Friday 10 February 2012

The Tipping Point

"In sociology, a tipping point is the event of a previously rare phenomenon becoming rapidly and dramatically more common. The phrase was coined in its sociological use by Morton Grodzins, by analogy with the fact in physics that adding a small amount of weight to a balanced object can cause it to suddenly and completely topple." (

How did silversmith Paul Revere's cry "The British are coming!" rally the local untrained militia to fight a highly trained British Army in Lexington, Massachussetts?  Why did New York's long running crime wave seemingly topple overnight by the early 1990's?  How did the TV show Sesame Street go from being a possible washout to a program watched by generations of children?  Why did the novel Secrets of the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood sell at a snail's pace and then become a bestseller overnight?


Drawing courtesy

These are questions that author Malcolm Gladwell tackles in his book The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Mr. Gladwell talks about epidemics and how they evolve.  For an epidemic to happen, three players are required:  connectors, mavens and salesmen. 

Connectors are people that bring the world together.  He says that Paul Revere, the man who made the famous midnight ride on horseback from Boston to Lexington, Massuchessetts to alert the local militia that "The British are coming!" which sparked the American Revolution, was a connector.  By the time the British marched to Lexington the next morning, they met with fierce resistance.  If someone less gregarious had made the trip, he might not have rallied the troops so effectively. 

Mavens are "information specialists", according to Malcolm Gladwell, who not only like to accumulate information, but to share it as well.  A maven, for instance, not only knows that Sunlight Laundry Detergent is on sale at the grocery store this week, but he tells everyone he meets as well, not to benefit himself, but simply to help someone else save money.

Salesmen are the "persuaders" who persuade people to buy a certain product or back a certain idea.  They are the ones that twist your arm, sometimes in a subtle manner.  For example, during the 1984 Presidential Campaign, a Syruse University pyschologist ran a study in which the participants were asked to rate the facial expressions of the three nightly newscasters, ABC's Peter Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather.  While the participants rated Brokaw and Rather as having almost equal expressions regardless of which candidate they were talking about, they found that Jennings smiled much more when he discussed Ronald Reagan than Walter Mondale.  Later the psychologists and his study helpers called people in various American cities and asked them for whom they voted and which news program they watched.  In the majority of cases, those Americans who watched ABC news voted for Ronald Reagan whereas those who watched either NBC or CBS, were less likely to do so.  Whether consciously or not, Peter Jennings was a salesmen.

According to Gladwell, another component of creating an epidemic is the "stickiness factor".  How do you make your product or your idea stick?  Apparently, in the late 1960's a television producer named Joan Ganz Cooney wanted to start an "educational epidemic".  She wanted to promote early literacy by exposing preschoolers to an educational TV show named Sesame Street.  Although the show had a good premise, the producers wanted to make sure it resounded with the kids.  They travelled to Philadelphia in July of 1969 and tested it out in 60 homes with preschoolers.  They were shocked to discover that the children were more attentive to the fantasy characters than the real characters.  "That's when Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus were born."  They successfully blended the "monsters" with the humans.  Philadelphia was the "tipping point" for Sesame Street.

Photo courtesy

The last factor to creat an epidemic according to Gladwell is the "Power of Context".  In real estate, you would say "Location! Location! Location!".  It is better to own a bad house in a good neighbourhood than a good house in a bad neighbourhood.  Malcolm gave the example of New York City's drastic transformation in the early 1990's from a crime-ridden metropolis to a relatively safe city to which tourists flocked by the thousands.  Although some point out that it was Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's crackdown on crime that cleaned up the city's street, Malcolm maintains that the turnaround started even before Guiliani's election in 1994.

In 1990 city officials focussed on the New York City subway.  Previously run by gangs and thugs, the subway was a rat hole, its tracks covered with trash, its cars painted with graffiti.  One by one, city workers reclaimed the cars, painting over the graffiti.  And one by one, subway workers started having fare busters arrested (many subway riders slipped through broken turnstiles and therefore didn't pay).  Often when the fare busters were arrested, the police often found other "toys" on the criminals like knives or guns.  They were locked up for much bigger crimes.  Something seemingly "small" like getting rid of graffiti ended up fighting something much bigger like hard crime.

Photo of New York City subway car circa 1973 courtesy

Mr. Gladwell also points out the success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as an example of an epidemic.  Written by Rebecca Wells, the novel received lukewarm reviews when it first came out in 1996; in fact, the author only had 7 people show up for her first reading in Connecticut.  The hardcover edition did sell a respectable 15,000 copies, but it was far from an epidemic.  Wells says that the turning point came when she started holding readings in Northern California and got audiences of 700 or 800 people.  It was also in California that Divine Secrets first appeared on a bestseller list (Northern California Independant Booksellers List).  Why California and not Connecticut?  Apparently, San Francisco is a hot bed for book clubs.  Ms. Wells' book was a book club book, the type that invited in depth conversations.  Therefore, bookclubbers were buying her book for themselves, for fellow members, for family and for friends.  San Francisco was the tipping point for Rebecca Wells' novel.  By 1998, Divine Secrets had gone through 48 printings and sold 2.5 million copies and was sitting at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.

Whether you agree with him or not, Malcolm Gladwell's book makes for an interesting read.  Take a moment to ponder how little things can make a big difference.

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