Breakpoint by Jeff Stibel (book review).

The whole point of Jeff Stibel’s book ‘Breakpoint’ is the limits of anything before it comes crashing down. This might be population or even a culture, he shows they all follow a similar pattern, a somewhat distorted Mexican hat with a drop-off point a lot higher as it settles down with the actual requirement to make it work. With this, his main highlight is the Internet where he rightly points out that since 1995 it has grown far too fast and highly likely to implode, despite the fact only 34% of the population use it. In part, I agree with a lot of what he says about overload on a site by site basis and having too much out there but I think people are likely to get a lot more picky as to where they look. Have a look at your Favourites list and see how many websites you visit regularly against those who you just note. I bet it won’t be more than a dozen. Not much higher than your ability to keep seven things in your short term memory. Individual people have their own individual breakpoints. It’s only when done en masse that you would find such patterns existing. Like the Mexican hat graph, there will always be people who fall into either extreme and those who will match a pattern completely.


Stibel’s examples from the real world include reindeer imported to St. Matthew Island to eat lichen and whose population grew out of control and ultimately died out to the people of Easter Island who mismanaged their ecology and had a similar fate. Although animals might not be able to figure out a solution to their problem, it does make you wonder about people who should be able to think ahead and see the consequences of their actions. Saying that, the inhabitants of Easter Island destroyed the wood that could have been used to make boats and were well and truly left out to dry. Stibel asserts that the breakpoints shouldn’t be avoided but understanding when they are going to happen and ensure they are survived.

You get a lot of Internet and website history from this book, especially why some succeed more than others. Despite my communication skills, I’m not really into social media myself as I see it as too much of a distraction from what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is reading, writing and editing and entertaining you which takes enough energy. This doesn’t mean that I’m not contactable but I’m very much a person-to-person communicator. I explained to someone once that I don’t write for many people but for the one individual reading here. Mind you, there are a lot of individual readers, just that I don’t see it that way. With social media, I do think that people will only end up using the bits they want and take out the bits they don’t want or see other people having problems with. It’s still on a large learning curve for many people with how much they share with others because a global village is new territory and no everyone reads, let alone understands the instructions or rules. There is certainly a need to understand that the freedoms that the Internet offers needs to be tempered with some elements of responsibility from those who run websites.

Stibel develops something along those lines pointing out that many computer users are turning to tablets and push button applications finding them portable and more convenient but that’s true of any new technology. It’s there so there will always be a proportion of the population who want to try the next ‘big thing’. I wish there was some more correlation on this subject. I mean, do all these people move onto the next big thing or stay because they found their niche. Are other factors involved? Are these people poor typists or just need less than us regular Net users? More information here would have given a clearer picture. I do think people will move towards the means that is best for them. As I’ve never had or played with a tablet, I have no idea if it had an advantages or disadvantages against personal knowledge. Like a lot of things, everything is only as good as the user. If you haven’t got a use for something then it’s unlikely you’ll want to use it. If you want to find out what is going on with little interaction and a commuter, then a tablet would seem a better choice when out and a laptop when home.

His examples across a variety of websites developing to a peak and then dropping off follows the pattern diagram he shows. I’ve learnt about a lot of websites that I wouldn’t normally look at but I do wonder if he’s not taking in a bigger picture. The business models that have been applied on the Net are pretty much the same as those applied in the non-digital world and always seem doomed to eventual failure. Stibel himself points out that many of the bigger businesses are lucky to survive without change for extended periods. I would be curious to see how this works with charities and those who stay amateur, although with the latter, it is more up to the owners’ stamina and bank balance that keeps them going. I would hope that website owners would look at this book and think beyond the current business practices and see if they can find a plan that would be more effective for their own interest and longevity. Certainly, some re-invention periodically isn’t a bad idea but it should never be done at the cost of what attracted their core audiences to them in the first place as what can be damaging to some software updates.

Some things I’m less sure about. Just because Encyclopaedia Britannica has stopped doing a paper edition doesn’t mean that they are out of business. They sell more copies to more people as a CD edition which more people own because of its lower price and taking less space and the added bonus of being able to find information quickly. I could never afforded to buy, let alone have the space for a paper version so this makes me one of the many who opted for the better edition. Britannica were one of the last to be brought screaming into the CD world but have also benefited by it as well. Stibel does point out the success of Wikipedia and also how it is also now in the process of levelling out at the contributor level. Is that a limit to the amount of knowledge available or the subject that interests people the most?

The oddest thing is the footnotes at the back of the book don’t actually have a number connection to the main body of the book, so don’t forget to look at the back of the book after each chapter.

The last few chapters of this book look at the prospects of artificial intelligence which somewhat moves away from the main subject as if Stibel was running out of steam and moving onto his pet subject. Saying that, as can be seen by my reaction to the main body of the book, there is a lot here to make you think. At the top of my list, at least from a culture point of view, there needs to be a reassessment of the business model and anything else that doesn’t factor in the trail-off point and maintains the real support users than those caught up in the advertising and hype and move on afterwards. At least, that way, any model will have a better foundation for change and growth. Hopefully, Stibel might approach this problem in his next book.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Palgrave Macmillan. 246 page indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $ 32.00 (CAN), £18.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-137-27878-4)
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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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