Sunday, August 09, 2009

The tipping point; stickiness; and scale

Malcolm Gladwell's analysis on how small things can be responsible for substantive changes is an enticing read, and there are some similarities to an actor network intent; there is a mystery to unravel. However, Galdwell seems a bit too keen to attribute causative features down to the few things, rather than the many.
He describes ho (some) changes occur with a contagion like effect. If I look at the stats for Youthline's mobile phone text counselling service, there's been the exponential growth, it started small, grew in smallish increments, then starts doubling. All this with advertising that in no way is synchronised with such growth; first when it was launched- and even here the adverts could have been confused with the greening of a philanthropic company, the new free texting phone number has barely been advertised- once in tearaway magazine.
When I talked with 2 users of the service, neither had been consciously influenced by the advertising. One had known of it through extended family and one by associations with happier times, a presence at yoth events. This is something that is worth recognising in the committment of this community organisation to 'building the brick mother'.

Gladwell defines the tipping point as the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.... a sociological term: "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." There are growth curves that happen exponentially, but being actor network theory inclined, I disagree with the unstoppable. I accept the exponential nature of viral contagion, but he doesn't talk of what happens next, because such fads as he mentions also stop, such viruses do outgrow their nurturing environments and grow beyond sustainability. The conditions that made for the event, can also alter- because of that event or for other reasons. Things can always configure differently. If I pour boiling water on an agar plate the doubling stops...if the conditions that make for cheap texting stop, so too could the demand for Youthline's texting service.

In the liklihood of such changes moving socially, Gladwell also talks of stickiness. This is a concept that is also discussed by community of practice writers such as Wenger. The point of difference actor network theory might bring to these accounts is that stickiness can be held because of the nonhuman actor:
When Em texted Youthline, she could keep the responses on her phone, a cell phone's memory is 'sticky', unless actively deleted its a reminder. She kept them "because they felt good". The messages provided ongoing affirmation. The other thing she did was push a message saying "Youthline does txt counselling 4 free, # 234 and sent it to 6 people and she had sure knowledge that one of these people sent it to another 12. The forwarding function provides an ease of conveying the message; this message too is 'sticky'. Unlike the game called either 'Chinese whispers' or 'broken telephone', accuracy stays intact.

In actor network theory terms, its also about the cellphone as a non human actor having attributes that create the conditions that make something more likely to occur.
At the same time, it takes a network, not an individual. Gladwell's argument is based on the 1967 "Six Degrees of Separation" study by social psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Milgram distributed letters to 160 students in Nebraska, with instructions that they be sent to a stockbroker in Boston (not personally known to them) by passing the letters to anyone else that they believed to be socially closer to the target. The study found that it took an average of six links to deliver each letter. Of particular interest to Gladwell was the finding that just three friends of the stockbroker provided the final link for half of the letters that arrived successfully. This gave rise to Gladwell's theory that certain types of people are key to the dissemination of information.
In 2003, Duncan Watts, a network-theory sociologist at Columbia University, repeated the Milgram study by using a web site to recruit 61,000 people to send messages to 18 targets worldwide. He successfully reproduced Milgram's results (the average length of the chain was approximately six links). However, when he examined the pathways taken, he found that "hubs" (highly connected people) were not crucial. Only 5% of the e-mail messages had passed through one of the hubs. (Wikipedia re Gladwell's Tipping point)

What remains essential is the work required. Rather than multiconnected individuals, that might make the physical movement of a letter easier, the electronic actor has no such limitation.The absence of an intimate relationship makes it very easy to ask to have a message passed on. Who these days would willingly cross countries or states.
The electronic medium creates an easy option, cheap cost wise and effort wise. Clay Shirkey in Here comes everbody explains this in terms of cheap transaction costs. Lowering transaction costs provide a platform for communities of practice. The potential only evolves though, only picks up speed because of the ubiquity of the message carrier, the tool allows for increasingingly rapid communication.

Cascading knowledge of a service also results in increased scale for the service to meet demand. A challenge then for how to get counsellors up to speed with providing the service...but perhaps more importantly just as more is different, faster is different. How to manage multi conversations occurring simultaneously?

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