Monday, April 10, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell blog and blogocombat

Malcolm Gladwell is the popular, immensely successful author of two bestselling business books, The Tipping Point and Blink.

Gladwell now has a blog, the Malcolm Gladwell blog, as Karen Ruby, who is good at finding new blogs by famous people, points out and to in her blog.

Now, my BUR (Basic Usability Review) of theMalcolm Gladwell blog: Great first impression. Clean, credible, easy to navigate and read. But how does the artistic dimension of this blog manage to inform me that I'm on the site of a highly influential and successful author? A man of ideas and innovation?

Malcolm Gladwell's blog could probably be more...

(1) Transparent! a little more current, honest, real. High school photo of a blogger is always a bad idea. Let them see you, as you now are, caught red-handed at being you, the non-hyperbole you, the average guy you, the genius in jeopardized brevity you, the what you really look like right now you.

(2) Memorable! Blog looks ordinary, run of the mill, out of step with the prominence and genius of the blogger himself. Look at how Seth Godin brands his blog with a photo of himself. Tom Peters has a distinct blog.

This Gladwell blog could benefit greatly from a really artistic, untrendy, bizarre, experimental blog design, I see colors swirling or a tiny flash jumping from the name Malcolm Gladwell to a book or globe or group of heads, metaphysical oddness, something tilted strangely, outside the box, out of this non-flat world.

Tipping, tilted, blink, flashing: some non-obnoxious graphic or animated treatment of his two famous books, something happening in a non-distracting, non-amateurish manner. Example: Mark Kostabi reflective ripples.

(3) Personalized! Needs to be more eccentric, idiomatic, customized, individualized! Blog must be more deeply Malcolm Gladwell, bear his "stamp", to "deliver" an extraordinariness, a distinct and special entity, product, brand.

(4) Passionate! Needs to be more compelling, unique, memorable, with things like book blurbs or testimonials about Gladwell's books. This blog should be not just more thoughts of Gladwell, and channels for reader interaction with author, but also a vehicle to promote Gladwell and his products.

(5) Promotional! Why not have a blog-visitor only offer? A downloadable book for those who visit the blog, either free or for a small price. Fans like to have special, one of a kind artifacts. There are intense jealousies and ownership pride connected with special fan projects and offers

(6) Interactive! Show your passion for your audience by jumping into those 80+ comment threads and replying, within the comment thread itself, to reader comments.

Assume nobody ever heard of you, and build your blog to convey exactly who you are and why your blog is bookmark/feed worthy. Text links to feeds and other features are boring and need to be jazzed up visually.

(5) Technologically Advanced! While simplicity is key, we expect a little extra edge from our leading thinkers, when they publish a print book or an online blog.

A major business author like Gladwell deserves a top flight, New Super Blog, with Web 2.0 characteristics. A leading business thinker needs to have an astonishing business blog. You should look leading edge as you explain leading edge ideas.

Gladwell's blog might be improved with a more urban, or academic, or high tech appearance, accompanied by appropriate beta functionalities. An author who discusses innovation and creativity, this kind of author deserves a blog that is also innovative and creative.

Gladwell discusses social theory, psychology, commerce, sports, nature, strategy, mysticism, philosophy.

How well does the visual impression of this blog convey these aspects of his thought and writing? Could it work harder at presenting Gladwell and his ideas, his controversies?

Malcolm Gladwell engages in blogocombat!

I leave you with a strong encouragement to visit, bookmark, and subscribe to the feed syndication of the Malcolm Gladwell blog...and a sample of his thoughts on blogocombat, in which he talks about how he disagrees with a competitive business author, but still likes his books.

I excerpt only what I found relevant to this deconstructive tangent of how the blogocombat is conducted, skipping the irrelevance of the specific topic of debate. Notice how diplomatic, conjectural, and aggressive Gladwell is.

A fine example of gentlemanly blog clobbering!


"Thoughts on Freakonomics"
March 09, 2006


A number of people have asked me what I think of the bestselling book "Freakonomics" written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

On the front of the book, there is a glowing blurb by me which would suggest that I love it.

On the other hand, chapter four of Freakonomics is devoted to the question of why crime dropped so dramatically in America—and particularly New York—in the 1990’s, and in that chapter Dubner and Levitt reach a very different conclusion than I do in "The Tipping Point."

