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Debunking Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’

June 20, 2011

This is an interesting article that looks at counter-views to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, The Tipping Point, which argues ‘The Law of the Few’ where a select group of ‘influencers’ have a key influence over the trends of society at large. Herb Schaffner’s article argues that Gladwell kind of missed the point – in that yes there is something interesting going on with trends, but no its not the influencers who are the most important point. First off the article looks at Gladwell’s reliance on the 6-degrees idea of psychologist Stanley Milgram:

Gladwell drew on the work of psychologists such as Stanley Milgram who did experiments testing the social chains between people–what is known today as “six degrees of separation.” Milgram found that “sociometric stars” were a key to shortening the chain of connection to your desired target. But Watts staged his own experiment that updated Milgram’s work, and in doing so, uncovered different findings. … [Watts discovered] that highly connected people–the hubs or influencers–played no significant role. People selected the next person in the chain based on qualities such as living in geographic proximity, sharing occupations, and other factors more so than being heavily connected, or having high status.

Another key point is around the definition and role on this mythical ‘influencer’;

Watts points out we all talk so much about influencers, we’ve accepted the term without knowing its definition. Are influencers ordinary people with extraordinary reach? Are they celebrities or “opinion leaders” as they were named in earlier stages of pr theory? Even if we were to exclude bloggers, media, and Oprah from our definition–how then do we measure how an influencer impacts the opinions of others? Watts says some studies measure an influencer as someone whom at least three people say they would turn to for advice. But that scale — reaching people who are three times better connected than others — does not move the millions of people marketers, political campaigns, and brands need to reach. Stripped of the media spin, an influencer’s clout is limited without the amplifying power of the Internet.

Put simply, influencers are only that because of the media amplification afforded them. Which means it is less about their influence and more about the broadcasting of their ideas. With that definition, then anyone can be an influencer, all you have to do is re-broadcast what they say. This article takes the ideas of trends and places them firmly back in the crowd setting and away from a perceived band of elite people.

(Also published on the P2P Foundation blog, Hat-tip to Michel for the link.)

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