Blink: it’s The Tipping Point for the Long Tail

In a nutshell

In a nutshell

It’s annoying, and worrying, when theories go pop.

Yesterday I mentioned two theories that were influential – or, at least, among people interested in social media – but which have since been debunked. Today, I read about another one, and I recall yet another one that had serious doubt cast over it a while ago.

So which one is next?

Two down…

The two I mentioned yesterday were the theory of the Tipping Point, and the Long Tail.

The Tipping Point is a book by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he claims that certain factors need to be in place for mass behaviour suddenly to switch from one state to another, namely a core group of influential people, a strong message, and an environment ready for change anyway.

It all makes great sense. It’s logical, well written, cogent in argument and persuasive in narrative.

Such a pity, then, that it turns out it’s all partially wrong.

Duncan Watts, a Columbia sociologist, has created mathematical models that, well, show the Tipping Point theory to be unsound.

I’m a big fan of maths, not least because I can’t really do it and I’m terribly jealous of those mysterious individuals who can.

I do understand that maths isn’t perfect. Any analysis can fall foul of  garbage in/garbage out – that is, if you put incorrect data in then no amount of mathematrickery will get correct data out – and I appreciate that even very clever people can add instead of subtracting somewhere along the line and just get it wrong (I believe that’s the dark terror for most mathematicians – that their beautiful mathematical tree might have a broken twig in it somewhere).

But I like the rigour of maths. I like that aliens, anywhere, will have maths and that we’d be able to understand it. So, given Gladwell’s largely anecdotal analysis and Watts’s mathematical model, I’ll go with Watts.

So much for the Tipping Point. Next up is the Long Tail.

The pet of Wired editor Chris Anderson, the Long Tail briefly states that removing the barriers of cost and geography, you can make a profit from scarce products.

So, while it makes no sense to stock pink-and-yellow spotted dresses in a shop in Cardiff, for example, because you have to pay for the shelf space and no one in Cardiff actually wants to wear a pink-and-yellow spotted dress, it’s entirely possible that people in, say, Pigsknuckle, Arkansas, might.

If you have a website that sells these dresses, then it’s about as easy for anyone in the world to access it online, so you can still stock them with a fair degree of confidence that someone, somewhere can and will buy them.

Similarly, given that it costs next to nothing to store an MP3 file on a server and deliver that to people, you really can make money on a single sale of David Essex‘s greatest hits each year, because you don’t have to include cost of storage or shipment.

Simply put, you can make money out of niches. Again, it sounds great. Entire businesses exploit this model, such as Amazon or Ebay.

But wait. Here come the professors again. Anita Elberse is Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, and she’s taken the time to look at the data.

And guess what? The Long Tail theory doesn’t quite seem to hold water. Blockbuster hits – that is, the opposite of niches, the ‘head’ of the long tail – are in fact growing in dominance, and the niches seem just to be small diversions.

So a purely long tail business model is unlikely to make money.

Sure, long tails exist – you can see them everywhere, in blog metrics and keyword analyses – but can you make money out of them? Well, can you? Suddenly we’re not so sure anymore.

… one to go

The particular theory supernova I read about today was that of Blink, a book I have on my shelf right in front of me now but haven’t actually read yet.

Blink is another of Malcolm Gladwells’ travails, in which he states that you can make equally good (or bad) decisions on the hoof, as when you really sit down and think about them. It’s a bit like comparing, thematically, Dali’s ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening‘ with Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ or, technically, Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’.

Given that I haven’t even found time to read it yet, I was dismayed to find that this isn’t true either. A new study to be published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology reckons that really, you do make better decisions when you think about them properly first.

Actually I suppose I should be relieved that the theory’s been found to be false. I’m not a particularly impetuous person so I’m glad that I’m doing the right thing when I think about it because it means that, if my life is in tatters, at least it’s in tatters with good reason.

Next up

And this brings us to a theory which was questioned some time ago.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki is another book that I also haven’t read yet although it is also on my shelf. However, I’m familiar with its argument: that mass, interlinked intelligence can prove more effective than individual instances.

So, if you ask a large number of people to guess, say, the number of coins in a jar, they’re more likely to be more accurate than if you just ask a single individual. Alternatively, get many people to manage a football team and it might just perform better.

Problem is, apparently this works in some cases but not in others. If only a small number of people have enough information to make a good decision it goes badly wrong. That’s why, despite everyone being convinced there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there weren’t. Not enough people had enough information to make even semi-accurate judgements (and those who did have the intelligence were less than semi-intelligent).

