Sociologist Duncan Watts raises questions about Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept of the tipping point in a Fast Company article by Clive Thompson: Is the Tipping Point Toast?

Watts suggests that, while the idea that there are small groups of influentials who drive taste is intuitively appealing, discovering how or even if it happens is, in practice, murky at best. He suggests that it should be operationalized and tested. However, his attempts to do just that have not supported what Gladwell refers to as “the Law of the Few.” A sample from the article:

My models might be totally wrong,” he says cheerfully. “But at least I’m clear about what I’m saying. You can look at them, and tell me if you disagree. But none of these other thinkers are actually clear about what they’re saying. You can’t tell if they’re wrong.”No researcher, he points out–including Keller [author of The Influentials–ever analyzes interactions between specific Influentials and the friends they’re supposedly influencing; no one observes influence in action. In essence, Keller appeals to common sense–our intuitive sense of how the world works. Watts thinks common sense is misleading.

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. “They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‘Okay, these are the Influentials!'” But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

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