Tipping down

24 02 2011

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

“The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, “is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do.” Although anyone familiar with the theory of mimetics will recognise this concept, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has quite a few interesting twists on the subject.

For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanise 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.

Have come rather late to this international best seller. It seems to me to justify msot of the hype as it is a well-written and persuasive set of arguments. The cases used to exemplify Gladwell’s thesis are compelling but we are left with feeling that this is a partial picture – as with all of the management gurus the cases are well selected but there must be many more which would contradict the arguments. Never mind, it’s still good stuff.

The Malcolm Gladwell book generator is a rather entertaining follow up.

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