The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell is the explanation of an idea. Gladwell writes that small variables in everyday life can make quick and drastic changes in social situations. He refers to these situations as ‘epidemics.’ This is because when so many people can get caught up in a movement, it spreads like a virus. Gladwell uses Paul Revere as a prime example of the first key player in a word-of-mouth epidemic. Paul was a very social man and so when he rode through town calling for alarm, people listened. Paul Revere is an example of a person called a “Connector.” Without these people, social epidemics can not be raised. Connectors are highly networked people.

They not only have a lot of friends, but even more acquaintances. These types of relationships are referred to as weak and strong bonds. Strong bonds are with friends. Weak bonds are with acquaintances. Weak bonds are more important than strong bonds, because acquaintances allow connectors to branch out further in social circles and meet different kinds of people. Connectors are also unifiers, bringing groups of strangers together. The second key component in a word-of-mouth epidemic is called a Maven. They can sometimes be the same person as the Connector, but are often separate entities.

Mavens collect large quantities of knowledge and supply that knowledge to Connectors. Also, Mavens enjoy solving problems, especially by helping other people out with theirs. Though Maven’s and Connectors may get an idea into the open, the Salesmen are the persuaders and the last member of the team that spreads a word-of-mouth epidemic. Successful Salesmen can get others to physically respond in conversation, for example, nodding and grimacing.

Gladwell uses the Baltimore syphilis epidemic to initially explain how a certain variable(s) can act as a catalyst to cause a normal amount of activity in a certain area to become an epidemic. The rise of coke usage caused more promiscuous behavior which resulted in an increase of syphilis cases in Baltimore. The seasons also affected the epidemic. During the summer there were more reported cases than in the winter.

Tipping points are also dependant on something Gladwell refers to as the “Stickiness Factor.” To explain this he compares two shows which’s material successfully were able to “stick” in viewers’ heads. These shows were Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street. Sesame Street spread a literacy epidemic through 3-5 year olds. The reason it is not as successful at sticking as Blues Clues is that Sesame Street appeals to both children and adults. Preschool audiences do not respond to adult references in skits the way that adults will. They do not understand them. However, the short skits match short attention spans of young children. Blues Clues includes audience participation and teaches kids in the form of a story, which is how they learn best. Market research is the most powerful tool in finding out what sticks in the viewers or consumers’ minds. Sesame Street and Blues Clues share the trait of repetition, which is key in making ideas “stick.”

The next concept covered was “Context.” These two chapters addressed that a social epidemic is strongly based on environment, rather than character. Gladwell states that in minor changing of variables in an environment where there is an epidemic can reverse the epidemic. An example is removing graffiti from the side of a building. Gladwell talks about crime, stating criminals commit crime based on their perception of their environment. Behavior, he says, is in social context. People can act out of character in situations that do not reflect the norm. The relationship between prisoners and guards for example can prove to be violent or crude. A historical example would be average German citizens transforming into murderers in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The content of communication may be powerful enough to persuade a person into an action in response. People also affect each others behaviors.

The Rule of 150 says small groups bring about successful community life. In the case of the success of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the author, who was also an actress, was a Salesman during readings of her book, giving moving performances. This was an aspect that made the story stick. The story itself was appealing to masses of women who while discussing it, became engrossed in a social experience. The size of a group affects the individual behaviors of the group. Another characteristic of group behavior is “Transactive Memory,” or “joint memory, which is a part of intimacy. That joint memory is an even stronger force in families and strongly influences emotions and behaviors in either case.

Two case studies were presented towards the end of the book. The first study looked at a social epidemic through a marketing perspective. The decline of the Airwalk Company’s success was analyzed. What brought the company to the top was taking a contagious idea and injecting a deeper meaning into it. This was opening the message up to the people. The mistake made by Airwalk was that they switched sale strategies at the climax of the craze. Their mainstreaming move took the “cool” edge from their products that were especially popular in smaller boutiques.

The second case study was on self destructive epidemics. Gladwell parallels the Micronesia suicide epidemic in the teen/twenties males with the Western teenage smoking epidemic. A common factor in both cases is imitation. In the media when suicide is reported, especially those of an icon, suicide rates shoot up. The tipping point is seen as “permission” by a select few that keep feeding the epidemic to carry it out. These ideas often find younger observers. Gladwell uses the argument that smoking was never a “cool” habit, but select individuals who are “cool,” smoke. This is why, he says, that the current anti-smoking movement is backfiring. It’s not attacking the correct issue.

There is a direct correlation of psychiatric illness such as mental depression in smokers. There are also a group of smokers who have not crossed a tipping point threshold number of cigarettes that would make them addicted. These people are approximately the equivalent of social drinkers with a controlled habit. They are called “Chippers.” The question Gladwell poses at the end of the case is: which is the more effective tactic we ought to take in the movement against smoking? Perhaps cutting out Salesmen or Stickiness may possibly make more smokers into Chippers, and that may reduce the problem.

Gladwell conducted that social change is entirely possible due to the many variables such as the law of the few and environmental changes that can either begin or reverse an epidemic. Due to the highly sensitive nature of these variables, social epidemics can be controlled. Key players in certain social epidemics include Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. With the right manipulation, social epidemics can infect a wide variety of people through multiple mediums.

Works Cited

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

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