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Commentary on Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point

evanstiegel's picture

      A ‘tipping point’ is a critical juncture when isolated events are unified info a significant trend.   In our Emergence course, we explored how what many people consider complex behavior arises from a number of simple entities interacting without an architect or creator.  We have examined many these phenomena in order to better understand how their smaller, simpler components allow for their complex behavior.  In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell closely examines why change happens as quickly and unpredictably as it often does.

       More specifically, Gladwell looks at how ideas, trends, and social behaviors reach a certain threshold , the ‘tipping point’ where they then spread at a unprecedented rate.  He breaks down how these phenomena cross this threshold into several individual happenstances that interact to cause these ‘epidemics’.  In breaking down how these ideas spread, Gladwell examines the individuals involved in spreading the word, aspects of the actual trend, idea or fad, and the context or environment in which the spread takes place.  

       In addition to the general population through which an idea or trend moves, Gladwell emphasizes the role of three types of individuals who are paramount in facilitating the spread.  The first of three types of individuals are connectors.   Connectors have ties to many different realms.  Most importantly, connectors have the ability of bridging these realms together, stimulating cross-fertilization between these realms that may not have otherwise occurred without their presence.  In addition to knowing many people, connectors have unique personality traits.  These individuals are adept at making friends and acquaintances, are gregarious, and self-confident.   

       The second type of individual vital to the spreading of trends is mavens.  Mavens according to Gladwell are information specialists.  In addition  to accumulating knowledge, mavens have a strong inclination to share this information with others; they are altruistic.  In an example of a maven, Gladwell describes a situation where a man passes out coupons to others, and them of supermarket sales ploys.  In the book, Gladwell cites an interview he had with Linda Price, a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska and a pioneer in maven research according to Gladwell.  Price describes how mavens are more than experts in saying, “[An expert] will talk about, say, cars because they love cars.  But they don’t talk about cars because they love you, and want to help you with your decision.  The Market Maven will. They are more socially motivated. (62)” 

      For an epidemic to spread, members of the general population have to be persuaded.  Trends are seen by many as ‘complex’ because they occur unpredictably. How, only in certain situations, are many individuals persuaded to transfer a certain idea.  Gladwell describes the third individual vital in the spread of trends as salesmen.  Salesmen have the gift of persuasion.  They are in the position and have the personality characteristics that allow them to persuade a large group of people to accept a certain idea or message.

     In addition to the individuals that are at work in the actual spreading of a trend, the characteristics of the idea or message are also significant in whether or not a tipping point will be reached.  Gladwell deems this the ‘stickiness factor’, or the attractiveness of a message or product; what makes it stick.  Gladwell analyzes in depth Sesame Street, the educational children’s television that is the longest running, most-watched children’s television show in the world.   Gladwell looks at certain strategies the creators of the show used and the critical adjustments they made that the show ‘sticky’.  For example, certain muppets with unique character traits were added periodically to the show, and tests were done on preschoolers to see if the addition of these specific muppets increased watching.  Those muppets that did hold the attention spans of these children were permanently added to the show, and as a result, more children watched; the show became more ‘sticky’.

     Lastly, Gladwell describes the role the context plays in message-spreading.  The environment or historical moment in which a potential trend exists contributes largely as to whether it will reach a tipping point or not.  Gladwell uses the broken window theory as an example for what Gladwell calls ‘The Power of Context’.  The broken window theory relates to how crime is a result of disorder.  The name of theory emerged from a situation when a window is broken and unrepaired, individuals who pass by and observe it will come to the conclusion that no one cares and no one is charge, and consequently contribute more damage.  In relation to this, Gladwell discusses the rise and fall of New York City crime in the 1980’s.  When consultant George Kelling, a criminologist, was hired, and put the broken windows theory into effect by cleaning up graffiti on subways.  This action spurred other events that had the result of dramatically decreasing the crime rate.  

     I believe the tipping The Tipping Point is a well-written book that is an attempt to make sense of certain phenomena in our world, and encourages its readers to start positive epidemics of their own.  Starting a ‘positive’ epidemic, I believe, implies that trying to create an epidemic requires a simple set of steps, that if followed will cause something to reach a tipping point.  My trouble with this book relates to determinism, or when phenomena are causally a result of preceding events. I had trouble with this concept as I was reading the book.  The book, in my opinion, leaves one to infer that the components of an epidemic are common through most trends and fads, and that an epidemic will unequivocally occur if all of his described components are in place.  Yes, I do agree that each one of these components alone may contribute to the spread of trend.  However, I believe that each component interacting may produce complex behavior that is not always a trend being spread.  I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a gripping book that provides an outlook on how change occurs in our world.   

Works Cited:

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.


Daryl's picture

Great summary of The Tipping

Great summary of The Tipping Point. Memes and virus alike spread through communication. It's very useful to understand the nature of how things spread.