Book Shelf § 1 : The Tipping Point

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.

As grisly a metaphor as that is, it perfectly encapsulates the thinking behind author Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. He defines the tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

Gladwell draws from the concept of medical epidemics to explain how small actions, combined with the right circumstances (right place, right time, right people), can create a tipping point. He says that great ideas are like epidemics: they are contagious; little causes can have big effects; and change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment. However, since not every sneeze results in an epidemic, what is it about certain messages then, that makes an idea spread? Why do some fads and trends reach the tipping point while others do not?

So How Do You Create Your Own Tipping Point?

If you look at the ways that music, art, film, and fashion became popular, you will observe that at a certain point, a large portion of the population was convinced that they had to get in on the trend too. Gladwell explains that there are three principles to create your own tipping point: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Law of Context.

1. The Law of The Few

Gladwell writes about the story of American patriot Paul Revere and the famous quote “The British are coming”. During the revolution, Revere got word that the British were planning to raid the American camp. He immediately shared this information with his friend William Dawes. He asked Dawes to warn the troops in the southern route, while he took the northern route. As it turned out, Revere was an effective communicator and Dawes was not. Those along the northern route were ready for attack, while those along Dawes’ route weren’t.

What we learn here is that not everyone are effective communicators. Gladwell goes on to explain that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others. The Law of the Few states that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Gladwell divides these people into three groups: connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Connectors are the socialites. They are people with many friends and acquaintances. And connectors invest a lot of time maintaining their connections. Connectors genuinely love people, and enjoy introducing their friends to each other.

Mavens are “opinion leaders” or experts in their field who have a strong impact on other people’s decisions. These include celebrities, influencers, and other people with highly valued opinions. Mavens simply share information he or she has learned, without expecting the listener to do anything with it. However, the usual reaction when someone learns about something new is that they tell other people and that’s where the tipping point happens. Paul Revere was a maven.

Lastly, salesmen are people who have the skills to persuade strangers to take a certain course of action.

Gladwell points out that by reaching the right people, we can shape the course of social epidemics. Our challenge is to find that leverage point and to set the forces of change into motion.

2. The Stickiness Factor

The stickiness factor refers to the quality of messages being delivered and processed by the human mind. For an epidemic to catch on and spread, the message has to be naturally infectious — it has to have a memorable impact that compels people to understand the message. Gladwell explains how the popular children’s show Sesame Street achieved a tipping point because of this principle.

Sesame Street was a resounding “sticky” educational TV program for preschoolers in the late 1960s. Gladwell quotes a study that showed children who regularly watched the show increased their GPA by 0.25. This happened because the show’s producers conducted regular research to make sure each episode was interesting for kids.

The researchers found that when episodes aren’t “sticky” enough, children would divert their attention elsewhere. The researchers used a lot of repetition and narrative (between real people and puppets) to get their young viewers to focus on the show while they injected learning elements.

Sesame Street reached a tipping point because it was successful at keeping children interested in the show. Gladwell expounds that the riveting children’s show “also encouraged lower-income families to play a part in educating their children.” Sesame Street became massively popular because it was the only TV program at that time that entertained and educated kids at the same time.

Fast forward to the 2000s, Blue’s Clues built on the success of Sesame Street by emulating what made the show successful (the blending of human characters with cartoons to engage kids, having different segments with different lessons and adventures, etc.). Blue’s Clues eventually became more successful than Sesame Street because the show’s creators analyzed data from previous kids’ shows and invested in new research about children’s attention spans.

3. The Power of Context

The last principle is The Power of Context which refers to “the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Gladwell explains that people’s behaviors are strongly influenced by their environment, and the same thing applies to epidemics.

To support this principle, Gladwell writes about the crime situation in New York between 1975 and 1992. During this time, crime rates were very high “with over 600,000 felonies and 2000 murders committed every year.” Then, in 1993, a group of researchers decided to look into this alarming situation. Instead of just looking at the crimes alone, they shifted their focus to the place where much of the crime was happening. They found out that 90% of these crimes happened in the subways.

The researchers noticed that the subways were covered in graffiti, and they linked this phenomenon to The Broken Windows Theory. This theory is based on the idea that when people see broken windows left unrepaired, it sends a message that no one cares and that there is no one in charge. So this also gives the idea that it’s okay to break more windows, and thus creates a sense of anarchy along the street that the building faces.

Similarly, when people enter an environment tarnished with crime (Gladwell emphasizes that back then, graffiti served as a visual symbol of chaos and disorder) they become more inclined to commit the same crime.

So when New York city officials started a cleanup program to eliminate graffiti in the subways, the crime rate began to decline. This example proves that the environment played an important role in controlling the crime rate. Since the context changed, people’s behaviors did too. Because of this, Gladwell describes consumers as “contextual chameleons who will adopt to a product if the context is right.”

The potential for the actions of a few to rapidly change the behavior of many is inspiring and the necessary elements to enact these changes, is surprisingly simple.

One of the things I’d like to do is to show people how to start ‘positive’ epidemics of their own. The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly. — Malcolm Gladwell

The epidemic of an idea starts with mavens who are educators at heart. Next, connectors are relationship-oriented people that spread the message to key individuals. Then, enter salesmen who help the undecided make a choice.

It takes work and commitment to learn how to effectively use the tools available (and a willingness to fail before mastering), but the results can be life changing. The book’s main message is that no matter what business you’re in, you’re in the marketing business first. By helping you understand the factors responsible for a successful social epidemic, Malcolm Gladwell helps you realize that the world around you is eminently ripe, waiting for you to tip if for the better.