Saturday, July 07, 2007

Review of Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point

Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point is a famous book. It was not a great book, or even a good book, but perhaps a not bad book. Basically he took a bunch of famous and some not so famous incidents that seemed to involve a bunch of people and trends that seemed to emerge, and wrote about them and put them all in to a book, and tried to make a point. The point was that there is a system to understanding the "tipping points". I thought the point fell kid of flat, and was not really well argued. He took the lessons of the hipster Hush Puppie shoes, the sudden drop in crime in NY, the Bernie Goetz incident, the Zimbazrdo prison experiment, the success of Sesame Street and Blue's clues, teenage suicide in Micronesia, and a few other things and claimed that there is a time where trends hit a "tipping point" and they take off. There is also a special kind of people who make it happen, and it can only happen if the message is sufficiently "sticky".

As far as the drop in crime is concerned, I tend to be a fan of Leavitt and Dubner who attributes it to the legalization of abortion. Gladwell did not know of Leavitt and Dubner when he wrote the book, I presume.

Gladwell attributes all these tipping points to mavens, who are enthusiastic about products they are experts on, Connectors, who are really social people who know all sorts of people and Salesmen who love selling good products. These people are responsible for all the big tipping points in history.

There is an interesting example about the rule that 150 people seem to be a maximal community size.

He also has an interesting suggestion about a way to slow down the smoking epidemic that is so sensible that it is certain to never be adopted. He suggests that teens will smoke regardless of what adults do. So instead of trying to stop them from smoking, you should just get them to have too little nicotine so they won't get addicted. There is a reasonable belief that lowering the nicotine levels of cigarettes will stop people from becoming addicted.

As a whole I did not love the book. And while the examples are a mixture of the things everyone knows and some interesting well chosen anecdotes, the thesis of the book is not clear. It attempts to be a social scientific explanation of why some things take off and some don't, I don't see the causal mechanism that accounts for the success of say, the sales of the book The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. To tell me that suddenly mothers started coming to the readings with their daughters, just doesn't explain why it happened, or how it could be reproduced, or it could have been predicted from the nature of the books' audience. . .

It is a quick read, so you wouldn't be wasting too much time figuring out what all the hype was about. Maybe Blink, his other book, is better.

1 comment:

Shira said...

I'm afraid I had the same reaction to Blink that you had to The Tipping Point. It didn't seem like much of a revelation at all. I figured Blink would be more fun to read. I thought Blink would be more like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, but it just wasn't that fun at all. Count me out as a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I expected a better read.