Sticking It to “The Tipping Point”

I’d like to believe that I’m not one of those snobbish academics who is biased against best-sellers.  There are lots of great best-sellers.  For example, I really dug The Da Vinci Code and Into Thin Air among others.  It is entirely likely that I was biased against Malcomlm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference before I even started reading.

Last semester I took an in-depth course on social network analysis and a survey course on media effects research.  Also, last winter I heard this “On the Media” piece and found its problemization of the claims made in Gladwell’s book quite compelling.  At the time I actually read the guest’s article over at FastCompany.com.  Thus, I’m willing to admit that I’d heard a lot of the arguments against The Tipping Point before I’d actually read The Tipping Point.

Generally, I found Gladwell’s book to be long on examples and short of valuable content.  Part of me feels like he’s stating the obvious with the thrill of discovery.  I agree with the author that people and their context do matter and that small change can have a big effect (anyone who’s ever added one pinch too much salt to a spaghetti sauce knows this intuitively).  My issue with The Tipping Point, and what I find so compelling about some of the critiques of the book, is that it only makes sense as a top-down phenomenon.  It works for things like fashion, new technology, or even public crimes like school shootings.

I think the theory falls apart when you start to talk about things like “why do all the women at my gym where the same style of gym short?”  (By the way, I am actually interested in why everyone wears these new shorts so if you know, let me know).  Nobody’s told me about these new shorts, and I don’t hear anyone talking about their shorts in the locker room.

Perhaps I want to believe that my choices are not (indeed cannot be) determined by an select group of outsiders.  In “Is the Tipping Point Toast?” Clive Thompson explains that:

‘If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,’ Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public’s mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an ‘accidental Influential’.

To me, this is the perfect explanation for why spaghetti cat is a viral success (and getting press on E!’s “Talk Soup”) while the videos I’ve made for PPSD are stalling at about 140 views.

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