The Tipping Point

Why do some styles become trendy, and others don't? What can cause a city's crime rate to suddenly decline? How can an idea when properly presented have such an effect on a society? These are some of the wide ranging questions that Malcolm Gladwell explores in his book The Tipping Point, which gives its own insightful answers to them.

The Tipping Point deals with revealing the basic processes underlying sudden changes in social phenomena. Or more simply as his website points out, "It's a book about change. In particular, it's a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does."* What are the sufficient and necessary conditions for a social epidemic? What makes things "catchy"? In trying to answer such questions, Gladwell looks to many diverse instances of social behaviors, fashions, and network programming. By presenting and studying various examples involving sudden changes, he explores the details to see what they had in common that made each "tip". They all reached sudden tipping points that had noticeable effects, but what exactly goes on in a tipping point? What's at work there?

First off, Gladwell notices that there's some interesting and important people who work within various social trends and behaviors. These people are very important because they gather, modify, influence, or communicate whatever it is that presently concerns them. In Gladwell's terms these people are the Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Briefly, the Mavens collect and occasionally transmit stored information, the Connectors widely spread this information by virtue of having extensive personal social connections, and the Salesmen persuade or influence others to accept the value of this information. The key point is that the information's value is recognized and is widely distributed. Playing their roles in this "catch and release" of information, each type is influential in starting social movements both big and small, e.g. Gladwell asserts that Paul Revere was a combination of a Maven and Connector who got plenty of the right people to listen to him during his famous midnight ride of 1775. On a somewhat smaller scale, a Salesman might be a financial planner who treats his clients as if they're family. When these kinds of people work in tandem (which isn't always the case) sudden change could very well happen: society tunes into what certain people are saying and doing, amplifying their thoughts and actions.

But that's only part of what goes on in sudden change. Gladwell also examines why some things are so memorable - why some messages hook us. Here he studies the creation of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues as examples of how new things are carefully structured and marketed. What elements made these tip? This, Gladwell states, is a matter of how to make the content more "sticky": the presentation of an idea can be slightly altered without substantially altering the idea itself, thus making it far more memorable. To make a social epidemic tip, one needs to carefully think of how to present something so that it's quickly and easily accepted into the mainstream. As an example, the creators of Blue's Clues modified the successful model of Sesame Street by drawing upon studies in cognitive psychology of children. By doing so, Blue's Clues caught and held the attentions of young children, in a way Sesame Street couldn't. In the cases Gladwell looks to, major revision to the content wasn't necessary, but only minor changes which made its subsequent profusion possible. As he puts it, the "line between hostility and acceptance...between an epidemic that tips and one that does not, is sometimes a lot narrower than it seems....There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it."

Lastly, we have the Power of Context, i.e. the surroundings matters. And here Gladwell makes strong claims. When studying New York City's sudden decline in crime during the early to mid '90s, he shows how the city itself was visibly changed by various programs (e.g. cleaning up and maintaining NYC's subway system). Upon doing so, he calls the reader's attention to the "Broken Windows" theory: in an oppressive environment, an individual will tend to react accordingly in kind. Because of how a social environment is constituted, considered both abstractly and concretely, crime will be tolerated. Broken windows, dirty subways, among other things, create an oppressive environment to live in. We act in certain ways, to some extent, because of our surroundings. We don't behave in a determined way because of a genetically determined "inner nature" or "essence"; rather, we behave as we do because of how we perceive things. By systematically maintaining, repairing, and modifying various trouble-spots in NYC, the city provided a far less hostile atmosphere to its citizens; thus the decline in crime. Again, if you have a message you want to spread (e.g. "We do not tolerate crime"), pay attention to the context in which you transmit it - even altering the context itself if you have to (e.g. literally cleaning up the streets). Small details in the surroundings might profoundly influence how people think and behave.

Overall, the book has its strengths and weaknesses. Some of its questionable points are more technical, so I'll not mention them here; it would need a detailed essay to give those points fair analysis. However, I can comment on a tipping point, without too much simplification and distortion: is it really a theory, or a collection of facts and data? If it's the former, it seems too much of an all-purpose social theory covering things it can't fully explain - and for a theory, that's a bad sign. The examples are sometimes disparate, making it difficult to see how they all properly relate to a theory of tipping points. In Gladwell's design, it's clear that some features of tipping points are not common to all tipping points. Accordingly, explaining a tipping point has to be modified in each instance, so not to filter out any relevant details in each specific case - marketing isn't the same as nation building. If it's not a theory per se, but a collection of analogies, facts, and studies, it's hard to see how to apply the concepts correctly to such diverse instances: crime-waves, fashion trends, viral outbreaks, teen suicides, and network television. It might overwhelm the casual reader to absorb all the information and tie the suggested ends together. On the plus side, however, Gladwell's literary strength is finely displayed when he takes slightly difficult and dry technical concepts, and then vividly makes them accessible. The end result is an engaging read, a marvel for a book steeped in social scientific methods. Instead of dropping the "Fundamental Attribution Error" on the reader's head, he clearly unpacks the idea by showing how it works in a situation as simple as watching players shooting baskets. There are plenty of instances throughout where abstract meets concrete. When he dwells on a single subject, that's when the book is most potent and vivid.

In any case, The final result is a book full of information on how sudden change is possible. The Tipping Point is a study on how certain social events or trends come to dominate within a society. It's a thought provoking inquiry on how ideas rise and fall, to be replaced by others. If you're interested in more accessible readings in the social sciences or marketing, then I highly suggest this book. It's the kind of book that stirs the imagination and encourages the reader to explore the territory in depth. It's a wonderful, stimulating read, in which you can't help but to re-think the familiar.