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The book that tipped
on 5 February 2006
In the Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell provides an overview on the phenomenon of social epidemics, the underlying reasons that make things tip. The book is well researched with academic contributions entangled with interesting narrative that illustrates the theory. I would have rated the book five stars if not for two issues. Firstly, the book is almost totally lacks critique about the theories and examples presented. Secondly, while the book contains a lot of interesting ideas, the effort to synthesize them is half-hearted.
Mr. Gladwell has a made a great effort in going through a vast literature – mainly academic, but also popular – to find a number of key factors behind the social epidemics and some interesting narrative to illustrate them. However, the book is not at all academic, rather the value of Mr. Gladwell’s writing comes from packaging academic research to simple concepts and explaining these in length through examples. For those interested in details, there are some ten pages of endnotes that explain the concepts more thoroughly and provide references to the original literature.
So what makes things tip? According to Mr. Gladwell this can be divided into three explaining categories: (1) the law of the few, (2) the stickiness factor, and (3) the power of context. The law of the few states that only a very small part of people are behind the word-of-mouth epidemics and they can be categorized into connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors are persons with exceptionally large personal networks, mavens are experts on the “right” market price and on spotting bargains, and salesmen are persons with extraordinary skill to persuade. Stickiness factor refers to small “sticky” details that can greatly boost for instance the effect of advertising campaigns. Finally, the power of context states that people are powerfully affected by the surrounding circumstances in making their decisions.
The Tipping Point provides a way of interpreting what factors have contributed to a certain epidemic or trend. I would have appreciated an effort to synthesize the theory and preferably in a more normative manner, e.g. by providing a framework on how, say, advertising campaigns can be made more effective from the epidemics point of view. Now the focus is on providing somewhat miscellaneous ideas that often are unintuitive, but which have at least some evidence to support them. There would have been a more objective flavor to the book if Mr. Gladwell would have also discussed the limitations of the theory and other explaining factors. For instance, a product might be popular simply because it is superb without particular need of endorsement from connectors, mavens and salesmen; crime in New York might have dropped due to other factors than “power of context” in form of e.g. removing graffiti from the underground (such as the legalization of abortion as suggested in the Freakonomics book). Nevertheless, the Tipping Point is a thought-provoking and interesting book worth reading.