• Himansu Varghese

Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

One of the best books I’ve read over the past year has been ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell who is a renowned columnist in The New Yorker creates a narrative that aims to explain the science behind virality. The fundamental question that he seeks to answer is very simple: Why do some things in our lives become infectiously popular, while other things don’t? Are there predictors to this virality that can be studied empirically to boil it down to a few measurable metrics? Gladwell says yes.

This book is broadly divided into three parts corresponding to the three factors, or three rules as he likes to call it, that aid in the virality of an idea.

Rule 1: The Law of the Few

The law of the few is quite rudimentary, in that it argues that some people are more important in the propagation of ideas compared to others. Gladwell talks about three distinctive types of people who accelerate virality. They are Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors, as the name suggests are people who have a wealthy network of people. These are the folks in and around us ‘who brings the world together’. Gladwell cites a fun activity in which he asks people to go through a list of first names and try to mark how many of those names are acquaintances of theirs. Connectors usually score well above 90%. They take the idea from origination to relevance by connecting people who matter.

The second type, Mavens, is something I relate to very much. Mavens are the folks who gather information for the joy of it. They like knowing things in areas of their own interests, and they like sharing them for free. Virality depends a great deal on these individuals, who like to go out of their way to know things, and then make a conscious effort to share this information with anyone who will listen.

The third type, are the Salesmen. Once again, as the name suggests, salesmen are the people who convince people who don’t yet believe in the idea. They are emotional beings and tend to express themselves quite effectively to others. These are natural emotions and not something that you train yourself for, not the kind of salesmen you see selling you your insurance policy or water purifiers. Instead, the salesmen in Tipping Point are very good at conveying ideas that they believe are quintessential to life. This could be a product, a new restaurant, a movie that someone should watch, or even a fashion trend. Salesmen have a way of conveying ideas and convincing people who don’t ordinarily believe these.

Some people are a combination of these personalities. Gladwell takes the example of Paul Revere, the famous American Independence figure who rode on horseback throughout the northeast of America warning that the British Army is fast approaching the shores of Boston. Paul Revere was a Connectors, who knew enough people to spread the message, and also a Maven, someone who has the relevant information. Together, these three personalities are a significant driving force behind a successful idea reaching the tipping point of virality.

Rule 2: The Stickiness Factor

The second rule deals with the message itself that goes viral. Gladwell calls this the Stickiness Factor. How likely is the message that is conveyed to stick around in someone's mind? Here, he takes the example of popular children’s TV shows Sesame Street, and Blue’s Clues. Until the release of Sesame Street, no effort was taken to use television as a medium of education among toddlers. A media professional, a psychology professor, and a bunch of writers took upon that task to create a show that would help children learn while they watched TV.

Over time, they identified things that were ’sticky’ which would capture the attention of the children. They used many different methods to come to this and often repeated the show multiple times to entrench the ideas they were trying to propagate. Blue’s Clues which came a few decades later further improved on these concepts and became the stickiest show ever created. They did this by incorporating basic narrative-building and problem-solving skills into the show. The children who watched it would be solving the mystery of what Blue the dog was trying to say, along with the host Steve (later Joe). Each episode in this interactive format would be tested on a control audience of preschoolers to measure stickiness. The principles of the Sesame Street study were effectively used to fine-tune each puzzle so as to make it challenging enough, yet not too confusing. Moreover, Blue’s Clues would run the same episode 5 times over the week, with the children retaining more of the show each time, and by the fifth time, they already know how to piece together the puzzle by themselves without Steve’s help.

Gladwell takes these examples to drive home the point of how important the message itself is on its journey to the Tipping Point. Going back to the Paul Rever example, his midnight ride became a sensation because the information he carried, “The British Invaders are Here!” was so important and ‘sticky’ that it spurred an entire region into action. Content is just as important as the medium.

Rule 3: The Power of Context

The third and final rule deals with the context in which the ideas being spread. Here Gladwell illustrates his thoughts using the crime epidemic of the 1980s in America. Crime had risen so much in the 80s that everybody expected them to keep rising, and the 90s was supposed to be the worst decade ever for crime in America. Yet in almost a miraculous reversal, crime rates dropped drastically over the 90s.

Now there have been conflicting schools of thought regarding why this happened. But Gladwell focuses on one particular city as an example. New York was a terrible place to be in the early 90s, where the crime epidemic had grown so fast that walking around after dark was practically a death wish. When Rudy Guiliani, the now-infamous Trump lawyer, became the Mayor of New York in 1994, he had William Bratton as the Chief of NYPD for company.

Together, they enforced a criminology principle called 'the broken windows theory'. The idea is simple. If we see a broken window and do nothing about it, it sends a message to the perpetrators that breaking windows is okay and nobody is going to stop them from doing that, or maybe even bigger crimes. So the way to stop heinous crimes from happening was to make sure that smaller rulebreaking would not go unpunished and therefore would deter the culprits from doing bigger damage to society.

Bratton and Giuliani began by tackling a seemingly trivial yet widespread problem: Graffiti. New York was strewn with graffiti, every public building, every metro car, and every alleyway was filled with graffiti. Bratton instructed his team to start by painting over these artworks on a regular basis. When street goons and nuisance makers saw that their hard work of graffiti was going waste because the police would just paint over it every time, they eventually stopped. New York started having clean public spaces for the first time in decades. The next stop for the police was the turnstile jumping in the underground metro. Many of the nuisance makers never paid for the ride and would jump the turnstiles. By enforcing strict ticketing rules on public transport, and catching rulebreakers at the source, the police kept the crime in the relatively unsupervised metro in check.

Over time, public transport became safer, cleaner, and more useful to the general public, which led to an economic boom in the city. In this fashion, the city enabled small steps to create a large impact, and by the mid-1990s, crime had drastically dropped in New York and other cities around the country. Although the broken windows theory is heavily disputed, it would be foolish to assume it didn’t have an impact on the policing methods at least.

Once again, jumping back to the Paul Revere story, the context was extremely crucial in this case, because it was the height of the American Independence struggle. Everybody involved was only worried about one this: what would we do when the British Army arrived? In the backdrop of this historical time, Paul Revere's message was bound to go viral because the context was perfect.

In this way, Gladwell explores multiple examples and stories throughout the book to drive home the point of how small events and small groups of people with a great idea often prove to be the difference between something that goes viral, and something that doesn’t. Malcolm Gladwell went on to write many other bestsellers on the back of the success of The Tipping Point and is now considered one of the greatest living non-fiction writers in the world. I highly recommended everyone interested in human nature and the psychology of marketing to read this book, shouldn’t take more than a week's time to finish it.


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