I’ve heard The Tipping Point mentioned several times in the past week by influential marketers and technology pundits, and it’s giving me an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
First some background. In 1999 I left my job as the Sympatico “community guy” to work for a startup in SF called ThirdVoice that promised to change the way people used the web by enabling them to leave “sticky notes” on any website. I didn’t know it then, but by the time I arrived in September, ThirdVoice had already reached its nadir four months earlier when the three founders had made the cover of Forbes.
ThirdVoice epitomized the rallying cry of the day: “sticky” applications were hot because they gave people a new means of communication – a seemingly unfettered method of staying in touch with friends across the Internet. Is this sounding familiar yet?
One of the company’s trio of Singaporean founders, Thai-Wey Then, loaned me a copy of Gladwell’s book because I had been given the challenge of re-architecting the tool so that it would encourage more engagement and fewer one-off notes (sorry TW – send me your address and I promise to return it :-). In other words it was my job to make the sticky tool stickier. At the time, we all believed that ThirdVoice had reached its own tipping point, and we were convinced that there was some small as-yet-unforeseen silver bullet that, when applied correctly, would shove us over the edge towards a Facebook future.
Alas it was not to be. Gladwell’s theory that small groups of individuals – connectors, mavens and salesmen – are the key to spreading ideas like viruses through society was compelling but didn’t help us make ThirdVoice into the latest influenza. While we redesigned the software to promote discussions, it’s easy to see in retrospect that the idea of having thousands of disparate, unconnected discussions on a million plus websites was a flawed idea from the get-go. Possibly because of this, I developed a hunch that the Tipping Point was biased towards the role of individual actors over the structural conditions (lack of broadband, poor computer usability, the year of dot-bomb etc) that clearly played major roles in ThirdVoice’s demise.
So now you understand that when I hear The Tipping Point invoked as a how-to manual in social networking and word-of-mouth marketing circles, my Spidey senses begin to tingle.
Many many things have changed since then, and since the goals were eerily similar, it’s worth a deeper dig.
In the early days we thought of ourselves as builders of “community”. The focus was on the group. The tools and approaches were explicitly built with a leveling effect that reflected the hippy-ish leanings of those earnest young ideologues that have been setting out to populate new frontiers for centuries. And I’m not ashamed to count myself in those ranks.
Many of these communities still exist and many many more have been created that are flourishing. But somewhere along the line someone realized that what people really wanted wasn’t the focus on the group, but on themselves. So instead of listing the groups and new discussions on the home page, the new applications – Facebook, MySpace etc – launch with a picture of YOU, YOUR friends and what YOU’RE interested in. While the best community systems back then would show you all the posts YOU hadn’t seen yet, they hadn’t taken personalization to this extent.
And what a significant step it is. I would argue that the pendulum has swung so far that the group has suffered and what we’re left with is something vaguely resembling a phone book of your Dunbar number. Ivor Tossell even thinks we’re “all a bunch of phonies” but I would say that this all ignores the fundamental fact that we’re ALL ON FACEBOOK. The tipping point came and went and now we all have at our disposal an incredible communication tool that we really don’t understand the import of – yet.
Has technology created more connectors or Mavens? Probably not. Has it given us all the tools to connect to people faster and broadcast messages a lightening speed? Absolutely.
I’m a little dubious about our ability as marketers to tap into connectors and mavens and utilize them, because I know from experience how hard this is. But this is already too long and I’ll have to tackle that in another post 😉