Monday, February 21, 2011

Sorry Malcom, had to do it

Last Friday night, I went to an open mic night in Lehigh University's Lamberton Hall. The event was being sponsored by a new student club called "The Music Box." The club, created by senior Ben Singer, aimed to unite all of Lehigh's musical talent in one place. Singer had been telling me about the club and their planned open mic nights for weeks, and while I didn't have the musical skills nor the self-confidence to perform myself, I was excited to see a bunch of my talented friends performing on stage. I started talking to all of my musically inclined friends about the show, asking them if they were performing, and if not, encouraging them to do so. And apparently, I wasn't the only person Singer had told about it. By the time Friday night rolled along, the Facebook event had over 120 people marked as "attending," and over 15 bands and artists had signed up to perform (if you go to Lehigh, you know that its hard to even get 20 people to commit to an event, much less over 100). And while the show was originally planned to last from 7-10, the massive interest pushed the event another 2 hours later, and it was rescheduled to last until midnight. During the day on Friday, everyone I talked to seemed to be buzzing about the show- which of their friends were playing, when they were scheduled to go on, which artists you were absolutely going to be blown away by- it seemed like everyone was going. And sure enough, when I got there at 8, the place was more packed than I had ever seen it (and that's including a performance by The Cool Kids my Freshman year where the attendance was approximately 75 people, which helps prove my point that Lehigh kids don't show up for anything). The show ended up being a total hit, with all the musicians receiving raucous, encouraging ovations, and I even think I saw a little bit of crowd-surfing going on at one point. Side note: if you're interested, the Music Box is having another show this Thursday at Godfrey Daniels on 4th St Bethlehem, BYOB

So what, if I may borrow the terminology from Malcom Gladwell, caused the show to "tip"? Why did the open mic succeed where other student events had failed? Was it because Ben Singer is a "connector", or a "salesman"? Was it because of other students like me, who were acting as "connectors" and "mavens", telling as many people as possible about the show, hyping it up and letting people know crucial details like what time performers were scheduled to go on, or how early to get there to ensure you got a good seat? Maybe it was due to the "power of context," and people were just piling on the bandwagon, going because that's where everyone else was going on Friday night. Or possibly it was "the stickiness factor" that had to do with it, and everyone remembered the event because they got a well worded facebook invite from a friend.

Most likely, it was a combination of any and all of these aspects, working to some extent or another, that caused the success of Friday's open mic. The fact that The Peeled Labels, a band that has already had some success at Lehigh, were performing certainly couldn't have hurt. Also, the news that Robbie Sherrard, a fairly well known Lehigh comedian, would be playing his hit song Rathbone only added to the hype (By the way, if you haven't checked out Robbie's blog yet you're definitely missing out, I've never even met the kid but I just started reading it this weekend and it had me in tears from laughing so hard). In fact, every band and performer that came up on stage seemed to have a substantial backing of friends and supporters cheering for them. The more I looked around at the audience, the more I started recognizing these relationships. Every artist and every band seemed to have a dedicated section of supporters, to the point where by the end of the show I couldn't have picked out a single person from the audience who didn't personally know someone performing on stage.

Looking back on it now, I'm nearly 100% certain that these relationships were what caused the success of Friday's event. I tried to figure out if I, or Ben Singer, had acted as a "connector", "salesman," or a "maven" in this scenario. I re-read Gladwell's chapter on "The Law of the Few" to try and rehash my definition of these terms, and what I found... well frankly, it left me unsatisfied. When defining what makes insurance agent Tom Gau a "salesman," Gladwell says:
"He seems to have some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond what comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him want to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likability. It's all those things and yet something more."
Really Gladwell? The definition of salesmen, one of your three key "agents of change" in the tipping point of epidemics, is "indefinable?" This was the point where I realized that Malcom Gladwell is little more than a journalist attempting to formulate some sort of sociological theory out of witty anecdotes and faulty inductive reasoning. Now before I tear the guy a new one, I must say that he writes incredibly well. His ability to paint a story with numbers and statistics is matched only by the likes of authors like Steven Levitt (I know you've seen the business students carrying around their copies of Freakonomics like its the bible). But his detective work would make Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson cringe. He uses specific examples to prove his larger point, often implying that correlation=causation and that because an example applies this time, it must always apply. The more I read, the less I found the book useful as a social theory and the more I found it useful as a collection of positive successes in business and social epidemics. Books blog Brick and rope gives a great example of this faulty reasoning as it relates to the anecdote about crime in New York City:

Steven Levitt, in Freakonomics, takes on this same crime rate data and draws a much more believable inference in my mind. Levitt links the reduction in crime in NY (and LA and many other major cities that saw similar reductions in that time frame) to the Roe vs Wade supreme court decision. Making abortions legal, in his view, dramatically reduced teenage childbirth and unwanted, single parent children at the margins of society. This is what reduced crime twenty years later when that generation entered adulthood. A much more believable theory, and more consistent with all the facts in the last (like the reduction in LA crime, where there was no 'zero tolerance' policy by the police). Gladwell, you feel again, has crafted a theory and stuck with it, facts be damned.

Personally, I like to rely on the idea of close social relationships which drive individuals to action. A few weeks ago, I announced proudly in my J325 class that I was the only person in the room without a twitter account. Secretly though, I had been considering creating a twitter since the class had begun. Many of our conversations in class revolved around what was trending at Lehigh, or who had tweeted what to whom. I realized that the main reason I didn't have a twitter account was because nobody else I knew did. And after spending ever increasing time reading the hashtag #j325, and clicking from account to account in an attempt to keep up with what was going on in Lehigh's journalism department, I finally realized the value of twitter (and subsequently caved to the pressure by creating an account).

Like the attendees of the open mic night last Friday in Lamberton Hall, I had been persuaded to join in not because of the "stickiness factor" involved with twitter, nor because of a compelling "connector" or "salesman" had sold me on the idea. I finally joined because I realized that the people in my existing networks were already heavily involved. And if I didn't get involved soon, I might miss out on the conversation.

By the way, if anyone is interested in laughing some more at Gladwells expense, check out the Malcom Gladwell Book Generator.

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