MALCOLM GLADWELL. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
Paperback edition with new afterword by the author. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.
280 pages. $14.95.
In some sense, the goal of any book is to tell a story, to explain something. The Tipping Point fits right in with the tradition of books that try to explain the way the world works – or at least to elucidate some phenomenon of human existence. In this case, the object of discussion is social epidemic: its players, a defining characteristic, and its circumstantial factors. Gladwell calls these three rules of epidemics: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context.
According to The Law of the Few, there are three influential kinds of people in the making of an epidemic: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors are just who you think they might be: the special people among us who have a gift for networking. As Gladwell explains, though, it’s more than just networking: to them, making and keeping up with acquaintances is second nature. More importantly, they are able to easily travel in various circles, and therefore act as agents of contagion; be it for infectious disease or ideas about what is “cool.”
Mavens are the experts extraordinaire; “mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know”. (pp.69) It is in their nature to know every aspect of the various things that interest them, and to share what they know. Gladwell describes them as the kind of person who is so knowledgeable and voraciously interested in accuracy and completeness of information that they will send in corrections to New York Times’ crossword puzzles or Consumer Reports. Their motivation for sharing in knowledge is simply to share the best knowledge they have.
In contrast, the salesman is especially persuasive. Salesmen have the power to affect those they encounter with their mood, ideas, and more. Gladwell describes how the tones, volume, and cadence of a conversation will fall into the patterns of the salesman; how salesman can “draw others into [their] own rhythms and dictate the terms of the interaction.” (pp.83) The special few: connectors, mavens, and salesmen, all play a different role in spreading social epidemics.
While it is fascinating to learn about different kinds of people (we human beings are endlessly intrigued with ourselves), at this point in the book the reader may wonder if the power of the few is all that is needed to sell any given product or idea. The answer is in the next and final two rules of epidemics: The Stickiness Factor and The Power of Context.
The Stickiness Factor can be thought of as the degree of mind share a product has – or, how easy it is to remember the product. This section may be particularly useful to marketers (trying to sell you something), teachers (trying to “sell” you information), and managers (trying to “sell” you on productivity, team playing, etc.). One only needs to think of McDonald’s, and any of a number of “sticky” ideas comes up: the golden arches, Ronald McDonald, or even the new “I’m loving it!” jingle. In a happier vein, Gladwell describes exercises in increasing stickiness in the area of educational television for children.
Last of the three rules is The Power of Context, in which Gladwell gives examples of how behavior changes when the situation changes. Two chapters are devoted to this idea. One chapter deals with the 150 rule: groups are cohesive and thrive if their members number fewer than 150. Examples are given from religion, military, and corporate settings, among others.
The other chapter discusses the rise and fall of crime in New York City (NYC). This is where the first chink in Gladwell’s armor shows. Anyone who has read Steven D. Levitt’s ideas about the fluctuations in NYC crime will think twice before accepting Gladwell’s endorsement of the Broken Windows Theory (the idea that fixing the details like broken windows can quash crime; and that leaving them broken is an open invitation for further vandalism). There is a part of each of us who wishes it was as simple as fixing a broken window. See Levitt’s Freakonomics (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) for yet another look at how the world works.
Therefore, though Gladwell presents a number of intriguing ideas, he might be the first to advise the reader to assess them within their own context: that of past and current thought on social phenomena.
The remaining chapters of The Tipping Point discuss case studies in which Gladwell walks the reader through social epidemics and highlights the role of the few, stickiness, and context. In the new afterword by the author, he discusses timely topics such as HIV-AIDS, school shootings, and the internet.
Though this book is commonly shelved with business books as companions, it is appropriate for any intellectually curious mind. Gladwell’s writing style is thought-provoking, yet conversational, and it would seem that he has managed to have his self-described “biography of an idea” (pp.7) cross the tipping point to become a national bestseller.
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker since 1996. He recently published another book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005).
Teachers College, Columbia University MAGGIE MOON