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Malcolm Gladwell – Pubcon Boston Keynote

Posted on Apr 19th, 2006
Written by Lee Odden
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    Pubcon Boston Keynote Malcolm Gladwell, Author “Tipping Point” and “Blink”.

    Due to the odd room layout and audio situation, I had difficulty hearing everything Malcolm had to say – even in the front row. My bad for sitting where I did, but it was a great presentation all the same. Certainly one that has motivated me to finish “The Tipping Point” and to start on “Blink”. Indeed it was another good keynote speaker choice by Brett Tabke.

    Gladwell took the stage and has that same funky ‘fro you see in his photos. He recently launched his blog if you want an ongoing dose of his perspective.

    Through story after story, he related the concepts of “connectors” and “mavens” as well as the notion of “tipping point” and how people let the perception that you always need a big solution to solve big problems.

    He started by relating a story to broadcast a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in the 20’s. It was the first live broadcast of a sporting event. The effect was the “tipping point” for radio.

    Lesson 1 – Change can happen quickly. Sometimes we think that big problems require big, complex solutions. Many people have that mindset when approaching large problems.

    Example, Berlin Wall. In the 80’s most people would have said the wall would take many years to “take the wall down”. In reality, it took a month and no money – once a tipping point was reached.

    Back away from the idea that in order to have a big effect, you have to make a “big” effort.

    Lesson 2 – How was the sports broadcast effective at changing the way people thought of radio? At the time, people were inundated with news from news papers. Radio was associated with news. The boxing match showed that radio can be used for entertainment, something new and exciting. That changed people’s perception of the technology.

    Social Change – most dramatic example of social change – wearing seat belts. Why so successful? Started out with laws, big budget ad campaigns that were not successful. People took it as an intrusion. So, the focus changed to kids. The kids began to become an advocate for wearing seat belts, and parents started wearing them. The issue moved from one of personal intrusion to a matter of parental responsibility.

    Gives example of iPod. Another gadget or a fashion accessory? Apple simplified the presentation rather than focusing on the technology.

    Third lesson – Who is David Sarnoff, the fellow responsible for advocating the broadcast of the boxing match? (as a person, socially/demographic). He’s the kind of guy that can makes things happen, even though he does not have political or economic power. What he does have is social power.¬†¬† Social power is more, not less important, for brining about changes.

    In every group of people, there are always a small number of people (connectors) who know 4-5 times the number of people than the others. Those people have social power. They have the influence to move ideas.They cultivate contacts and spend more time networking. Not only do they have a large social network, it’s a diverse network.¬† They tend to belong to a number of different social networks. It gives them resources to overcome what will stop others from getting things done.

    Related story of Paul Revere. It was not the message, it was the messenger that got the “british are coming” message out.

    People who have webs of networks have tremendous social power. This is important today because of the growing trend in social isolation.¬† Teenagers are increasingly cut off from adult society. Related story of Columbine.¬† Teenagers being unhappy is normal. What is not, is being disconnected.¬† In that kind situation, then alternative methods of connectivity between social groups (Internet) start to have power. It has nothing to do with money, or political power. It’s the power that comes from the culmination of social contact.

    Subject matter expertise and social networks based on having that specialized knowledge.

    Consumers do not typically handle lots of information very well. Example 401k program. It was found that the more fund options the lower the number of signups for 401k programs. Too much information leads to indecision.

    It’s not only political and economic power that’s necessary to solve problems. Social power is a third kind of power that can be very effective or more effective at solving problems.

    Q:  What are your thoughts on social networks such as my space and facebook?
    Gladwell:  Those kinds of networks eventually become victims of their own success.  Growth becomes unmanageable and the core group moves on to something else.

    Q: How will you know what is true in the future
    Audience laugh
    Gladwell:¬† Perhaps you’ve confused me with Plato.¬† Polling a group rather than relying on a select few individuals is a radical way to find truth.

    Q: Search Engines – connectors, Bloggers – mavens. Can they co exist?
    Gladwell:¬† (I’m paraphrasing)¬† Finds formal search engine less and less useful. Finds less formal networks more useful. Blogs are part of that. If you’re curious about information a search engine can help you find that. A blog can provide a new lens from which to understand things.¬† Gives examples of a chemist blog, that reading about the world through the eyes of a chemist has influenced how he sees things.¬† To pick search engines or blogs, he would lose the search engine.