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Q&A With Malcolm Gladwell: Connecting Facebook, Jimi Hendrix, and Steve Jobs

with 4 comments

As I mentioned in a prior post, I had an opportunity to do a quick “walk and talk” interview with The New York Times best-selling author and New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, changed the way many of us think about the way information is shared and disseminated, and how individuals influence one another and, in turn, the crowd.

In many ways, Gladwell was well ahead of his time in that this key book really pre-dated the advent of the widespread use of social media and media democratization, and what his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki later came to term “crowdsourcing.”

In the few short minutes I had to speak with Malcolm as we walked over to his book signing, I asked him about this evolution and some of his other key “memes.”

Turbo: Thanks for taking time out of your busy day to speak with me, and great job on the keynote today.  You know, I saw from some background material about you that you had majored in history, and I was interested in finding how you came to write about social science.

Gladwell: I don’t even know, really.  There were so just many interesting insights from the social science world that never saw the light of day.  And as a writer you’re always attracted to areas where you can uncover things that people aren’t familiar with. And there was just so much so opportunity in social science, that that’s how I got interested in it.

Turbo: Looking back at The Tipping Point, and recognizing the year that it came out (2000), to my mind your work really pre-dated a lot of the things that have come about around social networking and crowdsourcing. I’m curious if you’ve gone back and really thought about the implications in the book, mavens and so on…how does that play out now online, if at all?

Gladwell: Interesting.  Two things, I think.  The online world, I think, amplifies the power of people, so a connector can become even more connected, a maven can be even more influential, a salesman can be more persuasive.  That’s part of what’s going on there.

But I don’t think the Internet automatically turns all of us into socially influential people.  I think the same patterns have just been imprinted on it or just been magnified.  But the other thing, I think, is that the paradox is now that it makes face-to-face encounters more important.

The scarce commodity now is the kind of thing you can only get in person. So to the extent that I was interested in very personal forms of influence, I think that message is even more crucial than ever. I mean, I think that in a world where anyone can communicate with you so easily, someone can get in the door and have a direct encounter with you, is going to have even more sway, and create a great competitive advantage.

Turbo: That’s great, thanks.  Getting back to the themes of the conference, your book Outliers seemed to me to rely more on data…I may be wrong…but for my money, it really seemed to demonstrate the value of hidden gems in data sets.  Kind of like what you were talking about today in the keynote. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”  So I’m curious how you came to identify the trends in the book of things like the birthdays of the hockey players and correlating their performance, and also the correlation of the famous IT executives’ birthdays (Steve Birthday, Bill Joy, etc.).

Gladwell: Well the IT thing was…I don’t know how I stumbled on that.  I just started talking to all these guys and was just struck by how they were all just about exactly the same age.  You know, I interviewed Bill Joy, and then I interviewed Bill Gates, and they were both about the same age. And then I realized, Steve Jobs is about the same age! And you know, then I did a search and you know, so many of them are!

And of course, there’s a logic behind it because I had stumbled across earlier, in the sociological literature, the importance of the 1830s, which was this magic decade for rich people. So I was looking for that kind of pattern.

You know, last night at dinner we were talking, and you could do the same thing with guitarists. All of the great rock ‘n’ roll guitarists…almost all of them, with one or two exceptions, like Jimi Hendrix…are white English males, born between the years…it’s like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson…these guys, they’re all the same age, and they’re all from the same little country, right? So you can play these games endlessly, these pattern games.

(I got this last question in as we approached the book signing table, which already had a line around the corner.)

Turbo: So let’s end on this.  If Blink focuses more on the opportunity to listen to intuition more closely, and Outliers focuses on both data and the group contribution to success, where in the middle do we as humans meet?  Where is the sweet spot for both individual and collective progress?

Gladwell: Oh wow, that’s a huge question…We’re always talking about individuals, so I sort of leave that to others. I like to think much more about collective community processes.

Turbo: Okay, thanks a lot for your time.  Appreciate it.

Gladwell: Thank you.

Written by turbotodd

October 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm

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