Tipping Point theory unbalances, falls off pedestal

A fascinating article in Fast Company magazine about the research being done by Duncan Watts to empirically test the famous tipping point theory of Malcolm Gladwell.

In essence, Watts sets up simulated worlds with strict constraints. Some are controlled through AI agents, while others rely on real-world input from thousands of human volunteers. The results are, to my mind, pretty compelling:

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built ... an online music-downloading service ... filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands [then] recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened ... in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different ...

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable ... So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown--and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset.