|The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
|Bay Back Books Edition
By offering readers a groundbreaking analysis of how trends are sparked and take hold, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point became an exemplification of the very processes he was describing. Upon its 2000 release, the book became a national bestseller whose influence would help to initiate paradigm shifts in fields ranging from marketing to public health.
The processes and mechanisms by which some trends achieve exponential popularity while others sputter and fade into oblivion have long been thought to be mysterious and resistant to analysis. However, Gladwell’s central argument is that there are actually a number of patterns and factors that are at play in virtually every influential trend, ranging from the spread of communicable diseases to the unprecedented popularity of a particular children’s television show. If you analyze the evolution of any major phenomenon, the author suggests, you will find that the processes involved are strikingly similar.
The nature of modern culture is such that many new ideas are constantly being introduced from a wide variety of sources, ranging from trend-setting teens and twenty-somethings in the nation’s metropolitan centers to new product offerings from established corporations. Some of these achieve a measure of steady, consistent success, some fail, and some take off on an upward trajectory of exponential popularity and influence.
Based on his in-depth research spanning a number of different fields, industries, and scholarly disciplines, Gladwell identifies three key factors that each play in role in determining whether a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity. Gladwell’s discussion and illustration of the concepts of the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context comprise the majority of the book.
The Law of the Few contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. Gladwell describes these key types as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. If individuals representing all three of these groups endorse and advocate a new idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success.
Gladwell defines the Stickiness Factor as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. Stickiness is hard to define, and its presence or absence often depends heavily on context. Often, the way that the Stickiness Factor is generated is unconventional, unexpected, and contrary to received wisdom.
The concept that Gladwell terms the Power of Context is enormously important in determining whether a particular phenomenon will tip into widespread popularity. Even minute changes in the environment can play a major factor in the propensity of a given concept attaining the tipping point. Also, Gladwell defines the term context very broadly, discussing the implications of small variations in social groups and minor changes in a neighborhood or community environment as shifts that can cause a new idea to tip.
After identifying and describing these key concepts, Gladwell dedicates the remainder of the book to illustrating them and their interdependency in a series of compelling case studies and examples. An afterword included in the newest edition of the book updates some of Gladwell’s arguments for more pertinent application in an era of widespread Internet connectivity.
Gladwell begins by discussing the inexplicable resurgence of then-terminally-uncool Hush Puppies shoes among a handful of hipsters in Manhattan’s cutting-edge enclaves in the 1990s, a trend which soon spread across the United States and resulted in exponential increases in the company’s sales. Using this phenomenon as an introduction to the book’s analytical theme, the author states that he will identify, dissect and explain the mechanisms by which certain trends take hold, while others fail.
Chapter One: The Three Rules of Epidemics
Gladwell asserts that most trends, styles, and phenomena are born and spread according to routes of transmission and conveyance that are strikingly similar. In most of these scenarios, whether the event in question is the spread of syphilis in Baltimore’s mean streets or the sudden spike in the popularity of Hush Puppies sales, there is a crucial juncture, which Gladwell terms the “tipping point,” that signals a key moment of crystallization that unifies isolated events into a significant trend. What factors decide whether a particular trend or pattern will take hold? Gladwell introduces three variables that determine whether and when the tipping point will be achieved.
The three “rules of epidemics” that Gladwell identifies are: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. He concludes the chapter with a preliminary discussion of the Law of the Few, noting that the origins of most major epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases can be traced back to the disproportionate influence of a few “super infectors” who are personally responsible for dozens, or in some cases, hundreds of transmissions. This role is analogous to the category of people that Gladwell identifies as “Connectors,” who play an inordinate role in helping new trends begin to “tip,” or spread rapidly.
Chapter Two: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
The attainment of the tipping point that transforms a phenomenon into an influential trend usually requires the intervention of a number of influential types of people. In the disease epidemic model Gladwell introduced in Chapter 1, he demonstrated that many outbreaks could be traced back to a small group of infectors. Likewise, on the path toward the tipping point, many trends are ushered into popularity by small groups of individuals that can be classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
Connectors are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred.
Mavens are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions.
Salesmen are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying decisions and behaviors. Gladwell identifies a number of examples of past trends and events that hinged on the influence and involvement of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen at key moments in their development.
Chapter Three: The Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
Another crucial factor that plays a key role in determining whether a trend will attain exponential popularity is what Gladwell terms “the stickiness factor.” This refers to a unique quality that compels the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their future behavior.
An interesting element of stickiness, as defined by Gladwell, is the fact that it is often counterintuitive, or contradictory to the prevailing conventional wisdom. To illustrate this point, Gladwell undertakes an in-depth discussion of the evolution of children’s television between the 1960s and the 2000s.
The PBS show Sesame Street represented a vast improvement in the “stickiness” of children’s television, in large part because it turned many of the long-established assumptions about children’s cognitive abilities and television-watching behaviors on their heads. These changes, based in large part on extensive research, resulted in a show that actually helped toddlers and preschoolers develop literacy.
Years later, the television show Blue’s Clues applied many of these same techniques as Sesame Street itself, resulting in the development of a program that research has shown can generate significant improvements in children’s logic and reasoning abilities. The attribute of stickiness, Gladwell argues, often represents a dramatic divergence from the conventional wisdom of the era.
Chapter Four: The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New YorkCity Crime
Another crucial aspect of the complex processes and mechanisms that cause trends to “tip” into mass popularity is what Gladwell terms the Power of Context. If the environment or historical moment in which a trend is introduced is not right, it is not as likely that the tipping point will be attained. To illustrate the power of context, Gladwell takes on the strangely rapid decline in violent crime rates that occurred in the 1990s in New York City.
Although Gladwell acknowledges that a wide variety of complex factors and variables likely played a role in sparking the decline, he argues convincingly that it was a few small but influential changes in the environment of the city that allowed these factors to tip into a major reduction in crime.
He cites the fact that a number of New York City agencies began to make decisions based on the Broken Windows theory, which held that minor, unchecked signs of deterioration in a neighborhood or community could, over time, result in major declines in the quality of living.
To reverse these trends, city authorities started focusing on seemingly small goals like painting over graffiti, cracking down on subway toll skippers, and dissuading public acts of degeneracy. Gladwell contends that these changes in the environment allowed the other factors, like the decline in crack cocaine use and the aging of the population, to gradually tip into a major decline in the crime rate in the city.
Chapter Five: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
Clearly, in order for a trend to tip into massive popularity, large numbers of people need to embrace it. However, Gladwell points out that groups of certain sizes and certain types can often be uniquely conducive to achieving the tipping point. He traces the path of the novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood from regional cult favorite to national best-seller. Gladwell notes that the unique content of the novel appealed strongly to reading groups of middle-aged women in Northern California, and that these women were uniquely well-positioned to catapult the book to national success as a result of an informal campaign of recommendations and advocacy.
Gladwell also remarks upon the unusual properties tied to the size of social groups. Groups of less than 150 members usually display a level of intimacy, interdependency, and efficiency that begins to dissipate markedly as soon as the group’s size increases over 150. This concept has been exploited by a number of corporations that use it as the foundation of their organizational structures and marketing campaigns.
Chapter Six: Case Study: Rumors, Sneakers, and the Power of Translation
In this case study-oriented chapter, Gladwell discusses the rise and decline of Airwalk shoes. The brand was originally geared towards the skateboarding subculture of Southern California, but sought to transcend this niche market and attain national name recognition. They succeeded in this endeavor with the help of an advertising agency with a unique understanding of the factors and variables that influence the public’s perception of "coolness." The marketing campaign ruthlessly honed in on and exploited several timely avatars of coolness, such as Tibetan Buddhism, pachuco gang culture, and hipsters’ ironic embrace of preppy culture, rendering Airwalk shoes cool by association in the process.
The company’s unique strategy of offering unique products to boutique stores and a more mainstream shoe selection to department stores had long kept both cutting-edge hipsters and their more mainstream, impressionable counterparts content. However, as a cost-cutting measure, Airwalk eventually began providing all of its distributors with a single line of shoes. The delicate balance that had long rendered the company’s products cool in the minds of the public was disturbed, and sales declined significantly.
Chapter Seven: Case Study: Suicide, Smoking, and the Search for the Unsticky Cigarette
In another case study, Gladwell discusses the relationship between a sudden, alarming rise in suicide among adolescent males in Micronesia and the persistent problem of teen cigarette use in the United States. In both instances, teens were induced to become involved in potentially lethal experimentation. Gladwell asserts that both trends were predicated upon two main factors. First, teenagers are inherently, perhaps even genetically predisposed to imitate others and try on new behaviors and attitudes during adolescence. Second, the types of the people who are more likely to engage in dramatic, easily romanticized behavior such as early cigarette smoking or suicide are also more likely to be those that others tend to gravitate toward and seek to emulate.
Gladwell also considers the origins and implications of the curiously large middle ground that exists between those who abstain altogether from potentially dangerous activities, and those who engage in them in a consistently low-level manner. In terms of cigarette use, these “chippers” typically never smoke enough to tip into full-blown addiction, and thus escape most of the ill effects of long-term tobacco use. Gladwell suggests that infrequent teenage experimentation with drugs or smoking should not be regarded with hysteria, but rather, should be accepted as inevitable and is, in all likelihood, benign.
Chapter Eight: Conclusion: Focus, Test, Believe
In this chapter, Gladwell concludes with an account of the type of solution that reflects an understanding of the concept of the tipping point: A nurse seeking an effective, low-cost way to raise breast cancer awareness among African-American women shunned traditional routes and enlisted the help of hairstylists. In this environment, she reasoned, most people are relaxed and receptive to new information in a way that most education efforts can’t duplicate.
Gladwell acknowledges that this type of thinking is often derided as being a “band-aid” solution that treats symptoms, rather than underlying problems. However, he asserts that these solutions are often the very type of cumulative, low-key approach that can, over time, build to a tipping point of massive popularity and influence.
In the newly-penned afterword to The Tipping Point, Gladwell updates a number of the case studies and anecdotes offered in the original text with new data. He also reconsiders the role of the Internet and Internet-related technologies, such as e-mail, and their impact upon the spread of trends and influence. However, he cautions that the overuse and sheer ubiquity of these formats can make the recipients "immune" to their effects.