Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: The Tipping Point

This was Malcolm Gladwell's first book - but it was not his finest.

Gladwell is a journalist.  He collects interesting stories and interesting research, and tries to find links between the two.

This book is an interesting look at epidemics - in disease, in social ideas, in popular products, in school shootings, etc...

What is "The Tipping Point?" - the point where something goes from slow growth to rapid exponential growth.

Can we cause it on purpose?  Can we make and idea or a product spread like wildfire?  Certainly every advertiser, every political candidate, every business owner has hoped to find the answer.

Gladwell presents very intriguing cases - starting with the shoes called Hush Puppies.  The brand was founded in 1958.  In 1994 the company sold 30,000 pairs.  In 1995 they sold 430,000.  That's 14X more shoes in one year.  How did they do it?

Gladwell says it's because a group of kids in New York City started wearing them (to be different, because no one else was).  A few key designers noticed them wearing these shoes a the coolest clubs, and decided that was "the new fashion."  They started buying them up and using them in their fashion designs.  Then it hit mainstream, and the epidemic had started.

The tipping point was when those few kids were noticed by those with widespread influence.  The kids weren't trying to start a new trend, they just wanted to be different.

There are those who try new things, then there are those who can make that new thing a trend.  Hush Puppies now had both.

Gladwell's book builds on it's own momentum until about 2/3rds of the way through the book.  Then he starts reaching - making comparisons and conclusions that just don't pan out or make any sense. 
It's like he had 5 or 6 great ideas, but was told by the publisher he needed 8 or 9. 

His first great point is about what makes something grow epidemically.  It needs to be "sticky," something that makes a real impact, it needs those few right people to get it going, and it needs the right environment to grow in.

Environment: Sometimes it's not about the people involved, it's about the circumstance. (see this blog post about circumstances determining behavior rather than personality or character)

If the environment is right (like the American colonies on the brink of war) and message is right (the British are Coming!) - you still have to have the right messenger.

The night of Paul Revere's Midnight ride - there were actually two messengers: Paul Revere and William Dawes. 

Revere and Dawes both rode hard, telling people all night along about the impending attack - but only one is remembered, because only one was able to rouse the troops and get people to listen.

Revere knew the towns, he knew the people - he knew who to talk to, and he knew how to spread the message to people who were already in bed.

Dawes tried - but he had no such connections.  He'd knock on doors, give warnings - and everyone would just go back to bed.  He didn't have the influence, the social network, the reputation with the people. 

It's not just about the message, or the environment, it's also about the messenger.

Throughout this book Gladwell gives some great advice - about how to gain real power, how to find the "connectors" (those people who know everyone, and can spread ideas quickly).

He also teaches us about "Mavens" - Those people who are ridiculously passionate about something.  The people who actually call the 1-800 number on the back of Ivory Soap to tell the company about their experience with the product - because they really know all about every kind of soap, have tried them all, and care enough to give feedback.

"Just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect us with new information. There are people specialists, and there are information specialists." - p. 59

There are people like that.  People who care. They aren't doing it to make money, or to sell their information or advice.  They want to share it with everyone - because they've researched it deeply, and they know.

Who do you go to to ask about cars?  or computers?  or investing?  or which school to send your kids to?  Do you know an expert, that person who knows every detail about something that no one else in the world could possibly care that much about?  These are the people that companies want to find and please.  If you can influence the person who everyone else goes to for advice, you'll have the best word-of-mouth advertising in the world.  Money can't buy that.  We all see ads, we all hear about products from friends, but who do we listen to.  Who could make something into an epidemic?

Do we want new information - better information?  Then we need contacts outside our close friends.

"When it comes to finding out about new jobs -- or, for that matter, new information, or new ideas -- "weak ties" are always more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They might work with you, or live near you, and go to the same same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, would they know that you wouldn't know? Your acquaintances, on the other hand, by definition occupy a very different world than you. They are much more likely to know something that you don't... Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are." - p. 54

Overall - This book gets a B+.  It is creative, original, and makes you think.  But it is too long, tried too hard, and should have been 60 pages shorter.

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