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The Tipping Point

shikha's picture

“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.” - Malcolm Gladwell

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how major changes in society happen rather unexpectedly and quickly. The main focus of the book is why some trends, including epidemics, fashion trends, ideas, messages, etc., manage to become very popular, and spread like viruses of infectious disease, while others do not. He gives examples, such as how Syphilis spread in Baltimore, how Paul Revere spread the initial message of the British attack and in turn initiated the American Revolution, and how television shows like Sesame Street were able to teach children how to read, to explain how he believes trends spread. Gladwell believes that when a certain trend reaches a “tipping point,” it instantly becomes popular. This tipping point is reached when three important conditions are met.

The first of these conditions is the law of the few. This idea highlights the importance of three types of people: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Connectors are people who have great social skills and are a part of many large social circles. Mavens are people who encompass large amounts of information and have an unselfish desire to help people by providing them with information. For example, they may possess the latest information on technological gadgets and what prices and deals are best. Salesmen are people who, by subconsciously mimicking the person they are talking to, are able to persuade an initially unconvinced person. All three types of people are important in the spread of trends. It can perhaps be said that these people are leaders, in the sense that the trend is initiated by them. However, they do not take on a direct leadership role, and rather, act as a sort of distributed network through which the trend passes. Perhaps it is in a similar sort of way that in a flock of birds, there is a “leader”. An idea may tip simply because it happened to be associated with a particular type of person, however, this will only happen if the message itself is something that has an inherent ability to be passed on.

The second condition is that of stickiness. How well does a trend stick in the memory of a person? Sometimes the line between a trend that reaches the tipping point and one that does not, is very narrow. It is important to remember here that contrary to intuition, it is not necessarily the content of the trend that makes a difference, although the message must have some intrinsic quality that makes it stick in peoples' mind. With the smallest change of presentation and the right circumstances, a trend can be caused to tip. Gladwell has illustrated this condition through describing the numerous psychological research that went into the making of the popular children's show, Sesame Street. By making small changes in presentation, such as repeating episodes and skits, or making the anchor pause just long enough to make the children want to participate, some television shows have been able to reach tipping points. The most important aspect of this condition, which most people forget is that it is often the simplest presentation that makes an idea stick in someone's memory. If the explosion of a trend can be seen as a certain type of chaos or disorder, in this case, chaos and complexity of ideas is emerging from simplicity, as it does when simple agents interact in simple ways.

The third condition has to do with the circumstance under which a trend comes about. Epidemics are very sensitive to the environment they are in and may not spread if it is not the right environment. Gladwell explains this condition using the decline in crime rate in New York City as an example. Simple changes, such as getting rid of graffiti on the walls and being more strict with fare-beating, resulted in a drastic decline in crime rate. Included in this environment that influences us so greatly are also other people. The rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is a small factor that can make a big difference. Although a large group of people need to follow a trend to spread it, if a group is below 150, the members are more willing to go along with the group. Above this point however, the group may find it difficult to agree and act together. This is comparable to cellular automata, in which the environment that the cell is in greatly matters since the state of the cell is affected by its neighbours.

Gladwell describes various examples and case studies to illustrate these three conditions. He talks about the crime rate in New York City, the increase in popularity of a particular brand of sneakers, smoking, suicide rates, etc. Perhaps another more recent phenomenon is that of video sharing sites on the Internet, such as YouTube. YouTube started as a small start up in 2005. In just its first few months, it saw an increase in popularity and in 2006, it was one of the fastest growing websites. Its popularity can perhaps be derived from few people who correctly advertised it: connectors, who told their large friend circles about the website; mavens, who may have recommended this site as a good way to share videos; and salesmen, who were able to convince otherwise skeptical people. The site is simple and user-friendly enough to stick in people's mind and compel them to come back. Moreover, in a world where people are continuously searching for ways to share media content, it can be said that this website was launched at the right time.

The Tipping Point provides a very comprehensive and interesting view of how trends can spread through small changes. However, the book sometimes gets confusing to follow because of the density of the material, and perhaps needs to be more clear structurally. The various psychological studies that have been described are informative, yet their scientific credibility is not talked about much. Perhaps if the author had had attempted to provide a critique of the studies to the reader and provided pictorial descriptions, rather than just verbal descriptions and, it would be even more informative and perhaps would have helped prove his point better.