Sunday, February 10, 2008

What causes the tipping point?

Many of you may know that I'm a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's The New Yorker articles, and his two books The Tipping Point and Blink. I've given countless copies of the books away to friends, talked them up, I even wrote a post a while ago over at my personal blog about how Blink reinforced one of my goals of publishing books in which minorities and other underrepresented groups are featured in children's books (revisit that post here).

I've also recommended The Tipping Point to my authors who were thinking about ways to market their books, because I love what it says about how little things can make a big difference, that you never know which of your efforts will cause that "tipping point" and help make your book successful. So I was a little upset to read an article last week about network-theory scientist Duncan Watts who has somewhat disproved some of Gladwell's theories, in particular that of the "taste-makers" and connectors who are pivotal in deciding what things will be popular.

Watts decided to put the whole idea to the test by building another Sims-like computer simulation. He programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of "infecting" another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The "people" in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability--some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society run--in a very crude fashion--according to the rules laid out by thinkers like Gladwell and Keller.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

Watts concluded that "a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend--not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded."

Initially, my main takeaway from reading this article was that it was all more of a crap shoot than I had previously thought. But then I realized that, in a way, it was almost comforting, because we don't have to be overly concerned about whether we're marketing something "right" or not--we just have to do our thing and hope that society is accepting. It's a little disappointing to think that merit plays very little into the results, but it also pretty much confirms what we all know--we all see books succeed that we consider to be, er, let's just say not so good, and wonderful books that fail to attract notice.

All I can say is, keep doing your thing, try to get as many people to know about your book as possible, and hope that all factors are aligned for you.


Libby Koponen said...

Maybe I'm just not understanding the math here, but it seems to me that his study is based on 2 things that aren't true:

*the simulated "people governed by a few simple rules" -- real people are more complicated! We're always governed by more things than anyone can even know about themselves.

*that all the ideas were equally appealing.

Yes, I totally agree that what will make it big and what won't is unpredictable....but I think that's because the books themselves appeal to a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons (most of them unsxplainable and irrational)...AND that timing, luck/chance, and, yes, marketing, play a role too.

One of the best examples: the article by THE TAO OF POOH author that Anna either blogged or emailed about awhile ago.

I agree, though, with YOUR conclusion and that this is all comforting. All we can do is keep doing our thing and hope for the best -- or get into another business! OK, you didn't say the last part. But those are the two choices I see and I like both of them better than thinking if I can only figure out how to market things properly, my stuff will sell.

Laura said...

I agree. As an artist I have decided to stop doing what I think is the "right move" and instead I am following my own bliss.... that's why I made the aliens for Meghan's book. I think we all have to keep in touch with our hearts, do the best we can, and keep going!
Thanks alvina. Great post.

Meghan McCarthy said...

This is so interesting. I agree and disagree w/the new argument. The guy was using a computer model, for one, and we all know that computers aren't people! Secondly, if we think of this in terms of publishing it's obvious to me that if you target
The Influencers--I this case librarians and teachers (people who reach WAY more people than the normal individual)--then The Tipping Point's argument is correct. It's only logical. But I totally agree that the public has to be ready and willing for the influence to work.

What I thought was a more pertinent argument was when the article talked about music. Watts claimed that good music does well and bad music does bad but what makes something that runaway hit is completely unpredictable. I think this is very true in publishing as well.

Thanks for posting this Alvina!


Libby Koponen said...

Yes, great post -- thanks!

Unknown said...

What a coinkydink.
Based on your blog posting and how passionately you spoke about "Blink" at the Austin SCBWI Conference, I was ready to go buy it sight unseen at my next outing to Barnes & Noble.

...But just now as I was about to go to bed I discovered that my wife, who's into all things Deepak Chopra-Tony Robbins- The Secret- Wayne Dwyer, had just recently bought Blink herself. Soon as I can slip it away from her I'll start reading it too.

-Mertin Thomas