In fact, "Freakonomics" specially singles out for ridicule the theory of broken windows, which I suggest in the Tipping Point played a big role in New York City’s recovery.

So what gives? Why do I love a book so much, if it contradicts my own book? Have I renounced the theories I put forward in the Tipping Point?

I have two answers.

The first—obvious—point is that it is not necessary to agree with everything you read in a book to like that book. I have a number of problems with several chapters in Freakonomics, because I find the way in which economists approach problems occasionally frustrating. That being said, it’s very difficult to read Freakonomics and not find yourself saying "wow" every five minutes. I loved it.

Now for the long answer: what do I think of the substance of their crime argument? Is the Broken Windows theory central to the question of whether crime dropped, or isn’t it?

The Freakonomics argument starts off very much like the argument I make in The Tipping Point. The startling decline in crime in major American cities in the mid-1990’s is a mystery. No one predicted it. Everyone thought that high crime rates were a permanent feature of urban life. And the standard arguments to explain why crime falls don’t seem to work in this case.

[snip--text deleted]

Levitt’s argument (and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to the argument from now on as Levitt’s) goes something like this (and keep in mind that I’m grossly simplifying it here).


Levitt makes it clear that he’s not passing judgment on this.


Is Levitt right that [snip]?

Levitt has a few critics, and he’s dealt with them pretty effectively, I think. (Check out There are some other technical critiques of his work from fellow economists, that, I have to confess, I can’t follow. My own response is chiefly that I find the argument incomplete.. For instance, [snip]


Why is this? I can think of some hypotheses. But they are just that: hypotheses. I would have been a lot happier with Freakonomics if the crime chapter had been twice as long—and spent more time explaining just what is so peculiar, in terms of crime rates, about births prevented by abortion.

But that’s a quibble. In the course of making his argument for the importance of abortion Levitt is also pretty dismissive of other, alternate, theories—especially the theory that I spend a lot of time on the Tipping Point, namely the broken windows idea.

It’s here, though, where I think Levitt’s argument is a bit unfair. Levitt concludes that there are three factors that matter the most in the crime drop—abortion, high rates of imprisonment of young men, and increased number of police officers. The last of these three factors he glosses over pretty quickly.

But I think that’s a mistake, because [snip]


In Freakonomics, Levitt pretends he has refuted the Broken Windows explanation. He hasn’t at all. In fact, to the extent that he concedes the huge role played by the expansion of police departments in the 1990’s, he tacitly supports the Broken Windows theory.

So why is he so anxious to discredit Broken Windows? One—understandable—explanation is that he makes his own argument more compelling by dismissing all other arguments. (I know all about this tactic. I do it all the time).

But a deeper explanation, I think, has to do with the difference between the perspective of economics and the perspective of psychology. Levitt is very interested in the root causes of behavior, in the kinds of incentives and circumstances that fundamentally shape the way human beings act. That’s the kind of thing that economists—particularly behavioral economists—think a lot about. And rightly so: who we are and how we behave is a product of forces and influences rooted in the histories and traditions and laws of the societies in which we belong.

But there’s a second dimension to crime, and that is the immediate contextual influences on human behavior.

If you talk to a police officer (or a psychologist) they’ll tell you what a "typical" murder looks like. It’s two men, drunk at a bar. They get in a fight. They step outside. One pulls a gun in anger and kills the other. You can prevent that homicide by creating a population of people who are less likely to get drunk and angry in bars. You can also prevent that homicide by decreasing the likelihood of either of those drunken men having a gun.

Police-work is concerned, necessarily, with this kind of immediate influence on behavior, and one of the things that having lots more police did was to make it possible to reduce the number of guns on the street that could end as a cause for a homicide. Drunken young men still fight in bars in New York City. But now they fight with fists—which are a lot safer.

Freakonomics is a book about deeply rooted influences on behavior, because it’s a book written by an economist. The Tipping Point is a book, by contrast, about the kinds of things that law enforcement types—and psychologists—worry about, because it was written by someone who is obsessed with psychology.

I prefer to think of Freakonomics not as contradicting my argument in Tipping Point, but as completing it.

One final point (just to complicate things even further). Since Tipping Point has come out, there have been a number of economists who have looked specifically at broken windows—and tried to test the theory directly. Some have found support for it. Others—particularly Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago—find it wanting.

If you crave a rigorous critique of broken windows, read Harcourt. He’s every bit as smart as Levitt.


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