I read ‘TheTipping Point’ a long time ago. Then I wrote a short, boring blogpost telling you I read it. Recently I thought: I’m going to write a longer book review about Malcolm Gladwell’s book. In this way I can remember its contents more easily and, if you haven’t read it, inspire you to read it.
‘The Tipping Point’ was my first Gladwell book. I wanted to read it because of my interest in social media and social networking (- later his take on the effect of social media in revolutions was highly debated…). The book is not about social media and social networking (tools). It’s about the underlying concepts of social media and networking. And, as I’ve said before, those concepts are important to understand.
What is the book about? The subtitle of the book is: ‘How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’. In his own words: “The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. … Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” (p 7)
There are lots of lists in this book, elements of what a Tipping Point is, what cause change and epidemics, etc. I’ll do my best and summarize the book for you below.
Gladwell starts out with looking at epidemics. He looks at epidemic to understand how change happens. But how does we describe an epidemic? He lists three characteristics:
“… – one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment …”. “One of the three, the third trait – the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment – is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.”(p 9)
But what causes change? He mentions three agents of change and will extend them throughout the book. They are the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. (p 19)
With the Law of the Few he means that “a handful of exceptional people” ( p 21) do the majority of the work when it comes to epidemics. (p 19) The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes. (p 25) And the Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem. (p 29)
A big question in Gladwell’s book is: “People pass on all kinds of information to each other all the time. But it’s only in the rare instance that such an exchange ignites a word-of-mouth epidemic. … Why is it that some ideas and trends and messages “tip” and others don’t?” (p 32)
The answer is that the success of any kind of social epidemic is dependent on the involvement of people with special roles. (p 33) “I call then Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.” (p34) Even though research has shown that we are only six degrees apart, research also finds that not all degrees are equal. (p 36)
Connectors are people with a special gift for bringing the world together. (p 38) They have to know lots of kinds of people. (p 46) They span many different worlds. (p 49) (Granovetter’s work about strong and weak ties is also mentioned here.) A maven is one who accumulates knowledge. (And this person can also be a Connector.) (p 60) But they are not passive collectors of information, they want to tell you about it too. (p 62) Mavens want to help for no other reason than they want to help. This turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention. (p 67) A maven is not a persuader. Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know. (p 69)
Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. “But there is also a select group of people – Salesmen – with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.” (p 70)
How does persuasion work? There’s not an easy answer to that question. Here are some elements of persuasion: 1. Little things can make as much of a difference as big things. 2. Non-verbal cues are as or more important than verbal cues. 3. Persuasion works in ways that we do not appreciate.
Context and stickiness
So, we’ve seen that in epidemics, the messenger matters: messengers are what make something spread. But now this book also stressed that the content of the message matters too. And the specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of “stickiness”.” (p 92) And stickiness is hard in this information age. (p 99) There’s too much information to pay attention to.
The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. The lesson of stickiness is the same. 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. (p 132, also refer to the book Made to Stick for a more detailed approach to stickiness)
Stickiness is needed to spark epidemics. When is an idea sticky? When it’s memorable and moves us to action. (p 139) (Stickiness relates to the messenger, contagiousness to the messenger. - p 234)
But this doesn’t mean a sticky idea will work in all contexts… Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the occur. (p 138) “The essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain kinds of environments – that in ways that we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances”. (p 152)
At the end of the book, I think this paragraph sums up the book’s main thrust:
“Epidemics are, at their root, about this very process of transformation. When we are trying to make an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: we’re trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance. That can be done through the influence of special kinds of people, people with extraordinary personal connection. That’s the Law of the Few. It can be done by changing the context of communication, by making a message so memorable that it sticks in someone’s mind and compels them to action. That is the Stickiness Factor. But we need to remember that small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics, even though that fact appears to violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature.” (p 166)
(Note: Gladwell also mentions the Dunbar number in the context of social channel capacity. (p. 177- 179) “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”)
Evaluation and questions
I really enjoyed reading this book. I’m wondering what type of role I play: Maven, Connector or Salesmen. What do you think you are? And what role do I play according to you?
Some things in this book are easy to apply. The Dunbar number 150 for instance. Acknowledging I can keep up with that number of people helps a lot. Other things are harder to apply. For instance, making an idea sticky. Maybe I should read ‘Made to Stick’ to learn more about stickiness. In any way Gladwell’s book does push you to experiment with stickiness, instead of just sending out ideas and hoping for the best.
This book has a clear link with social media, social networking, communities without talking about the tools. As I’ve said before I think it’s important to understand underlying concepts of social media. We’re so focused on the hottest tools, we forget to ponder about what makes them run.
If non-verbal cues are so important to make a message spread, what does this mean for digital communication? More communication via video (like Skype)? Are emoticons enough in textual communication?
Because of information abundance we have a stickiness/attention problem. Could we say: In the past we had a spread problem? The networks weren’t as extensive and fast as with the internet. And now we have a stickiness problem? The networks are fast and extensive, but there’s lots of information to filter.
Have you read The Tipping Point? If you have please let me know what you thought of this book (or point to your review). And I’d love to hear your thoughts about my questions/remarks about the book.
An extra present for you: A list of 12 mind-blowing concepts from Gladwell's book.