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2.0 out of 5 stars NETWORK EXTERNALITY? PAY IT FORWARD? NO, TIPPING POINT, July 18 2003
This review is from: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Hardcover)
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.
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