So this theory sort of works, sort of doesn’t. It seems to fall foul of two others I’ve already covered – garbage in/garbage out, and the Long Tail. That is, any decision will only randomly be correct when you have bad, or little information; and within any population there will only be a few ‘fit’ individuals, with a long tail of people who are not.

What now?

Where does this leave us? I have a image in my mind of a small series of nuclear explosions – possibly from having just mentioned WMD – in which each theory is going up in smoke.

So which trendy, as-yet-untested, geek-influential theory is next? Which among the other books on my shelf will I have to bin soon?

Here are my predictions:

  • Small World. Mark Buchanan theorises that stunningly small numbers of connections in any network can wire up stunningly large numbers of things – people in social groups, nodes in brains, electrical power grids, Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood actors*. Academic study shows that, in fact, it’s all totally random, and that most networks can be approximated by dropping spaghetti from a large height. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster takes a keen interest.
  • Wikinomics. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams posit that if we can all just be open and honest and work together in perfect harmony the world will be a better place. A prominent pyschologist puts this to the test and discovers that, while some of us can be open and honest all the time, and all of us can be open and honest some of the time, most of us are basically untrustworthy, dishonest and unhealthily introspective. A global market recession closely follows.
  • Freakonomics. Steven Levitt applies alternative economic thinking to important scenarios. For example, what would happen if teachers cheated, rather than students? He is later found to have lied.
  • Linked. Albert-László Barabási – the man with the world’s most typographically-augmented name – makes us tremble with fear, not only at the difficulty of typing all those weird characters, but at the weakness of networks in which the ‘fittest’ nodes are also the biggest and therefore most vulnerable. Could the web collapse? Sophisticated mathematical models, rigorously tested using grid computing and refined through subatomic collision analysis at Cern’s LHC show that no, actually, it’s worse than that, the entire cosmos is dependent on a small species of lizard found only in the Congo. Unfortunately the models fail to indicate exactly which one, or what colour it is.

* The Oracle of Kevin Bacon currently seems to be broken but I can reveal that, having bought my flat in London off Cliff Parisi before he became famous as ‘Minty’ in Eastenders, I have a Bacon Number of 3 owing to Kevin Bacon having worked with Val Kilmer in Top Gun, who was Simon Templar in The Saint, which featured Cliff Parisi as a pub waiter. This means that, by implication, you, reader, have a Bacon Number of 4.

17 thoughts on “Blink: it’s The Tipping Point for the Long Tail

  1. @Peter – can’t say I’ve read Black Swan, but having seen a few reviews, it feels like a very ropey interpretation of Karl Popper’s falsification theories on the philosophy science:

    @Brendan – if you want a good book, try Richard Koch’s 80/20 Principle. It may be over 10 years old, but I still think it stands up. Curiously, Koch used the term Tipping Point in his book – and though I’ve never read Gladwell’s Tipping Point, it does feel like a badly interpreted version of 80/20. As for The Long Tail, many have said it is a rebuttal of 80/20 – but the Havard Business Review piece you link to seems to be a total vindication of the 80/20 Principle. In a way, Koch pre-empted discussion about the Long Tail back then when he used the book sales example to explain why you should be careful what you apply 80/20 to ie it is not the fact that 80pc of sales come from 20pc of titles, but that 20pc of a book sellers customers buy 80pc of the books. In other words, that’s why a book seller needs a broad enough range to meet the demand of their most prolific buyers.

    Hell, even Tim “4 Hour Work Week” Ferriss admits the heavy influence of Koch’s book.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Gladwell seems to me to take a sociological viewpoint – that there are people who influence, messages that people understand and can readily convey, and a society ready for change.

    The Harvard Business Review, I think, points out that blockbusters will always be blockbusters – but that mass interlinking, while making the long tail apparent, also augments the head of the tail. It seems that people tend to return to the head rather than the tail – so, more hits, while the number of niches stays the same.

    I like good books that remain intact in their thinking, however. I’ll check out the Koch book.

    Meanwhile, possibly the most brilliantly timeless book you should get your hands/eyes/brain on is Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It aims to put across the central tenets of Artificial Intelligence – which I came very close to studying at Sussex University under Margaret Broden – via a heady mix of logic, art, and hippy mysticism. It succeeds in part, fails in others, but operates at exactly the right level to be universally relevant and curiously timeless.

    In a strange way, nothing to do with social media whatsoever, but well worth a good old read nonetheless.

