on January 9, 2012
There are two observations that need to be made at the outset of this review:
1. I read this book after reading "Outliers" and so I expected to be 'wowed' in much the same manner; which I wasn't. Having said that, however, I still found the book to be quite interesting, as much of the information presented a novel (at least to me) way of looking at what happens around me.
2. How can I say a book that's barely 12 years old is "outdated"? Well this was written before the advent of facebook, twitter, texting, blogs (at least as we know them today), and, in fact, the internet as it is today. Which leads to Gladwell making an illustration that now seems laughable: A "connector" faxing his friends to tell them about a great restaurant. Yeah, faxing. So I say this book seems outdated simply because the "word of mouth" phenomena has drastically changed. I'm sure all of us have a relatively HUGE sphere of influence through facebook, amazon reviews, etc. that just didn't exist when this book was written. So bear in mind, we live in a vastly different world than that to which Gladwell was writing.
As to the specific content of this book, Gladwell has it broken up into 8 chapters, which could really be just 2 sections:
1. What it takes to have a "social epidemic" and 2. "Case Studies".
In the first section he talks about the type of people that must be involved in social epidemics; namely "connectors" (who bring people together), "Mavens" (who bring information to the people) and "Salesmen" (who make us love it). The first section also deals with "stickiness", a characteristic of social epidemics that I can best liken to the part of a song that gets stuck in your head. It's that something that makes it unforgettable and makes you keep coming back. And lastly, he deals with the intrinsic part that "context" plays in the microcosm of social epidemics.
In the second section, as would be expected, we see examples of all of these 'necessities' working in concert to bring about "social epidemics".
All things considered; I enjoyed reading this book, as I enjoy reading anything that puts new thoughts into my head, but it just ins't as captivating or relevant as I had hoped.
on December 17, 2003
This book is presented as an explanation of what it is that might cause something to go from insignificance to ubiquity. It in fact does nothing of the sort and is actually just an amusing collection of stories.
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.
on July 18, 2003
Some voracious reading of research on...
(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.
on June 2, 2004
The author is a magazine writer and a good one. Magazine writers pretty much screwed up the definition of organizational theory several years ago via word of mouth so perhaps it is time to re-invent the concept of 'theory' as it realtes to word of mouth communication. One Tip backward and one Tip Forward. So it goes.
Move quickly throught the first section on epidemics (sophomoric)but focus on the author's practical defintion and description of a 'maven'...the human with a database mind and how that type of mind fits within various communication and business systems that are emerging across the world. That theme of the importance of the 'maven' in business or in social systems that runs throughout this book is worth the price of the book.
If respect for the mavens among us reaches a tipping point this author will have achieved a new 'theory' of organization design which will move him from the magazine racks to the coffee shops where ...the really important decisions are made now days.
Nice Read. Try it. You'll like it.
on May 10, 2004
As an entrepreneur, the subject of how trends are created is of particular interest. Unfortunately, I have three basic criticisms of this book:
1. It holds nothing terribly new. It assigns labels to principles that are fairly common sense. An example is the author's discussion of "Connectors", or people who have a lot of influence in creating trends, as they know many people within different social spheres. The fact that people who have a large number of personal connections, in various settings, have the ability to "connect" others should be fairly obvious (e.g., Paul Revere was more successful than his counterpart in spreading the message about the British because he knew who to tell, namely officials or other influential individuals - as opposed to the town's janitor, I suppose). Most of the author's principles are similarly unrevolutionary.
2. Trends vs. Fads. Most of the "trends" discussed are in fact not trends at all, but fads. For example, the author embarks on a lengthy discussion of how Hush Puppies became a national fashion fad after some trendy youths began wearing them. Sadly, this isn't a trend at all, but a fashion fad that only lasted a few months. If you're interested in fads, this book is probably more relevant. As someone interested in how national and global trends are "tipped," I was largely disappointed.
3. Selective Research. To illustrate his hypothesis on the "Power of the Magic Number of 150," the author relies on discussions of the number of people in various hunter-gatherer groups, to the obscure religious group the Hutterites, both of which tend to divide themselves up in groups of about 150 people. I can't help but think you could find similar arbitrary data on just about any number you chose (What about the magic number 500?)
Overall, although there were a couple of mildly interesting conclusions in the book, the work generally only states the obvious as revelation, and consistently fails to provide any quantitative justification for his conclusions. I wouldn't recommend it at all, but if you're determined, please email me. I'll make you a great deal on mine.
on March 20, 2004
The underlying premise of the book is that socio-economic and political phenomenon often can be explained by analogy to an infectious disease. Something - the apparent resurgence of Hush Puppy shoes among "hip" people, is one example the author provides - seems to come out of nowhere and can't be explained by conventional cause and effect. That is, the Hush Puppy company was not promoting the product but youthful, New York City "trend setters" found them in thrift shops, their friends and "followers" started wearing them and demand skyrocketed in an exponential fashion. The natural phenomena that best explain this are epidemics; they start small with a few victims and then can spread rapidly to millions of people.
Gladwell's basic premise is a useful construct for understanding some social-economic phenomena. And any student of history knows that relatively few people can make enormous changes, with Christ and his original 12 disciples being the most dramatic instance. But Gladwell takes much too much space to drag out the same basic point. One chapter of nauseating detail about the evolution of the children's television program Sesame Street is the most pointlessly drawn out part of the book. Also Gladwell relies solely on anecdotal evidence with little statistical support and no original research.
