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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.
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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.
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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.
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on June 22, 2002
I picked this book up when I remembered Gladwell's name from some interesting New Yorker articles. As an educational psychologist who studies creativity, I found Gladwell's "theory" to be provocative, especially for an author who doesn't use the scientific jargon. I taught a senior seminar on creativity this spring, and I dusted off my copy of this book and assigned it to the students. They were a high powered group, so I was a bit worried that they would dislike the pop psychology aspect of Gladwell's work. But they loved it -- several wrote on their course evaluations that it was one of the most provocative books they read during their college careers. I think the lesson learned is that (as other reviewers have noted) the material is aimed at a layperson audience, and someone reading it for scientific insight will be disappointed. But the book is a great stimulus for discussion about several points, including (1) how Gladwell's theory compares to research on creativity, (2) the value of jargon-free interpretations of the social sciences, and (3) the veracity of Gladwell's theory and numerous examples. I went in with a reasonable view of the book's usefulness, and I was quite pleased with the result.
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on June 2, 2000
On the surface, this book is pop science for newspaper readers. It has an adequate index and many source notes, but few will mistake it for a refereed paper in a scientific journal. It is pleasant to read, entertaining, and doesn't make great mental demands on the reader. However, the reader might be surprised that the author, in describing the large effects of small changes, didn't mention Edward Lorenz' work on the Butterfly Effect. Mr. Gladwell's relating the results of folding a paper fifty times is not surprising to someone who has heard the story of the beggar who was granted one wish by a Prince: "Please, sir, give me a grain of rice on the first square of a chess board. Then, double the amount on each succeeding square."
Dismissing The Tipping Point out of hand, though, might be . . . mind you, might be . . . a huge mistake. Suspension of judgement is usually needed to discover something really, really big. Consider, the Earth moving. Could anything be sillier? Or, riding a light beam. Loony stuff, if ever there was. Yet Galileo and Einstein used these ideas to gain eternal fame. Is it possible that fixing broken windows could severely reduce crime? Can humans who are Connectors and ideas that are Sticky really have tremendous consequences for a nation? I don't know.
But, I have an idea. Fortune (June 12, 2000) had an article on crime in Russia, "Capitalism In a Cold Climate". Big crime . . . Bad crime . . . Overwhelming crime! What better test for the ideas in this book than to apply them in Russia. Is suggesting attacking such big problems with seemingly flimsy ideas really making fun of the ideas? Not at all. Atomic bomb explosions started as ideas scratched on paper. Space craft launches started as ideas scratched on paper. Science advances by someone proposing ideas, then someone testing them. Mr. Gladwell has proposed several ideas. Let's test them to see if they are profound or fluff.
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on January 2, 2003
If you are like this reviewer, you are skeptical of best-selling books with catchy titles that seem to explain a huge range of phenomena with a simple formula. The Tipping Point may appear to be such a book. However, Malcolm Gladwell's excellent articles overcame my resistance and led to the discovery of a book rich in intriguing ideas and details that may indeed explain a surprising range of cultural and market-based behavior. Gladwell makes no hard claims for the scientific nature of his views, although he draws on plenty of published psychological and marketing research. The core idea is that a small but precisely targeted push can create a fashion trend, the outsize success of a new product, or a major drop in the crime rate. Most of the ideas in this book have clear application to marketing, and others to effective decision-making at many levels of business. Traditional economics, which revolves around an idealistic model of rational agents, has done a fairly poor job of providing practical uses for business and has been under attack from more psychologically realistic sources. Gladwell's book is a worthy addition to this corrective literature.

Starting with the compelling story of Paul Revere's remarkably effective nighttime ride warning of imminent British military activity, Gladwell introduces three rules of epidemics explored in depth in subsequent chapters: The Law of the Few (Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. The book elegantly and compellingly weaves these rules through discussions of diverse events and cultural epidemics, from New York crime and the revival of Hush Puppies to the popularity of Sesame Street and Airwalk sneakers and the causes of teenage smoking and suicide epidemics. Not every strand of thought of completely convincing, but the quality of discussion is high, assuming that Gladwell has accurately represented the research on which he draws. This book makes for a fascinating read with a high "stickiness factor" and probably contains more actionable strategic and marketing ideas than most hardcore business books.
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on June 1, 2001
For those aspiring to revolutionary change in any aspect of life (e.g. the Cultural Creatives), this book is a subtle revolutionary manifesto--at a more mundane level it is a sales guide. I like this book because as we all deal with the information explosion, it provides some important clues regarding what messages will "get through", and what we need to do to increase the chances that our own important messages reach out to others.
This book is in some ways a modern version of Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." While more of a story than a thesis, there is a great deal here that tracks with some of the more advanced information theory dissertations, and the book could reasonably be subtitled "The Precipitants of Social Revolutions."
The most subtle message in this book is that substance is not vital--perception is. The contagiousness of the idea, the life-altering potential of the smallest ideas, and the fact that revolutionary change is always cataclysmic rather than evolutionary, will frustrate those who think that years of intellectual exploration will be rewarded with acceptance.
However, despite the revolutionary nature of the final "tipping point", there is actually a clear path taking up to 25 years, from the Innovators to the Early Adopters, to the Early Majority, to the Late Majority. My sense is that America today, with its 50 million Cultural Creatives, is about to cross over from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority stage, and will do so during the forthcoming Congressional elections when we see a rise in Independents and more attention to energy and other alternative sustainable lifestyle issues--hence, this book is relevant to anyone who either wants to promote a shift in America or elsewhere away from consumerism (or who wants to go on selling consumerism), or who wants to seriously revisit what many would call the failed strategies of the early environmentalist, human rights, and corporate accountability advocates.
