A lot of time has been spent dissecting Gladwell’s work in the past 9 years, so I won’t go into my own criticisms. I’ll try and stick to the positive and spend some time on stuff that resonated with me, or that I’ve seen actually work “in the wild”.
The importance of group size – aka Dunbar’s number. Gladwell gives many great examples of why group size matters, including why the Gore company splits its factories into smaller groups never surpassing the number 150. Essentially, splitting people up into smaller groups helps form more effective bonds. It’s why I generally prefer startups to big companies. It also has import for social media, and those trying to build online community. It’s impossible to keep track of conversations in huge online groups, but more importantly, your brain simply can’t keep track of that many people.
We’ve all seen the resulting disconnect, where individuals become disenfranchised from the organization and lose sight of the bigger picture. At Bell there was a famous story about how the first DSL lines were installed in a depressed neighborhood in Toronto, because it was closest to the central office (i.e. easiest to install). Now, this is just bad judgement, but it’s less likely to have happened in a small company where the engineers would have closer ties to the marketing types.
In a related point, it was clear to me long before Gladwell’s book (shout out to Lisa Kimball, Group Jazz) that there is a natural chasm between early adopters and the silent majority. And that getting past this chasm is all up to the connectors and mavens, or what we call moderators and superusers in online community. These individuals, and their ability to mobilize, goad, encourage, coddle, and otherwise inspire the silent majority to post/participate/share is at the root of what makes a community reach “critical mass”, or an idea/product start to spread through society like a virus. More on this later…