Post-Adolescent Power Fantasies

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Julian Sanchez, a frequently sighted figure in these parts, takes on Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell in Ars Technica:

Gladwell's model, which has itself become something of a cultural epidemic, posits that a few hyperconnected "influentials" are the key to the runaway viral spread of fads, fashions, ideas, and behaviors.

These pivotal individuals, according to Gladwell, determine which trends will wither on the vine and which will "tip," becoming mass phenomena. But [Duncan] Watts, a pioneer in the mathematical modeling of social networks, has tested the "tipping point" hypothesis, both empirically and in computer simulations. As it turns out, according to Watts, it's just not true. There are exceptionally well-connected folks out there, but they're so swamped by ordinary individuals that they can't account for genuine cultural cascades, which result not primarily from the activity of social "hubs" kick-starting trends and broadcasting them to the masses, but average Joes and Janes passing them on to other average Joes and Janes.

The whole argument is here. Sanchez suggests that one reason Gladwell's theory is popular is because it flatters readers. "How tempting, if you're a marketer, an activist, or just the sort of person who tends to pick up books by New Yorker columnists, to imagine that you have it in your power to launch a runaway cultural phenomenon just by targeting a few key people. Why, you may even be one yourself!"

Elsewhere in Reason: Sanchez interviewed Watts in 2004. I criticized another Malcolm Gladwell theory in 2002.

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  1. Bellweather by Connie Willis is a fun little SF novel exploring the Tipping Point theme. A researcher finds a hyperinfluential fad generator, and is shocked to find the effect is really and the fad generator is complete clueless as to what she’s doing and the power she wields.

  2. “effect is real

    That’s it. I give up. I wanna go home.

  3. I’ve read the Willis book. It’s very entertaining, and I recommend it.

  4. My suspicion is that there are, in fact, influential people, but that their influence doesn’t give them a blank check, and their importance is as much or more as indicators of the predilections of the masses than it is as “leaders” or “directors” of trends.

    E.g., If a “mover and shaker” in music circles likes a song, they’ll introduce it to many people who are also likely to like it, and it will spread rapidly as a trend. That doesn’t mean that if you get that same person to start praising the latest William Hung album, they’ll convince anyone else to listen to it.

  5. Gladwell’s model, which has itself become something of a cultural epidemic, posits that a few hyperconnected “influentials” are the key to the runaway viral spread of fads, fashions, ideas, and behaviors.

    So who were these influential folks responsible for (in my lifetime)

    Coonskin caps
    Disco
    Paris Hilton
    Pet Rocks
    Baseball card collecting
    Bottled Water
    etc. etc. etc.

    Glad to see the theory debunked.

  6. The latest William Hung album?

  7. The problem here is that Watt’s work doesn’t, in fact, address the crux of Gladwell’s thesis.

    Watt’s models preempt all the social interactions Gladwell describes as vectors for cultural epidemics.

    As far as I can tell, it’s just a ho-hum piece of “well, that’s obvious” research that, after the fact, chose to attack a well-known writer in a rather flawed attempt at controversy. The actual results seem to in fact support Gladwell’s contentions.

  8. Coonskin caps – Fess Parker and or Walt Disney
    Disco – The Bee Gees (or the Philly Sound if you’re looking for the roots)
    Paris Hilton – ? Arguably, whoever was writing the Page Six column in the very late 90’s
    Pet Rocks – Not a clue.
    Baseball card collecting – Boomer nostalgia and greed.
    Bottled Water – The Stone Cutters
    etc. etc. etc.

  9. remember when ars technica was a tech website? those were the days.

  10. Sanchez suggests that one reason Gladwell’s theory is popular is because it flatters readers. “How tempting, if you’re a marketer, an activist, or just the sort of person who tends to pick up books by New Yorker columnists, to imagine that you have it in your power to launch a runaway cultural phenomenon just by targeting a few key people. Why, you may even be one yourself!”

    Whether it flatters readers depends on who the readers are. The idea that the masses are responsible for these phenomena is flattering if you like thinking of yourself as a member of the masses. Most people do. Otherwise there’d be more libertarians…

  11. Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Florida, Virginia Postrel, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman have achieved varying levels of success peddling half-baked theories that flatter readers.

  12. Don’t forget Marx-Engels, Chomsky, and almost all politicians (including the good ones).

  13. By all means, let’s have our theories fully baked.

  14. Joe Strummer | February 1, 2008, 5:24pm
    Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Florida, Virginia Postrel, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman have achieved varying levels of success peddling half-baked theories that flatter readers.

    twv | February 2, 2008, 7:45pm
    By all means, let’s have our theories fully baked.

    I prefer to have my theories Easy Baked with a 40-watt bulb.

    The secret ingredient is love, dammit!

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