  3. Oh, and Peter – I’m not trying to shaft any theory! In fact, my point in this post is to show how *other* people are shafting theories, while I stand in the middle somewhere scratching my head and wondering what to believe. It just seems to me that we’re very prone to following the latest trendy theories that just don’t stand up to academic scrutiny. Perhaps we should all go back to banging the rocks together…

  4. During your review of the various theories, I can’t help but think of the e.e. cummings poem, All Ignorance Toboggans into Know. The poem is about how we actually strive for ignorance only to slide back into knowledge again as people’s attempts to codify life and events never quite hold up. Thanks for a great post!

  5. Totally with you on Godel, Escher, Bach – I first read it back in 1983 and have re-read it several times (the inspiration for calling my business escherman…..). Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum is one of the towering intellectual achievements of all time – up there with Einstein – and clearly deserves wider recognition and credit. I too might have gone down an AI route . I studied philosophy at Edinburgh University – I was accepted to do a PhD in logic and philosophy of science – however, couldn’t get a grant to do it, so got a job instead – would have been part of Edinburgh’s multi-disciplined School of Informatics, bringing together philosophy, computer science, linguistics and AI. One day maybe, one day….

  6. Hey, Edinburgh was also on my list at the time! This was many, many, many years ago when I was figuring out what I wanted to study. In the end I took IT at Salford Uni. It was very much business practice rather than academic theory. And you know what? Since writing that comment yesterday it’s also popped into my head that I’d like to revisit AI…

  7. The debunking of Blink seems to give a very oversimplified summary as to what Blink is about. Gladwell isn’t saying that for every decision or situation that instinctual decisions beat out thought out ones, always. He is saying that people with experience in certain situations instinctual have an ability to make off the cuff predictions and judgments that are correct without realizing they are doing it. Quite often these people go on to make more thought out decisions, but may times the decision was made in a split second whether they realized it or not.

    Having said, I am sure not of these theories or their debunking are perfect, and I strongly support the dialogue that both produce. Making people think is always the goal. Thanks for gathering these.

  8. Duncan Watts work doesn’t disprove the Long Tail – it simply suggests that influentials aren’t absolutely essential to the spread of an idea – which makes sense.

    In fact, behind the headline coverage, it actually supports the Tipping Point in that Watts models showed those ideas that did go through an influential spread further and faster.

    And by the same token Anita Elberse’s work doesn’t disprove The Long Tail theory – just the exact relationships between the ‘head’ and the ‘tail’

  9. Personally I’m a “yes but no but” fan with all these types of books. No theory is likely to be perfect (as they are generally abstractions and look for patterns rather than being able to accommodate life’s great variety).

    However, they do make us think and ideally critically reflect on the ideas proposed. When there’s so much criticism of how the online world is reducing our ability to engage in such valuable activities, thinking about and debating concepts has to be healthy, even if we end up saying “yes but no but”.

  10. Hi Dan,

    Sorry I didn’t respond earlier.

    Anita Elberse does actually say, after describing the flattening of the tail, that “it is therefore highly disputable that much money can be made in the tail.” I don’t see how this conflicts with my statement that “So a purely long tail business model is unlikely to make money.”

    With Duncan Watts I’m not sure what you mean by his reference to the Long Tail, but I guess when I said the Tipping Point theory had been debunked, I was going along with the article title: ‘Tipped over: social influence “tipping point” theory debunked’.

    I think I was also probably influenced by the parts that read ‘As it turns out, according to Watts, it’s just not true. There are exceptionally well-connected folks out there, but they’re so swamped by ordinary individuals that they can’t account for genuine cultural cascades, which result not primarily from the activity of social “hubs” kick-starting trends and broadcasting them to the masses, but average Joes and Janes passing them on to other average Joes and Janes.’ And the bit where it says ‘When I interviewed Watts back in 2004, he dismissed Gladwell’s theory: “We knew 50 years ago that this model was wrong.”‘

    Perhaps he’s just concentrating on the key ‘influentials’ as you say. So, I’ve amended the post, from ‘all wrong’ to ‘partially wrong.’

  11. Spot on as usual. I usually avoid “popular” business books on principle. The narrative is so self-assured and convinced of its own arguments that as a reader it is very easy to swallow the blue pill without challenging the main principles. Maths beats philosophy every time.

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  13. Pingback: I Am Nostradamus. Am I Nostradamus? I, Nostradamus, am. « Brendan Cooper, your friendly neighbourhood social media strategist

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