Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Tipping Point of Testing

When the phrase, "tipping point," is mentioned, perhaps your mind is triggered, as is mine, to think of the game known as Jenga—the challenge being to successfully remove one building block of a tower without causing the entire structure to tip over.

That, however, though a fun pastime, is the reverse of the concept I have in mind right now. What I am thinking of is the exact moment—and for the precise reason that its plus-one nature has brought about its momentum—at which an innovation crosses a barrier and builds upward from relatively-unknown to unstoppable diffusion through a culture.

This concept, once dubbed a "behavioral threshold," refers to "the number or proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor does so." In other words, a tipping point in which "a group—or a large number of group members—rapidly and dramatically changes its behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice."

In Micro-Trends, a book by political strategist and pollster Mark Penn, the author asserts the possibility of instances in which small groups of people can trigger big changes. In the book, Penn demonstrates how "microtrends" were instigated by as little as one percent of the American population. That, at last count, would be one percent of just over three hundred twenty million people.

Of course, whenever anyone discusses the possibility of tipping points, the signature book by Canadian journalist and New York Times best-selling author, Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference—comes to mind. For Gladwell, the tipping point is "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point."

The reason my mind is given to such ponderings right now is owing to a bit of data shared in the SLIG workshop I attended last week on genetic genealogy. While class members were pointed to a comparison table of current DNA testing companies posted on the ISOGG wiki—revealing the numbers of customers who have already tested—there was one key detail signalling a tipping-point-worthy pause to consider. Instructor Blaine Bettinger—I have no idea to which source he's attributing this—mentioned that on Black Friday 2015, Ancestry.com sold sixty thousand DNA test kits.

That's in one day.

Is the genetic genealogy tipping point here? I'm not entirely sure, although we certainly are closer than we've ever been before. The ISOGG comparison table—not updated since mid-year 2015, incidentally—reveals both 23andMe and AncestryDNA had sold at least one million test kits each, with Family Tree DNA adding a distant hundred fifty thousand to the tally.

Even if we adjust the 2015 AncestryDNA sales tally upwards to about 1.5 million, adding that to the other companies' results, it still falls shy of the one percent microtrend-triggering figure fingered by Penn. But not by much.

Could one percent do it for genetic genealogy? Can those Christmas sales instigate a scenario that moves us from the realm of genealogy hackers to everyone's-doing-it mainstream? I'd certainly like to think so. After all, I have a vested interest in seeing other random test-takers aggregate in large numbers in the databases of companies at which I've tested. It would be nice to see a match that actually turns out to be a middling-close cousin—an added bonus if that cousin turns out to be a brick-wall-smashing discovery.

Those numbers can be deceiving, though. Think of it: what's the one mantra repeated incessantly for adoptees and others seeking their roots? "Fish in all three ponds"—in other words, test at all three of the main companies. How many of those million at 23andMe and AncestryDNA are duplicate customers?

Then, too, how many of those customers are relatives of repeat customers—you know, the family members who caved in the face of incessant nagging by a genetic genealogy True Believer? If I don't match a customer, it's highly unlikely I'll match her mother's test results, either. Nor her uncle's. Nor her multiple other relatives—ninety in one instance I ran across—either. How much does that scenario, in the aggregate, shrink those test numbers?

Of course, here we're just talking numbers based on United States statistics. What if that tipping point one percent were applied worldwide? After all, each of us eventually had roots originating in other places. And we're a far way off from one percent of the seven billion people who call this planet home. Will it take an international tipping point to turn the tide for genetic genealogy?

While I believe a solid international representation on testing numbers would be a coup for genetic genealogy companies—and a boon for many with recent roots from other countries—I don't think it will take that large a scope before people in North America, at least, will experience some positive acceleration of success in their test matching endeavors.

On the other hand, we have to consider the limitations in the pond in which we are fishing. DNA testing and genealogical pursuits are not for everyone. That one percent tipping point figure may set the stage for a microtrend, but it's my suspicion that that microtrend would be limited to the universe of people self-selecting interest in the realm of genetic genealogy, not the general population in toto. Even if we engage one percent of the population, it may impact only a small subset of all of America's relatives, not a generalized overview.

As keen as I am to see what impact a tipping point might have on our genetic genealogy pursuits—just think: fifty million games worldwide made Jenga a household name among families with school-aged children—I'm not yet sure we'll see that impact for years to come, despite wildly popular Black Friday sales. But when that day arrives, it certainly would help bust through a few brick walls.

Above: Image of falling Jenga tower courtesy of Wikipedia contributor Jorge Barrios, who released the image into the public domain.


  1. I have found that many people are confused by the testing and what the results are good for. Some one asked me "Why in the world would I want to know that?" Obviously she has too many cousins:)

    1. It's likely that the real difference will come when the information diffusion reaches a tipping point, rather than just the testing, itself. You're right, Far Side: DNA testing is a powerful tool in and of itself; many people don't understand how much can be discovered through use of this one tool. And really, some people are just not interested.

  2. Tipping point or critical mass... the idea is the same - time will tell.

    1. And in this case, it seems time is on an accelerated path with all the rapid changes in this field.


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