Is the Tipping Point Theory False?

A fascinating article by Clive Thompson in Fast Company reveals the interesting work of Duncan Watts:

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) –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….

"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."

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That’s because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."

(hat tip Tyler Cowen)

3 Responses to Is the Tipping Point Theory False?

  1. a0z0ra says:

    Good news for me :) If everything is totally random, then I have my chance of being the next Big Thing.

  2. I think Gladwell makes a good point that the answer most likely lies somewhere in between. He explains:

    “In the end, though, I suppose that I feel the same ways about his insights as I do about Steve Levitt’s disagreements with me over the causes of the decline in violent crime in the 1990s. I think that all books like The Tipping Point or articles by academics can ever do is uncover a little piece of the bigger picture, and one day–when we put all those pieces together–maybe we’ll have a shot at the truth.”

  3. Krishna says:

    Influentials theory is not a fallacy as it seems. Trends have several triggers. I see Watt’s repudiation of Gladwell’s influentials thesis running not so deep. The difference is just that Watt replaces the identity of Gladwell’s hyper-active “celebrity influential” with that of a “random outlier” or the *average slob* as he puts it. What sustains the trend is more important than what starts it off. Pleasant sensory appeal wins the first look-ins, utility drives wider adoption and cool quotient stimulates an osmotic contagion. It will be difficult to pin-point which one is the major driver. If the trend has to be sustained, it’s not enough to have all these elements present; users should have open channels for two way conversations and the enterprise had better listen in. Then, have the good sense to exploit it before the next fad appears.

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