such as a sweeping shoe vogue, faxes becoming popular -- these are all a matter of happenstance instead of a concerted effort by individuals at a point in time. Such is indeed the true nature of contagious phenomenons as he himself mentions at the outset, there is no "bedrock belief" until afterwards when someone sits and analyzes the event. I could also hypothesize that a lot of these mini-revolutions happen when an optimal chain of events is accidentally (unintentionally) spurred on by some triggers in society/environment etc, but that is for another day.
As though this were not enough we are treated to semi-pompous implications. For e.g., page 131: "There is something PROFOUNDLY counter-intuitive in the definition of stickiness that emerges from all these examples". Really? Would have been nice if it were apparent instead of having us hit on the head with it.
Come to think of it a "big effect" is a pretty flaky/subjective concept anyway. How could this supposed big effect be sustained? Where are hush puppies now? As for NY's crime rate, many experts such as Andrew Karmen from CUNY (John Jay) believe that the drop in crime rates in NY in 1980s or 90s is insignificant, homicides in the city have risen 10-fold since 1950. How about faxes -- and their big effect being eaten by another big effect (email)?
What is most piquing though is that in a round-about way we are offered Polyanna solutions as a result of this 3-pronged theory of network externality. One priceless gem emerges when we are convinced how cleaning a subway system would be enough to solve crime rates (with the Bernie Goetz case as a lynchpin). My retorts won't fit this review.
Whether this is a legitimate business book or a mere avante-garde coffee table thoughtpiece, one would have at the least expected some sort of an organized framework to plan for these "small things" or to sustain the "big effects". None is forthcoming. As for me, the very fact that well-established research is packaged here in a 250-page drawl as a pretentiously seminal idea is quite a put-off in itself. A simple 5-6 page HBR article would have done the job just fine, but then that wouldn't make a lot of money for Gladwell, would it.
If you are in business and hope to use this stuff for a spiral marketing/branding effort, you'd do a lot better getting your hands on some WOM literature than this inchoate theoretical indulgence.
Highly over-rated material, this.
It is well written as a social history, and has a light, journalistic style good for dipping into, but the reader is left absolutely none the wiser as to why any of it happened. I would therefore class it as pretty much a waste of anyone's time.
One thing that particularly annoyed me about this book is that chaos theory - a branch of mathematics almost 40 years old, for the analysis and prediction of exactly the sort of thing this book is wondering about - is mentioned only once: as a footnote.
That's like writing a book about why planets stay in orbit around the sun, and mentioning astrophysics as an aside.
Gladwell's writing style is up-beat and popular - he is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and that style is clearly present in his writing here. Thus, those who appreciate the New Yorker will tend to like this book; those who don't, won't. Gladwell occasionally plays a bit loose with the documentation, and relies much more an anecdotal and consensus opinions than necessarily getting strong, documented proof. Then again, with a principle like the tipping point, this might not be the most important thing in any event - any hard, cold statistical data of the early Christian movement might have dismissed this wandering band of a dozen troublemakers as insignificant.
Some of Gladwell's conclusions are likewise problematic, again based on a more intuitive approach that will appeal to some and not to others. In particular, I would question his liberality of accepting drug use; while one might agree that the war on drugs goes in directions that are less helpful while other problems loom large, I'm not convinced (nor does Gladwell's argument seem very strong in this direction) that permitting or encouraging children this experience is the best course.
Some have begun describing the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster as a tipping point for the economy, but whether this will be a tipping point for good or bad, one cannot say. It is a sad fact of history that often disasters and wars are followed by periods of economic boom.
The term 'tipping point' actually comes from epidemiology, to describe the point at which virus and other infectious agents reach a critical mass sufficient to become an epidemic. The problem with this is that different viral and infectious agents have different tipping points given different conditions, so the idea of universally applying the concept of the tipping point becomes rather like the idea of the hundredth monkey, the idea in social consciousness construction that there is some sort of paradigm shift or mysterious shift in general thought and behaviour once it reaches a critical mass of people.
Do other people wear Hush Puppies now because I have doggedly insisted upon wearing mine since the 1970s (not the same pair, mind you)? Why did they fade out of fashion only to come back in? These are the kinds of issues that the tipping point cannot explain.
This is an interesting text, but more as an intellectual sideline rather than a serious attempt at formulating a universal principle of social behaviour.