Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sticky ideas


Made to Stick has just come out, a book inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. Rather than dealing with idea/diseases on a theoretical level like Tipping Point, Made to Stick tries to develop a practical guide to effective communication using Gladwell's principles.

I have to admit, my response to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point writings--and his writings more generally--is that Mr. Gladwell is not much of a thinker.

Gladwell reminds me of some of the folks I went to grad school with, who were great at throwing together plausible sounding ideas from all over the damn place and drawing startling conclusions without stopping to wonder whether a) those inspiring ideas were actually right, as opposed to interesting; and b) whether those ideas actually went together the way they thought.

Gladwell starting off with the identification of ideas as viruses immediately loses me. There are, of course, analogies to be made between ideas and diseases. Before mass communication, ideas were spread person to person (word of mouth), just like a lot of diseases. Other diseases spread through vectors that touch a lot of people's lives, like water sources. And some ideas spread through such vectors: newspapers and television. So we'd expect a "catchy" idea and a virulent disease to have similar looking patterns of propagation.

But that doesn't mean that ideas are themselves anything like viruses, or that the analogy can be pushed any farther than this.

One big difference most would immediately point out is volition: we can pick and choose ideas we wish to propagate or condemn or ignore. Not necessarily that we always so choose--we may involuntarily store and pass along certain ideas with certain "catchy" qualities, but our purposes play a role, and an important one in the big picture of what gets spread and what doesn't.

This isn't the case with diseases. You don't choose smallpox over cholera because you're more of a smallpox person.

The difference between someone like me and someone like Gladwell in explaining an idea is that he looks first to some quality of the idea to explain why it spreads. I'd look to the motives of the people. These are themselves essentially ideas, I realize.

For me, though, the system of ideas is incredibly complex, and there is absolutely no point in claiming we can look at a particular idea or expression and pass anything like absolute judgement on its "virulence." What would help an idea in one culture will kill it in another. What will help in one year will kill it in another.

Subtracting that complexity--what I call (admittedly shorthandedly) "volition"--is essentially to give up on the task of explaining why and how ideas spread before you start. Starting with "idea as disease" as your central metaphor is like explaining the weather by starting with the "storm system as brick" metaphor. In some ways a storm system is like a brick--it is a physical entity, it can travel through the air from place to place, you can get hit by one much as you would get hit by a brick. But nearly everything that's important about storms, their movement and behavior is entirely unbrick-like. And the differences are all in the direction of greater complexity and less predictability.

Just look at fashion. Are there general principles that can scientifically be applied that will cause a garment to succeed without fail? Not that I've heard about. And those people who are able to produce successful collections year after year are more than anything keen observers of the tenor of the times, rather than observers of general principles.

For this reason, when people begin to look for the general principles of "what makes and idea stick" or "what makes for success" what we usually get are reworkings of well-known rules of thumb, as one Amazon reviewer notes about "Made to Stick," or Polonian absurdities, like E.O. Wilson's formulas for literary success.

The successful venture in this field will not start with the notion that we've just got to find some common virulence factors in ideas themselves. It'll start with a theory of human socialization, as ideas are nothing but a currency between humans, NOT parasitic entities.