Monday, July 9, 2007

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell - A Review

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Little Brown and Co., NY, 2000, $14.95 (paper)

Are you concerned about how to stop global climate change? Does the increase in world violence frighten you? Do you cringe and wonder how people can do such things when you see pictures on television of another car bomb killing dozens in the streets of some middle-eastern city? When people set off bombs strapped to their bodies, do ask the same question? If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then The Tipping Point can offer you insights and may even contain the solution. That this important and interesting book is also very readable only makes it even more useful.

Gladwell, who is a staff writer for “The New Yorker,” asserts that ideas, social movements, fashion fads, diseases, television program popularity, and many other elements of the world situation are subject to a set of principles that govern human behavior and make isolated events move into the world of innovators and from their become viral, infecting more and more people until, like spreading infections they die of their own weight. He calls the point at which an event moves from being a more or less isolated phenomenon to being a more important phenomenon “the tipping point.” Using examples culled from the worlds of fashion, medical and psychological research, crime statistics, science, and world news Gladwell helps us to understand how movements large and small develop. Using Big Bird and Hush Puppies as examples, he explains how global terrorism and climate change might be successfully addressed.

Beginning with the example of the remarkable decline in the crime rate in New York City during the 1990’s, Gladwell suggests a set of principles that govern epidemics. He posits three sets of rules that govern all epidemics – The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. Each of these elements is described and then enriched with numerous and interesting examples that most readers will readily recognize and nod their heads as they apply the examples to their own experience.

The Law of the Few says that any new idea, product, or disease begins with a few key people whom Gladwell divides into three categories: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Mavens are people who have a special interest in a particular event or item about which they become specialists. For example, the early adopters of the Lexus automobile were car people who selected this new automobile because it offered all the qualities a person knowledgeable about cars might want. The adoption by Mavens, however, would not be highly effective if it were not for Connector, people who have a broad network of acquaintances and who communicate with them frequently and effusively about what they see and hear. Salesmen are people who want to share with others the great opportunities that have come their way and do so with huge enthusiasm and conviction. Together these three categories of person move a new idea or enthusiasm from being the province of a chosen few to being known about by thousands or millions of people. Such spreading takes place remarkably fast.

Stickiness is a somewhat more difficult idea to get one’s head around. Some things are more sticky than others. How did “Sesame Street” and “Blue Clues” stick so soundly to children’s attention when many other television shows failed to have an impact on them? Why is the Columbia Record Club with its late night advertising and low profile appeal such a successful way to sell recordings? How do you get university students to go to the health center to get a tetanus booster? Each of these problems can be addressed by paying attention to how to make an idea stick in the conscious or unconscious minds of people. The converse is also addressed. For instance, what could be done to make smoking less sticky and serve to reduce teen smoking? While not once mentioning Osama bin Laden or the use of suicide for political purposes, Gladwell suggests how the virus of what’s called Islamic terrorism has spread and by implication what kinds of approaches might serve to cut them off. Not surprisingly, these approaches are not the ones being used by our government.

The final factor lies in the Context in which events occur. To explain the power of context, Gladwell begins with the example of Bernie Goetz who pulled out a gun and shot four young black men. The context of the subway, the New York crime wave, and Goetz’s personal life combined to make his reaction to harassment by these young men almost inevitable. In another example, Gladwell examines how a fashion maven named Dee Dee Gordon functions to watch how a few young people who are viewed as fashion adopters purchasing clothes from used clothing stores and turning them into fads. From this beginning he explains how Lambesis, a manufacturer of specialty shoes for skate boarders, expanded from the skate board boutiques where it initially flourished into a mass market item and then to collapsing due to its very popularity. Similarly, he explores the spread of more serious concerns like smoking and suicide, using context as the central matter.

The richness of example provided by Gladwell helps us to understand how the tipping point not only explains how things spread, but to think about how to intervene to affect those things. While barely mentioning the Internet, he points to an astute reader the possibility for social networking web sites like Facebook and MySpace and the power of YouTube to spread ideas and behavior faster and wider than has ever before been possible. Because he has chosen such vivid and interesting examples, the book is extremely readable. Because he has taken on a big idea, it is important. This book deserves your attention and will provide enjoyment as you read it.