Gladwell vs. Watts: Past the Tipping Point

Gladwell vs. Watts: Past the Tipping Point
Christine Huang
  • 5 march 2008

Last week, outspoken network-theory scientist Duncan Watts brought to life his argument against Malcolm Gladwell‘s Tipping Point at the offices of Fast Company. Watts, who’s currently working with Yahoo in lieu of his regular gig at Columbia, argues that the “influencers” whom Gladwell claims, in essence, make our world go ’round, are no more influential than ordinary, non-node individuals. Anthropologist (and PSFK Conference speaker) Grant McCracken was at the talk and offers some interesting commentary in response to the case presented by Watts, whose anti-tipping point theory was featured in Fast Company’s February issue. McCracken’s thoughts:

[Watts] argues that news travels as readily through ordinary people as influential ones. This means that our world is not “hub and spoke”… No, as Thompson put it, networks are democratic. We are just as likely to “get the news” from a friend as we are from a networking paragon.

Even in this narrow form, the Watts-Thompson argument has revolutionary implications for the world of marketing. If their argument is true, it feels like we are looking at a turning point, not a tipping one. Many marketers thought that Gladwell’s model gave them a way to “game” the diffusion effect. All we had to do was influence the influencers and entire markets will fall before our approach…

If marketing learned anything in the 20th century, it is that consumers are smarter than this, that there are no tricks in any case, that the world is not about process, it is stubbornly about content. If the marketer wants influence, the solution remains what it has always been. The answer is to build great products, brands and messages. It is these, and not “memes” or “viruses,” that capture attention and prompt choice.


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