WMW Day 1, Malcolm Gladwell talk

First of all, I must rate the WebmasterWorld conference on the most basic needs: Wifi 9/10, power 5/10 (outlets at the edges), coffee 5/10 (far away and infrequent).

The opening talk was by Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point (which I’ve read), Blink (which I haven’t)), and unfortunately for me, it was all rehashed Tipping Point. Still, he’s a fun speaker. The Tipping Point seems awfully dodgy if you think of it as social science, but as journalism it’s fab. And it did give us the terms “maven” and “connector”, which now seem indispensable…. Live-blog style notes follow:
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Gladwell on the first radio broadcast of a boxing match (one of the first “matches of the century” Dempsey-??), in 1921. Great idea, but he didn’t have a transmitter, and not enough people owned radios yet. So Sarnoff from RCA basically pilfered a transmitter via an Army contact, then persuaded union halls and bar owners to put radios in specifically for the event. Tipping point for radio.

Initial appeals to authorities failed not because they didn’t believe in the promise of radio, but because they thought it would take much longer and require a lot of infrastructural investment.

Seatbelts – advocacy initially failed because it was viewed as government intrusion. Was reframed into a state-by-state campaign, focused on seatbelts for children. Children themselves became advocates. Tipping point for adoption – went from 10% to 60% in a couple of years.

Ipods as the tipping point for MP3 players – not the first, not the best, but marketed not as a technology (consumers did not want more tech complexity at this point), but as fashion accessory, with no model choices available.

Sarnoff (RCA) was a connector. Most people have approximately the same number of people in their social set, but some have orders of magnitude more. Test: how many people’s birthdays do you know by memory? Most people can name four or five, some can name far more. Non-connectors have friends from diverse social groups. Gladwell himself says hes he’s a non-connector, and knows three social groups: his extended family, people from his college in Toronto, journalists in New York. Try to create the Harry Potter craze through him, and will die out in those three groups. What distinguished Paul Revere from the other dude who rode through towns trying to wake people up was that everyone knew Revere already.

(An argument begins to become apparent.) Social power (that connectors have) is becoming more important as people become more able to self-select their contacts to be like them. Example: Biggest shift for teenageers in recent decades is decrease in time spent with adults. Each new tech advance for teens has alllowed them to substitute peer time for adult time.

Mavens: Almost no one knows the prices of supermarket goods (the big box of Tide, the big box of cornflakes). People pay attention to “Special” signs. What stops supermarkets from cheating, and labeling terribly high prices with Special signs? It’s because 1 person in 100 does know, and in the supermarket industry, mavens like that are known as “price vigilantes”.

On the back of the wrapper of an Ivory soap bar, you’ll see “For questions and complaints, call 1-800-xxx-xxxx.” Now this is crazy, right? Who could possibly have a question or complaint about a bar of soap? Answer: the Soap Maven! Keeping this channel open is a good idea.

Why is there such variance across companies in percentage of people who sign up for 401ks? One study found the most predictive factor was: inverse correlation between number of fund choices offered and signup rate. Overwhelmed by choice.

Overall thesis: social power (mavens, connectors) becoming more important, not less.

From Q&A – which would he give up if he had to: search engines or blogs? Gladwell would give up engines and keep blogs. Needs the quirky individual lines of thought, can’t find them through search.

1 thought on “WMW Day 1, Malcolm Gladwell talk”

  1. Often wondered myself who ever calls the 1-800 #s on bars of soap!

    I liked TP as a sometimes fascinating read but upon reflection it wasn’t immediately apparent to me how the just-concluded story Gladwell told so well buttressed his larger point.

    The two bits I liked the most were 1) the Canadian flu story which really demo-ed tipping over and 2) the asian tourist to japanese spy story which showed how some messages travel faster because they are ‘simplified’.

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