Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

On: September 16, 2007
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About Pieter-Paul Walraven
Besides enjoying my MA New Media and doing research on Web 2.0 developments in China at the UvA I am working 2 days a week as a project assistant at KREM ( KREM is a web 2.0 oriented company which specializes in so called corporate social networks. Movies: Koyaanisqatsi, O Brother where art thou?, Amores Perros. When not studying: Golf!, running, traveling, China, Web 2.0. Books: Life of Pi, War and Peace, The World is Flat. Furthermore I am currently doing research on Web 2.0 in China and Chinese Web companies expanding overseas. For this MA thesis research I will travel to China on the 14th of April to interview the most prominent Chinese Web companies that have the ambition to expand internationally.


In this book review the theory and ideas that come forward in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, will be discussed.

Tipping point: one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once. The Tipping point is a thoroughly worked out book about the factors that play an essential role in the emergence of so called ‘social epidemics’. The book is fun and easy to read since it is packed with interesting ‘Davinci–code-like’ facts and examples of past social epidemics such as the sudden emergence of HIV in the 80-ies, emergences of fashion trends and more. According to Gladdwell the best way to understand sudden emergences is to think of it as if it were epidemics. Why do some ideas and behaviours or products spread like virusses and others don’t?

Social epidemics have three characteristics:
1. They are highly contagious
2. Little causes can have big effects
3. Change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment

The author states three agents of this kind of change: the Law of the few, The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few
Epidemics tip because of the extraordinary efforts of a few select carriers; they depend on the involvement of some exceptional people who found out about a trend. These exceptional people can be divided in three types: connectors, mavens and salesmen.
Connectors are people who link us up with the world, who know lots of people, these people are people on whom we rely more heavily than we realize. They are people with a special gift for bringing the world together. Connectors are influential as we rely on them to give us access to opportunities; jobs, fashion, movies, or anything else that moves by word-of-mouth.
Mavens are information specialists. A maven is a person who has information on a lot of different products or prices or places. Mavens will help others by providing information based on their needs. Mavens have the knowledge and social skills to fire up word-of-mouth epidemics.
In social epidemics mavens supply the message and connectors spread it. Salesmen have the skills to persuade us when we are unsure about the things we hear. Research has proven that physical movements and observations can have a profound effect on how we feel and think and salesmen are extremely good in making use of these subtle physichal movements for persuasion practises.

The Stickiness Factor
Stickiness means that a message makes impact and sticks in your memory. Nowadays a consumer is exposed to hundreds of commercial messages a day, this overdose of information is called ‘clutter’. Clutter makes it harder and harder for companies to make their messages stick to consumers. Research suggests that there are simple ways for enhancing stickiness. By analysing the success of Sesame Street, Gladwell shows that people with a message can make use of several methods and instruments in able to enhance the stickiness of the message.

The Power of Context
Getting people to change their behaviour could be caused by the smallest details of their immediate enverinment. The power of context is best explained by the theory of broken windows. This theory explains how a house with broken windows influences behaviour on the street. The broken windows give an indication to people that nobody cares about the house, and this lack of concern is contagious, it spreads throughout the neighbourhood. According to Gladwell behaviour is a function of social context.

When we want to cause an epidemic and change the ideas or attitudes of our audience in a sudden en masse way this can be done through the influence of several factors. First of all we should use people of extraordinary personal connection: the Law of the Few. Secondly this can be caused by changing the content of communication and make it stick: the Stickiness Factor. The third law has to do with small changes in context that prove to be essential in tipping epidemics: the power of context.

Appealing examples and creative past research result in an overall pleasant read of The Tipping Point. Also the history and reasons for succes or failure of brand names such as Airwalk, Sesame Street and many others make this book very interesting. After having read this book I am wondering wether it is possible to completely predict, prevent or describe social epidemics. This book is a good incentive for aspects to focus on but I think a great deal of luck and random undefinable factors are also playing a major role in the event of a tipping point.

It would be interesting to do research based on Gladwells ideas on social networking sites or other potential internet epidemics. I think research related to tipping points is very usefull for investors and venture capitalists. It’s a shame that Gladwell his blog has not been updated with related theory since Januari.

A post I wrote a few weeks ago on the Dutch blog of the company I work for is closely related to The Tipping Point. It is about Yahoo and its efforts to get busy with social networks. After Yahoo had failed to take over Facebook for 1 billion dollar almost a year ago Yahoo seems to have become a little desperate.

I think Yahoo is very busy doing research on social networks and the essential elements that are described in The Tipping Point for a succesfull epidemic/social network are very important in this case. Therefore I recommend all Yahoo employees related to this social network delay/failure (who naturally are hardcore readers of the Matersofmedia weblog) to get a copy of this book and start doing their homework!

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