Is the tipping point dead?

Is the idea of the tipping point dead? In this article, Fast Company explores the research of Duncan Watts. Watts, using social modeling, looked at the tipping point theory, and came to the conclusion that it just doesn’t work.

The tipping point has been marketing gospel for years now; expounded in a book by Malcolm Gladwell, it argues, in short, that “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.” (Summary here.) Tipping point theory has been very influential in viral marketing, particularly Gladwell’s “Law of the Few,” meaning that rare, highly connected people shape the world.

Watts disagrees. I if you want the details, read the article. It’s a well-written summary of the research, and the people who disagree with the research.

I think the article should be required reading for anyone interested in behavior change or social marketing. It’s got some really great stuff on how trends are born. Considering how much of the work we do in development relates to getting people to adopt something new, it’s extremely relevant. The comments on the article are really useful, too – they are a nice microcosm of the current debate on marketing and influence.

Creating community –

I’ve been keeping tabs on a lot of interesting efforts to create community, both in real life and online. I think that creating community is key to behavior change, and behavior change, as I have said before, is key to just about everything.

One thing which has interested me is the Kimkins scandal. Kimkins is a very low-calorie diet plan promulgated primarily through a website, When looked at objectively, the Kimkins plan is completely nuts. It’s low calorie enough to wreck your metabolism, and makes no nutritional sense. The people doing the diet, though, are committed to the community of which they are part.

It has turned out that the woman who created the diet has no nutritional background, and did not in fact lose all the weight she claimed to have lost. There are pro-Kimkins sites to be found, such as this one, and a plethora of antiKimkins websites. On both sides, what everyone is most intense about is the Kimkins community. Was it betrayed? Is it in denial and needs to be saved?

The community in question is a web-forum, but it has created a passion, and an impact on human behavior that is more than many geographical places could. Wouldn’t it be amazing to harness community power like that to create positive change?

Taxis and word of mouth

This article about using taxi drivers as brand ambassadors says nothing about taxi drivers disclosing that they are paid to talk about this website. I suspect this will end very badly.

Ethical nuances tend to come on the heels of, not right along with, new business models, but in the case of word of mouth advertising, it’s been pretty clearly established that you need to disclose you’re being paid. This kind of thing is cutting edge only to people who haven’t been paying attention.

Using cab drivers as information sources is old news. Every journalist in the world has used his airport cabbie as a source if he can’t find another one, and the development world has been working with cab drivers to spread health information. There’s a nice example from PSI here.

"They are kept by very poor people, and they don’t want to stay poor"

I have thought for a long time that one major reason for globalization is that everyone in the world wants the same things. Most regional diversity results from scarcity, not preference. McDonalds, for example, takes over because fast, greasy food is what most people actually want. Seen that way, global homogenization is fulfillment, not loss. That doesn’t keep it from being very depressing.

This New York Times article on African Akyole cattle does a really nice job of explaining the trade-offs of modernizing agriculture, and, in my opinion, the dangers of public-private partnerships. Excerpts (emphasis mine):

“For countries on the equator, I think in almost all cases the Holstein is very poorly suited — maybe the least-suited breed,” says Dr. Les Hansen, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert in cattle genetics. Often farmers are making decisions that are informed not by science, he said, but by sales pitches devised by multinational breeding concerns. “As I travel the world,” Hansen adds, “my biggest challenge is countering all of the misleading marketing propaganda.”


Many tropical breeds may possess unique adaptive traits. The problem is, we don’t know what is being lost. Earlier this year, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization released its first-ever global assessment of biodiversity in livestock. While data on many breeds are scant, the report found that over the last six years, an average of one breed a month has gone extinct. “The threat is imminent,” says Danielle Nierenberg, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group. “Just getting milk and meat into people’s mouths is not the answer.