Monday, January 19, 2004

Book Review - The Tipping Point

The book "The Tipping Point", by Malcolm Gladwell, has been out for a while. I just finished reading it, took me about a week... ah, the benefits of no more school! Here's some notes.

Gladwell tries to describe the tipping point mechanisms of social epidemics, such as word-of-mouth marketing, fashion fads, and crime waves. As he sees it, there are basically four rules to social epidemics:

  • The Law of the Few - in social networks, there are connectors, mavens, and salespeople. Connectors are people who know lots of people. Mavens are people who know lots of things about particular subjects. Salespeople are people who can find or share a vibe with an audience. Between these three kinds of people, ideas spread.
  • The Stickiness Factor - presentation of information is key to retention and action. Gladwell goes into great detail describing the mechanisms that make Sesame Street and Blues Clues so wildly popular with young children. Based on circa 1960s academic thinking on child development, Sesame Street uses a video magazine format, 3 minute segments, and mixed fantasy and human characters to teach basic knowledge such as numbers and letters. Developed from more recent child development theories, Blues Clues implements a single story arc to keep children engaged for a full 30 minutes. In both cases, simple changes to the content have had profound effects on its stickiness with children. (I personally found these discussions very enlightening, and now I watch these shows with my son with a keener eye.)
  • The Power of Context, Broken Windows - simple environmental traits can have a dramatic impact on the people in that environment. For instance, Gladwell describes the crime epidemic in New York in the 1980s, and how removing graffiti and cracking down on turnstile jumping, relatively low-level crimes, had dramatic effects on the entire crime rate. The Broken Window theory suggests that subtle queues like broken windows make people care less about other aspects of the environment, crime raises, and the cycle feeds on itself. By fixing the little things, the feedback loop is cut.
  • The Power of Context, Magic 150 - group dynamics break down after it reached 150 people. From decades of experience, the U.S. army organizes its troops into groups of less than 200 soldiers each. Businesses like Gore, Inc. do this as well, with amazing effects. On a physiological level, the size of the neocortex is directly proportional to the number of social connections that animals can maintain. If you're building teams, keep them under 150 people, and if they grow larger, split them up to keep group unity and performance high.

As with most books, these are interesting points to ponder. His case study on teen smoking didn't quite connect for me, though, and was poorly related to a teen suicide epidemic in the remote island nation of Micronesia. In his after-word, he addresses this ill-formed comparison, and makes a stronger identification of the rash of Columbine-like incidents in schools across the U.S. (It seems to me that the Law of the Few and the Stickiness Factor have little influence on this epidemic, and that we must focus our attention on the broken windows.)

Gladwell also addresses the impact that the Internet has, with all its new communications channels, on social epidemics. His argument is that many of these channels are being overloaded, and once again, we must resort to personal connections in order to filter useful and wanted information. I think we're seeing this now with the faltering of email under the burden of spam, and perhaps with the rise of weblogs as personal broadcasts.

Finally, Gladwell offers a very compelling case study. A nurse in San Diego wanted to spread the word about diabetes, but found traditional forums lacking. So, she turned to beauty salons. She took the beauticians, who are often natural connectors, and turned them into mavens. She also seized on the captive environment of a beauty salon, where women spend anywhere from 2 to 8 hours at a time.

All in all, a good read. The key takeaway for me is that an epidemic doesn't need to follow all of these laws to spread, but rather, focusing on any one of these laws can have a significant impact on the rise or fall of an epidemic. (I'm also reading Electric Meme and Crossing the Chasm... I suspect there's going to be a lot of overlap here :-)

11:13:47 PM    trackback []     
Creative Class - flocking elsewhere?

This one is for Paulette:

Richard Florida, economic development guru and originator of the Creative Class meme wrote a thought-provoking, thorough, almost polemical essay in the Washington Monthly. His thesis: that current U.S. policy discourages creative and intelligent individuals from coming to this country. While homegrown talent may be seeking greener pastures abroad, the big problem is that top scientists, artists & entrepreneurs no longer see America as the place they have to be. Florida places the blame squarely on the Bush administration's post-911 xenophobia.

The Smart Mob implications for this are that talent will flow to the most receptive communities. Greater mobility for individuals, greater economic value for individual skills, and a global information network create the conditions for the creatives and the thinkers to flock to wherever conditions are more favorable.

Thanks to Alex and Jim!

[Smart Mobs]

10:04:33 PM    trackback []     
Happy Birthday to-Me
My birthday is on Friday (no, I am not saying which one...after the 40th, I started striving to mentally obliterate the ever-rising I am old enough that my memory is going, anyway.) Already, this birthday is shaping up to be better than las [Susan Mernit's Blog: Navigating the Info Jungle]

(Sung to the tune of Bill Murray impersonating Marolyn Monroe)
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday Susan
Happy Birthday to you!

10:04:16 PM    trackback []     

Early word of Sprint's new video phone
No photos, but Sprint PCS Info has some details on the Samsung A700, which they think might be the first Sprint phone to allow video... [Gizmodo]

I've been exploring the world of blogblogging for the last month or so, since I got my Treo 600 and started snapping pictures of my son for his grandparents. I can definitely imagine moving from capturing single images to short video snippets and posting them online. The upload process will need to be asynchronous... in fact, multimedia phones will need to be much better customized for moblogging than they currently are. It will be interesting to see how the A700 does on this point.

10:02:28 PM    trackback []     
US Senator calls for P2P Summit

This could be very interesting.

BoingBoing pal John Parres says:

Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) is back in the news. Last fall the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chairs, scrutinized the RIAA's crackdown on file-sharers. Last week during a Consumer Electronics Show panel he said, "With the advent of technology such as peer-to-peer networking, law, technology and ethics are now not in synch. We need to find other ways to solve the problems rather than issuing lawsuits and lobbying Congress to pass tougher laws." Now, lo and behold, he is planning to convene a peer-to-peer (P2P) summit within the next two months. (Story link)

The Senator says, "I believe we need the technology experts, the computer industry, the peer-to-peer industry, the software industry, the entertainment industry, the privacy experts and the business experts to come together and discuss positive and meaningful solutions to this challenge facing a major segment of our economy." A voice of reason in the Senate? I for one am hopeful.

[Boing Boing]

3:27:04 PM    trackback []     
Esther Dyson, queen of comedy

The echos of WishClick reverberate:

I know I know - it is like poking a rattle snake with your foot. But I am feeling feisty this morning. Now that Esther Dyson doesn’t really have anything to say about anything (smart guy in her company is doing his own thing), she has decided that comedy is the next big thing.

Dyson got the biggest laugh by suggesting a business model for Sunnyvale-based Friendster, the popular social networking service and a company that has yet to collect any revenue from its users. Populated by lonely singles looking to line up dates, Friendster should start a personal gift registry, Dyson said. The bottom line would be: “If you want to date me, this is what you’ve got to buy me.” (San Jose Mercury News)

Yup, that’s a new business model, so new that every generation has been doing the same since Adam and …

[Om Malik's Broadband Blog]

3:13:06 PM    trackback []     
Powers of 10 and the Universal View

Interesting Java applet that shows you a view of the universe at scales ranging from 10 ^ 23 (10 million light years) to 10 ^ -16 (100 attometers).

2:54:35 PM    trackback []     

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Steve Cooley
Tony Gentile