If you can find a magazine article on this topic - and it sounds like some of the chapters are reworked articles - you may learn all you need. The writing is well done; there are no charts or graphs to illustrate the principles. I'd give it two-and-a-half stars if that was possible.
on March 17, 2004
Perhaps the first thing one can say about this book is that it challenges our fundamental assumptions as well as our innate conception of reality. In plain English, this book tells us that life is not a gradual process, that the phenomen which we experience in our day to day routines are not built up, but rather that the world in which we live has become this way as a result of epidemics and exponential growth.
Above all this book is management theory at its best and trend analysis at its worst. Gladwell discusses how one can really create an epidemic or change the ways of the world whether it be the crime rate or the number of people who smoke. He argues that in every trend there is a tipping point, a point at which an otherwise common growth turns into an explosion.
Gladwell uses psychology and market research studies to show that the world is not in fact gradual but is rather exponential. He bases his arguments on the law of the few, the stickiness factor and what he calls the power of context.
Gladwell's book can be broken down into three basic parts. A guide on how to use people to spread an epidemic. A guide on how to tweak one's message to make sure that it is an epidemic worth spreading, and finally a guide on how to use context to make sure that the first two steps actually work. This book is revolutionary in that it teaches one how to create and distribute a product, whether that product be a pair of shoes or breast cancer awareness.
Gladwell fails when he tries to analyze smoking and the tipping point of this phenomen but overall he succeeds in that he provides a counterweight to the prevailing business idea that suggests that greatness is built over time and not exponentially grown. This book is an easy read and a pleasant one at that. Should you disagree with Gladwell, this book will still be useful as a topic of discussion at the dinner table or your next cocktail party. However, should you agree with Gladwell, this book may aid you where it matters, in the boardroom and perhaps even in your daily life.
on March 13, 2004
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has put together what is easily one of the most readable books about social phenomena out right now. Borrowing by analogy from epidemiology, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a clear, concise analysis of social epidemics and why they "tip" ("The Tipping Point" is the name given to the moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass). Gladwell says, "If you talk to the people who study epidemics - epidemiologists - you realize that they have a strikingly different way of looking at the world. They don't share the assumptions the rest of us have about how and why change happens."
After studying tipping points in epidemics, Gladwell decided to look for them in other places. He found them in Wolverine's Hush Puppy shoe sales, Paul Revere's midnight ride, the child-captivating shows of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues and the most relevant analysis of teen smoking I've yet to read, among other things. Gladwell also covers case studies of people who have successfully manipulated Tipping Points by launching their own epidemic campaigns.
By breaking down the elements of epidemics into easily understandable pieces and processes, Malcolm Gladwell has written what could almost be considered a metamarketing sourcebook. As he says, "The point is that by the end of the book I think the reader will have a clear idea of what starting an epidemic actually takes. This is not an abstract, academic book. It's very practical. And it's very hopeful. It's brain software."
on January 5, 2004
In "The Tipping Point", Malcolm Gladwell weaves disparate tales of trends and phenomena to create meaning and understanding of change and change forces. He analyzes everything from breakaway fashion developments to fluctuations in crime rate to the captivating nature of children's television programs. He compares trends to infectious outbreaks of disease and contends that messages are spread in a similar epidemiological fashion.
The author diagnoses the essential players in the outbreak of social epidemics. His "Law of the Few" states that connectors, mavens and salesmen are the essential cogs in the cycle that serve to generate and proliferate messages to the point of critical mass, or the Tipping Point. Connectors have relationships with many people. Mavens have deep knowledge about particular subjects and are anxious to share it. Salespeople influence people to take action. The power of the few can turn a small and seemingly insignificant notion into an international phenomenon. Gladwell explores this recurrent pattern and makes it understandable.
An examination of the important qualities of infectious messages indicates they must be "sticky" in order to take hold. They need that little extra bit of interest or flair that causes the idea to hang around in your thoughts for awhile - messages must be memorable.
Messages also generate power based on the context in which they are received. When and where you hear or see something is powerful. Environment makes a significant difference. It's important to note this factor is one over which society can exert some control. Eliminating graffiti in subway stations reduced overall crime rates in New York.
Missing from the book is a strong and clear prescription. How can people harness this knowledge of social epidemics to affect positive change? The idea that we can indeed create a revolution of change, very quickly, and with little resources is a hopeful and inspiring message. The implications could be far reaching for business, international relations and education.
on January 5, 2004
"The Tipping Point", by Malcolm Gladwell, is an essential text for individuals (business, educational and government leaders...) who seek to better understand and generate positive social epidemics within today's society. As Gladwell states, "the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics." Gladwell aptly calls this process, The Tipping Point.
Gladwell's insightful argument is that ideas, products, messages and behaviors spread like viruses. To support his argument, Gladwell, describes how Hush Puppies shoes in the 1990s suddenly became fashionable after years of steady decline in sales or how Paul Reveres "word of mouth" ride alarming colonists of an imminent attack by the British spread more effectively than his counterpart, William Dawes, who was carrying the same message. So, how can we better understand why some trends "tip" and others don't? Gladwell argues there are 3 rules which can provide us with insight into the Tipping Point: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
Marketing industry personnel can take a direct lesson from Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Yet, where the text is most effective is how The Tipping Point can be utilized by transformational leaders to better understand why social trends -fall of crime rates in urban cities, teen suicide and smoking - suddenly spike or dissipate within communities. Understanding human nature is not an exact science. Therefore, by critically examining societal epidemics and their tipping points, transformational leaders can better serve their communities by instilling positive changes/trends to remedy negative societal epidemics.