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?
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.
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.
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.