Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Talk of the town

I’ve been dipping into Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I’ve come to the book late after enjoying his masterly Blink. The tipping point is a pretty old theory as theories in modern culture go – and it’s not Gladwell who’s responsible for it, but Nobel-winning economist Thomas Schelling. (So, in a neat example of the tipping point, Gladwell made the tipping point into a… tipping point.) The book seeks to examine how and precisely why some things take off into the stratosphere and why some things… don’t. As a literary editor in these difficult times, you can probably guess why I’m reading it. Unfortunately, the book can’t turn you into a worldwide cultural phenomenon – although it does highlight the factors and context required for that to happen. Why it’s essential reading for everyone is because what it explains is the seemingly irrational, from skinny jeans to Sesame Street, by demonstrating that there’s nothing irrational about it at all.

The central question is: what makes for an epidemic? And one of the most interesting questions within that is: who are the carriers, exactly? The answer being connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors are those who bring people together. They have wide social networks and are very strong in forging large numbers of long-lasting, friendly acquaintances (better at this than, say, forging a long-lasting, intimate circle of friends). Mavens are the super-savvy. The people who know everything about a product and what it’s worth, and where (and don't need any prompt to tell you so). Salesmen, of course, are the great persuaders. The compelling and charismatic (Kate Moss in her skinny jeans). If you're all three personality types, congratulations! You’re probably a billionaire. Or Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s the first two types who have spread one of the most important epidemics the world has ever seen: the internet. Central to the internet’s success is the world of the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) acquaintance, from the early days of the listservs to the modern day forums, from personal blogging to the Guardian’s Comment is Free (with this latter type of blogging, the same usernames reoccur, over a wide variety of topics, with alarming frequency), from Second Life to Facebook. Before corporations truly anchored themselves in the internet through online buying, the internet mavens were the tech-savvies, the founts of all knowledge. The kind of people who knew everything about everything. And spent a good deal of time debating the finer points with other mavens who also knew everything about everything. A trawl through modern day forums show they still exist. And how. But it was precisely because of them that the online buying experience proved so wildly successful and ‘made’ the internet. The internet appealed to the maven, just as the needs of the maven influenced it. The internet became both an agent and a context for the social epidemic; indeed, the agent and the context were the epidemic in itself. It removed a lot of the information asymmetry (inequality) that meant that businesses could charge us what they wanted because we, the consumers, didn’t know what it was actually worth (see Freakonomics) and made information easily available. Price comparison websites are now everywhere on the internet. Discount retailers such as and Amazon dominate entertainment sales. The internet broke out of the confines of a virtual world and influenced the real world, too. Life and car insurance, dvds, your average lawnmower are all cheaper as a result, even if you don’t buy online.

But in this online world, the salesmen were and still are… the salesmen.

The recent Amazon scandal over censorship highlights the darker side of social epidemiology for the businesses it has spawned. Amazon have now claimed that the disappearance of LGB works, together with other books that contain adult content, was the result of an innocent ‘glitch’. Alas, the connectors and mavens beg to differ, as Twitter and Facebook attest. The internet has brought these two types together, and now they talk to each other. In fact, the internet is turning us all, by degrees, into connectors, mavens and… the salesmen. A life lesson in the conventional (but none the less accurate for that) wisdom: what can make you can also break you.

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