The book ends on an irresistably upbeat note--change is posssible, people can radically transform their beliefs for the common good in the face of the right kind of impetus. Each of us has a role to play, whether as a Connector, a Maven, a Salesman, or a Buyer, and our role will not be defined in rational terms, but rather in social terms. In many ways, this book is about the restoration of community and the importance of relationships, and it is assuredly relevant to anyone who thinks about "the common good."
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on March 16, 2001
A couple of friends recommended this book to me, so I got a copy to see what they were so enthused about. The author uses a number of interesting examples to support his point that there's a point that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As I went through school and life, I learned the phrase "critical mass" to describe the same concept that Gladwell calls "the tipping point."
I was hoping for more. As a business owner, I was looking for a how-to book, which this could have been. Instead, it's more of an historical narrative. If you like to read thought-provoking case studies, you'll enjoy this volume. It was interesting and entertaining for me as airplane reading. The reader is left to his own devices to explore ways to apply the information shared in the book.
The author is a former business and science writer for the Washington Post, now a staff writer for The New Yorker. This fact explains why the book seems to be a collection of feature stories that might have some sort of connection. Gladwell does organize his presentations, talking about stickiness, the power of context, the power of translation, three rules of epidemics, and the law of the few. I would have liked to see more strength to the reasoning behind the organization.
If you like good stories that look at some familiar-and some not-so-familiar-stories from a different perspective, read this book. If you're looking for a book to show you how to move your product, cause, or company to that critical mass or tipping point to become tremendously successful, keep looking.
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on March 5, 2003
This book seems to have done well only because it has the attraction of the gullible audiences who read the business self help books that are all so similarly vacuous. There are a few interesting points here (perhaps where networks are concerned), but what is troubling is the authority Gladwell feels he possesses with the "evidence" he has to back up his theories. Few of the studies he provides conclusively support his ideas, and some of the studies themselves come to dubious conclusions provided he portrayed them correctly.
THE TIPPING POINT is really an example of poor social science from an author who has obviously read a freshman year psychology textbook at some point in his life, but who doesn't give much thought to what you can reasonably infer from statistical data. He tries to explain the world with his "tipping point" theory and, in order to accomplish the task, he simplifies complex processes like crime and smoking to a point where his "theory" becomes more like a marketed product than science. This isn't too surprising. After all, he wants to show how marketing can change the world.
Gladwell says he's not a Connector. But he's also not a Maven who's in the know. He's a Salesman, and if you're not careful, he's likely to persuade you into buying this book.
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on November 8, 2003
Books like this one are useful, even if for no other reason, because they give you simple terminology with which to grasp ideas that are intuitively obvious, but heretofore without any real conceptual framework with which to express them. For example, I'm interested in the stock market and have always been fascinated by the way stocks will tread water for a long time, then for no apparent reason suddenly double or triple in value, or drop like a rock. I'm also interested in military history and am intrigued by the way large battles often hang in balance for hours until a few soldiers achieve a breakthrough at one point in the battle line, collapsing it within minutes and triggering a sudden rout of the opposing army. Now I have a convenient word to use when trying to describe these things: stock market moves and military battles are both determined by "tipping points". It's a measure of how far reaching this idea is that Mr. Gladwell at no point in his book even mentions the stock market or warfare, or many of the other areas to which his central idea could be applied. He focuses more on what he calls "social epidemics", like teen-age smoking, and on marketing campaigns. This book is aimed at, probably more than anyone else, marketing professionals, whose jobs can be defined as the development of programs designed to lead to tipping points for their products. The essential phenomenon Mr. Gladwell is getting at here is the arithmetic of exponential growth as applied to the social transmission of ideas and information. If I tell two people about something, and they each tell two more, who in turn tell two more, and so forth, it doesn't take too long before my little idea has enough critical mass suddenly to hit the front page or, depending on its nature, make me rich. That's the tipping point. The trick, of course, is boosting the idea with the momentum necessary for it to sustain itself through this transmission process, and it is to this that Mr. Gladwell devotes his attention. He reduces it all to three variables that he calls The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. Having laid out these concepts, he then goes on to describe how they work through an array of "tipping point" applications. This is all very interesting as far as it goes. The problem with the book is that, unfortunately, it never really goes much beyond the realm of Pop Sociology, i.e., one compelling idea forced into a slick and ultimately shallow formula. His three rules, which he elevates into repetitive dogma, are real, but they ultimately fail to explain very much that's not pretty obvious once you've thought about it, and they leave much unexplained. The other problem is Mr.Gladwell's proclivity for digression. He's a science writer by trade and is in love with the mechanics of scientific research. In developing his "stickiness factor" idea, for example, he devotes over 30 pages- more than 10% of his entire text - to describing the exhaustive focus-group research employed by the creators of Sesame Street as they sought to sequence material in their show in such a way as to rivet the attention of children. Similarly, in his discussion of smoking, he tells us much more than we need to hear about the biology of nicotine addition, and he tends to run on like this about every topic he introduces. I actually found most of this interesting enough in its own right, but totally off the subject, and if we reduce The Tipping Point to it's relevant substance, what we would have is nothing much more than a short, provocative essay. Having said all that, I still enjoyed the book and recommend it. Mr. Gladwell is an excellent writer, and his book is lively and easy to get through, digressions and all. It's also been hugely successful, introducing the title phase into contemporary business jargon and illustrating the author's thesis by creating a kind of literary tipping point of its own. However, it would be interesting to see the main ideas stripped of the pop veneer and explored in greater depth at some point in the future.
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