The Tipping Point book review

I know that Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has been around for a long time – since 2000, in fact.  But with Bryan Appleyard naming his book one of the 12 most influential in history, it’s time to have a review of what it’s all about.  (In the following article – taken from my draft PhD thesis – the page numbers refer to the 2000 hardcover edition published in London by Little Brown and Company, London.)

Malcolm Gladwell[1], long-time contributor for The New Yorker, has written a highly influential book on marketing and social communication The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.[2] Gladwell’s key thesis “is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends … the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics” (Gladwell 2000, p. 7).  In examining such diverse trends as the dramatic fall of the crime rate in New York City, the rise of Hush Puppies shoes in the 1990s, the introduction of fax machines in the 1980s, the introduction of mobile (cellular) phones in the 1990s, the “white flight” from the older American cities in the northeast, he points to three common characteristics:  contagiousness, “the fact that little causes can have big effects” and “that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment”.  The name he gives to that dramatic moment is the “Tipping Point” (Gladwell 2000, p. 9), and frequently he is able to name the exact moment:  fax machines hit their “tipping point” in 1987; mobile phones in 1998 (Gladwell 2000, p 12).

Gladwell of course did not create these ideas, all of which are drawn from social psychology literature, but he has certainly been the best populariser and communicator of them since his original 1999 New Yorker article “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” (Gladwell 1999).  His ideas build on – and openly acknowledge – the original research by Stanley Milgram, a Harvard social psychologist who wanted to test the so-called “small world problem” (sometimes called the “small world phenomenon”), which asked the question how closely we are all connected – and by extension how easily might trends and “word of mouth” extend.  In Milgram’s original experiment – much quoted since – 160 people were randomly recruited in Omaha, Nebraska and each asked to send a small package to a stockbroker located outside Boston, Massachusetts, doing so through sending to a friend, each person writing their name on the package as it proceeded.  The result:  the majority of packages arrived in five or six steps (thus the notion of “six degrees of separation”), but interestingly there were only three people who ended up delivering half the packages.  The point is that although the networks of people are virtually infinite, there are a very limited number of people who are crucial to social connections – called the “connectors”.  (See Gladwell 1999, pp. 55-56; Gladwell 2000, pp. 34-38; Milgram 1967; Barabasi 2003, pp. 27-30; Watts 2003, pp. 37-42).  The “six degrees of separation” notion was originally invented in 1929 by the Hungarian fiction writer Frigyes Karinthy in his short story “Chains” (Barabasi 2003, pp. 26-27).[3] In the 1990s it became a trivia game on American university campuses called “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”, which posits that every film star can be connected to actor Kevin Bacon through a number of steps.[4]

The limited number of “connectors” are an important part of the first of his three key “rules” of the “Tipping Point” – the “law of the few”, that there are exceptional people capable of “starting epidemics”.  The second law is the “stickiness factor” – that “there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible”.  His third law is the “power of context” – the fact that we are “exquisitely sensitive to changes in context” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 29, 132 &140).

“Connectors” are good networkers:  they know lots and lots of people, remember them and operate as good communicators between wide and diverse numbers of people.[5] Gladwell points out that “connectors” are not sufficient to create an epidemic of word of mouth connection.  He identifies two additional types:  the “Maven” (from the Yiddish), meaning active and obsessive knowledge accumulators and brokers, and the “persuader” – the salesman with charisma and the capability of capturing the attention of the audience.  Paul Revere (“The British are coming” was his word of mouth epidemic) reportedly was not only a great connector, but also an excellent and highly knowledgeable “Maven” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 56-59 & 91-92).

In discussing his “stickiness factor”, Gladwell points out that “We have become, in our society, overwhelmed by people clamoring for our attention” (Gladwell 2000, p. 98).  I call this the excessively “noisy” world we live in (also see Mohr 2007).  Tina Lukk calls it “media clutter” (Lukk 1997, p. xxii). Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck put it even more bluntly:  “Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success” (Davenport and Beck 2001, p. 3).

Gladwell’s idea of context is significant.  He makes the point that everything happens in a certain environment and time frame and that these are very powerful to how we behave and act.  As an example he points to the power of groups – and specifically how the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells became a best-seller, first in northern California, which has one of the strongest book-club cultures in the USA, where the book clubs started the “epidemic” that spilled over to the wider population.

Gladwell’s point is that, in certain contexts, “close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea” (Gladwell 2000, p. 175).  His overall conclusion:  “Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas”.  Aside from connectors, Mavens and persuaders, “no one else matters” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 255-256).

With the exponential growth of the Internet and the more recent phenomenon of social networking, there has been a veritable explosion in additional books that complement and extend the sorts of ideas which Gladwell originally popularised in 1999 and 2000.  Other writers have discussed the connections and science of networks, including Steven Johnson (2001), Duncan J. Watts (2003), Emanuel Rosen (2000), Howard Rheingold (2002) and Nicholas Taleb (2004).

Footnotes follow:


[1] See Malcolm Gladwell’s website at www.gladwell.com.  In a July 2009 article, Bryan Appleyard listed The Tipping Point as one of “12 books that helped to change the world” (Appleyard 2009).

[2] Originally published in 2000, by late 2008 the paperback edition The Tipping Point was still widely on sale in Australian airport newstands, a testament to the book’s enduring popularity and influence – the book had reached its own “tipping point” of awareness.

[3] The “six degrees” concept well and truly entered popular imagination with the play Six Degrees of Separation (1990) by John Guare, and the subsequent (1993) film directed by Fred Schepsi and starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland.

[4] An internet version of the “Kevin Bacon” game called “Oracle of Kevin Bacon” is now available (http://oracleofbacon.org/), utilising the Internet Movie Database of names.  After reportedly resisting the idea for many years, Bacon has now embraced it and established a charity that supports other charities (www.sixdegrees.org/).

[5] The notion of “connectors” has been widely noted and accepted as a successful means of finding jobs.  A very large percentage of jobs are found by people through so-called “weak ties”.  See Mark Granovetter, Getting a Job (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995).  Rosen (2000, pp. 42-57) calls these “network hubs”.

Bibliography:

Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo (2003) Linked:  How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life.  New York:  Plume.

Davenport, Thomas H. & Beck, John C. (2001) The Attention Economy:  Understanding the New Currency of Business.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Gladwell, Malcolm (1999) “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”, The New Yorker, January 11, 1999, pp. 51-63.  Available at http://www.gladwell.com/1999/1999_01_11_a_weisberg.htm

Gladwell, Malcolm (2000) The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  London:  Little, Brown & Co.

Johnson, Steven (2001) Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software.  London:  Penguin Books.

Lukk, Tiiu (1997) Movie Marketing:  Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs.  Los Angeles:  Silman James Press.

Milgram, Stanley (1967) “The Small World Problem,” Psychology Today, Volume 1, pp. 60-67.

Mohr, Iris (2007) “Buzz marketing for movies”, Business Horizons, Volume 50, Issue 5, September-October 2007, pp. 395-403.

Rheingold, Howard (2002) Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Basic Books.

Rosen, Emanuel (2000) The Anatomy of Buzz:  How to Create Word-Of-Mouth Marketing.  New York:  Doubleday.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2004) Fooled by Randomness:  The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  New York:  Random House.

Watts, Duncan J. (2003) Six Degrees:  The Science of a Connected Age.  New York:  Norton.

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