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308 of 375 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lacks Critical Thinking; Boring Writing, March 5, 2013
This review is from: Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Hardcover)
If this material is enough to cover an entire Wharton MBA course, then I'm not sure what that says about Wharton's program. There is just not that much information in this book far beyond common sense most people already intuitively know. I had been looking forward to this book release as the topic is interesting and even possesses its own themed six characteristics, conveniently ascribed the acronym STEPPS, which the author Jonah Berger explains contributes to why products or ideas become contagious. Mr. Berger argues that if we want our product or idea to catch on and spread like wildfire, we must try to build into it as many of these six STEPPS as we can. STEPPS stands for:

Social currency
Practical Value

If discussing something makes you look interesting or cool or special, then that something provides you with "Social currency'.

If there is built into a product or idea easy cues that can trigger it to come to mind, then it has a strong 'Trigger'.

If the brand/concept can evoke emotions of anger or good will/ happiness (but note NOT sadness - since we don't want our friends/family to be sad and therefore are not inclined to share something likely to invoke sadness), then it has 'Emotion'.

If your product or cause can be broadcast to others, it is 'Public'.

If it provides 'Practical value', it is more likely to be shared.

Lastly, if a memorable story can be spun around it, then it has the added benefit of having a 'Story'.

Now, let's apply STEPPS to the book itself: 1) Clearly, the answer the book claims to explain (Why do certain products and ideas go viral?) has Social Currency -- it's an interesting topic in which most everyone would be interested; and it makes us look interesting in bringing up that we are read on the subject through this "groundbreaking" book (more on this "groundbreaking" claim later). 2) There are Triggers all around us that cue the topic for discussion (you see hipsters all around you and wonder how a lifestyle of skinny-jeans-wearing-gastrointestinal-issues-causing/fixie-rubber-shoe-braking-bike-riding came to be; or maybe how it is that we've gone backwards to wearing heavy Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and why these retro audio phones [form factor] are fashionable; or why you see Toms shoes all about as they really are plain and resemble the old cheap kungfu shoes that are dirt cheap and available in any chinatown (but they have a strong cause behind them- hence
Public' factor) get the point -- these are just my examples; they weren't mentioned in the book - although they would have been good stories for Berger to include. 3) People can become emotional about why some things have become contagious - they can be in awe/angry over ideas and triggered to talk about what they have read in this book. 4) The book is "Public" - its cover is bright orange. Eyeballs will be attracted to it; curiosity will be aroused. 5) The topic attempts to explain a phenomenon of which an understanding would undoubtedly prove of great practical value, especially if you have something to sell/spread. Lastly, 6) it contains (attempts to contain) some entertaining stories to hopefully have a place in your memory prevalent enough for you to tell others about this book.

Now, that, in a nutshell, is the book. That's it. EVERYTHING else - every page after the intro - hammers you over the head with what I've described above, over and over and over again until the insufferable boredom of repetition starts to resemble an old torture technique I watched as a kid in a movie long ago. Thin sheets of wet paper towels are placed one by one slowly over a victim's face. Each sheet is very thin and the victim can breathe through each layer. As each new sheet is applied at slow intervals, it becomes a little bit harder to breathe. This is a drawn out, protracted torture. Finally, the weight of the wet sheets becomes so heavy, the victim, whose breathing has become increasingly labored, eventually suffocates. This book for some awful reason was akin to a literary version of that torture. Books like this usually follow the formulae: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Well, in this book, everything you need to know is explained adequately in the introduction. Then the body of the book is layer upon layer of thin wet sheets foisted upon you until you are suffocating from the repetition and hammering of simple ideas - over and over and over again.

If you like Malcolm Gladwell's books, you probably will like this book. I do not like Gladwell's books but I do think Mr. Gladwell is a great story weaver and a strong writer. I cannot say the same for Mr. Berger who authored this book. For the same reason I am not a fan of Gladwell's books, I felt like most of Berger's arguments were oversimplified, heavily subject to anecdotal argumentation, left unsubstantiated or unexplained as to the deeper "why" behind a pattern. Mr. Berger explains patterns well - but they aren't anything startling - yet he fails repeatedly to analyze deeply why the pattern exists. For example, this review is clearly not a positive one yet the author points out that bad book reviews *can* be good publicity if there are triggers to inform people that there exists a book, albeit a badly reviewed book, possessing certain characteristics. He cites a study he conducted in his citations. Nothing further. Where subjects need more flushing out, Berger repeatedly disappoints, yet where he's made a simple point effectively, he proceeds to drown you with it. Well, since negative book reviews "can" sometimes boost reviews, here you go, Mr. Berger - my gift to you in exchange for boring me to death - a bad book review that "can" inspire better sales. People will be curious to see for themselves whether I tend toward hyperbole, if there is any merit to what I have stated. Noise is better than silence; some publicity is better than none. That's common sense for selling something.

