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Anyone Can Be One of the Influential Few

Remember a few years back when everyone was reading and talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point?

The book was a best seller and it didn’t take too long for the concepts Gladwell presented to evolve from interesting theories to accepted facts. Not to mention the foundation of a cult.

In the business world, the result was billions spent by companies on campaigns to find and attract the influential few (Law of the Few) described by Gladwell in order to generate a tipping point for their products.

At least one person, however, now says they’ve been wasting their time and money.

In a very interesting article for Fast Company magazine, the writer discusses research showing that breakout successes are far more random events than Gladwell says.

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Watts also says that he has developed some new techniques for online promotional campaigns that can be far more successful simply “by harnessing the pass-around power of everyday people”

The rest of the article looks at both sides of the issue and at the experiments Watts did to gather the evidence to support his side of the argument.

And it’s well worth reading, especially if you read The Tipping Point and had some doubts about Gladwell’s theories not to mention those followers who turned them into gospel.

All in all Watts makes a pretty good case for us “average slobs” being just as influential as the “opinion leaders” who supposedly can create a tipping point.

So now maybe someone needs to work on the ever expanding cult surrounding The World is Flat.

tipping point, cult, marketing

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3 Comments

  1. Tom

    Sign me up.

    The World is Flat is great for trying to inspire fear but studies of everything from scared straight to heart attacks prove that fear doesn’t motivate people in the long run.

  2. Tim

    Friedman’s book is like many other recent non-fiction phenomena. It makes some good points that deserve discussion but which are not the final word on anything.

    The problem is that some people build a cult around the book and accept every word as gospel. And in this case, the leader of that cult is the author himself.

    I’m not sure that the book itself is based entirely in fear. However, Tom (of Bionic Teaching, not Friedman :-) is right that it has certainly been used that way by those who have completely bought into the concept.

  3. I liked the Tipping Point; I read it in 2007 (late enough that the paperback was on sale). I liked what I read. What I grabbed from it is that in order to make big things happen, you need a combination of forces (to cause the tip).

    My argument would be this: how do we definitely find a “true” maven, or a true “connector”? Will the theory work if they aren’t all up to some level of “snuff?”

    I doubt Gladwell set out to create a cut and dry equation that we could all just apply to whatever we needed to happen. Instead, he recognized a trend, and came up with a theory.

    His ideas make sense, but you have to take them with a grain of salt and some grasp of reality. I have both editions of Friedman’s book and think far less of it than Gladwell’s. Friedman made many sweeping generalizations, and even made some wrong guesses.

    These books are great for inspiring us to think in ways we might not have before. They’re dangerous to folks who take them at face value. I think we agree, Tim. Reminds me of people’s attitudes about the Bible, too. But that’s a discussion for another time and place.

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