There are numerous other uninspiring moments in this book, similar to this. For example, in his discussion relating to "practical value", he instructs us that if you find a good Ethiopian restaurant, you are more likely to share your recommendation of it than you would had you had found a good American restaurant. The reason being you probably have many more friends who like American food than Ethiopian food; therefore, you will feel much more conviction to tell those fewer applicable friends about the Ethiopian restaurant. You simply know too many people who would be interested in American food to compel you to recommend the American restaurant. What an unremarkable observation. Blah.

Another example is when he goes on and on about the fact that things that are remarkable are interesting, moving us to share about it. This is why certain cute or remarkable YouTube videos spread virally; we like to share articles or videos we think our friends or family will find interesting. You need research to make such a statement? Or when he claimed he tested at length whether something that inspires awe in us, will evoke us to tell others about it. Such common sense notions like this are laid out and overanalyzed throughout the book. The author needed to conduct research to discover that awe drives people to share? Come on, dude.

This book is a dumbing-down of common knowledge, contributing to the pain of plowing through the book. If not for my habit of sheer reading discipline despite my extreme boredom, I would not have finished this book. I don't need to be instructed that the Nobel Prize is prestigious along with a paragraph of examples. Why do I need to know it was a cold, wintery day when Daniel Kahneman gave a lecture on bounded rationality? Irrelevant fillers like this spread throughout the book - makes for bad writing. There are interesting nuggets of info through some of Berger's examples/stories but they, in no way, compensate for the fact that this book regurgitates what most marketers already know. Most of the material covered in this book is widely known common knowledge in the industry. He reports on why the status/points system works for airlines. Airlines know it works - that's why they entice frequent fliers with status and levels. Game theory is widely applied in marketing. Video game makers have been applying the psychology of levels/goals attainment in their designs for decades.

Which gets to my second-to-last gripe. In the intro and conclusion he claims that he has used cutting-edge science to demonstrate to us how word of mouth, psychology of sharing, social influence, conformity, herd behavior work. In reality, he simply points out patterns of these behaviors. There is no "cutting-edge science" and disappointingly he tosses aside the wasted opportunity for meaningful analysis. He hasn't sufficiently explained the psychology behind any of the the "why's" that naturally arise from the reading (offering merely superficial explanations).

Lastly, I end with the formatting. First, my extreme dislike for the notes format - extremely aggravating for someone who almost always reads the citations/notes. I would read an argument and wonder what basis the author had to make a certain statement. I'd have to check the back of the book to see if there existed any citation. There was no system to indicate that a citation existed for reference to any statement put forth. Perhaps this is limited to the advance release edition; if so, forgive my criticism.

Also relating to formatting, there were innumerous typos. Again, this may be limited to the copy I read but editing was pitiful in my advance copy.
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Showing 1-10 of 26 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 6, 2013, 4:48:34 AM PST
When will your competing book be published?

Posted on Mar 6, 2013, 12:27:00 PM PST
This problem keeps cropping up. If you look at all the writers who blurbed on this book, their books are also (I feel, and suspect of those I haven't read) much too long and repetitive. Why does everyone insist on writing a full-length book where an essay would do much better? It's not like they couldn't sell it to a magazine or as a Kindle Single. Short form is a much more relevant medium these days, so I think this book is going to fail to become contagious. Especially if it's shoddily edited (ugh. Gladwell's have this problem too).

Posted on Mar 7, 2013, 1:46:48 AM PST
Eddie says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Mar 7, 2013, 6:47:43 AM PST
Interesting. I wonder if you've ever actually gotten something to catch on. Since all of the ideas in this book were intuitive to you, then you must be a major media mogul? Are you perhaps Jeff Bezos? If not, then I found your critical review to be unfounded.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 7, 2013, 7:20:13 PM PST
Eddie says:
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Posted on Mar 13, 2013, 10:44:27 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Mar 13, 2013, 10:44:50 AM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on May 22, 2013, 12:09:45 PM PDT
the.bagpiper says:
Thanks for these comments. What other book (worth reading about the main idea of this book) would you recommend? Cheers

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 17, 2013, 4:41:14 AM PDT
bev43 says:
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Posted on Jul 23, 2013, 12:22:29 AM PDT
Isabella says:
I heard an interview with Berger and thought about buying the book although I did find his decades of research to be some what elementary and basic logic. Thanks for the review, which is a book unto itself, it was very interesting. I feel as though I have read the book and then some.

Posted on Aug 21, 2013, 10:00:38 AM PDT
Ron Wolf says:
Thx for the thorough and well-thought out and written review. Appreciate that you took the time to save us the effort & expense of going for the book itself.
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