Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”

Just finished a quick read of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference." I remember devouring some of the original pieces in _The New Yorker_ and was thrilled when a friend loaned me a copy of the book.


Gladwell looks at how social phenomenon act as epidemics. A retro shoe style like Hush Puppies might get picked up by certain trendsetters, then by super-networkers, and from there into the mass media so that soon it seems everyone's wearing it. The transmission pattern for this popularity looks a lot like the way diseases get passed along and you can analyze it in similar ways.
There are some important lessons in all this. The most important is that we are social beings, and the sucess of any idea (website, organizational flowchart, whatever) is dependent upon social criteria. Gladwell breaks everything down to numbered lists and his main thesis is the "three rules of epidemics." In the "Law of the Few," he argues that the best way to market something is to get to the right people (what Gladwell calls the Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen) who will propel it outward. In "The Stickiness Factor" he shows how just a small change in presentation can often cause a big difference in retention. In the "Power of Context" he tells stories of people acting differently than we might think just because of changes in context: we're all less rigidly defined than we think.
The book simplifies things a lot and Gladwell has an overly-optimistic attitude toward captialism. This book was written before Martha Stewart's fall from grace, before Enron's collapse, and before a hundred dot-com failures. It was also written before the Florida presidential recounts and Bush's manufactured war. We've learned that raw power still counts more than a few lower Manhattan hipsters in Hush Puppies.
For all its _New Yorker_ credentials, this book is filed under "Business" and it can trace its genealogy straight from Dale Carnegie's _How to Make Friends and Influence People_. Gladwell breaks everything down into numbered lists and every rule is called by a buzz-friendly catch-phrase that's all capitalized. This book is a fleshed out power-point presentation. (I highly recommend reading a used copy that's had all the key points underlined and the catch-phrases re-written in the margin).
Before you think I'm just dismissing the whole book, I should admit that a year ago I actually sat down and read _How to Make Friends_ (sheepishly, pulling it out unobtrusively every morning on the train). I told myself I was reading it to understand the social phenomenon triggered by this 1937 classic but like most like cheesy pop sensations, I loved every minute of it. It was like eating cotton candy. It's a vision of America, familiar and flattering, distilled into a can-do formula. Cracking open Carnegie and Gladwell is like settling into your seat for a good Jimmy Stewart flick ("Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?" _Yea!, you tell 'em George Bailey!_)
So of course I liked _The Tipping Point_. Here are some of the power-point concepts I've been thinking about:
bq.. *The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty.* Although one could probably pick any number out of a hat and find examples of social phenomenon that peak at this limit, Gladwell makes a convincing case that there's a natural optimization of socialization and information-sharing that happens when groups reach 150 or so members. He finds some examples from biology and business and while he doesn't really connect this up to his main thesis ("If we are interested in starting an epidemic... what are the most effective kinds of groups," p. 174), it is still interesting to note that there are a number of Quaker organizations that hover around this level. For example, FGC's Central Committee has about this many members and I suspect too many more would force the group become unneccessarily more complex and bureaucratic. Most Quaker meetings are incredibly small by church standards and I suspect most of their members wouldn't want to be part of a thousand-member congregation. What sort of unconscious break does this put on our outreach? What if American Quakers were to increase their numbers by an order of magnitude? Would we establish ten times as many small meetings or increase our current meetings' membership by ten?
*The role of Connectors. We all know people who seem to know _everyone._* These are people Gladwell calls the "connectors" and they play a key role in transmitting information outside of the insider groups most of us inhabit. I love these sorts of people, I love talking with them and watching them. I'm not naturally one myself but I am curious enough to regularly stretch outside my insider circles and over the years I've trained myself to be more of a connector than I think I naturally am.
*The Stickiness Factor.* Small changes in the way we present information can make a big difference in how its received. Gladwell gives examples, all based on extensive test marketing of the intended audience. Boy, how I'd like to see this sort of thing in the peace and Quaker worlds. So many times we present the message we think we would like to hear, without regard as to how it might be received. In my website publishing work, I often try to stress that board members and staff are precisely not the target audience of the website and that we need to think beyond our own preconceptions.
p. I'm sure a whole class of go-getting marketing whiz-kids read this book as soon as it came out, highlighter pens in hand, ready to mine it for buzz phrases and concepts (the term "tipping point" is currently featured in a commercial for IBM). Too many of the stories in the book are broken down into techniques divorced from their message, divorced too from the fundamental integrity of those transmitting it along. There's a lot calories in the book, but they're tasty and a fun read going down.Malcolm Gladwell is a wonderful story teller and writer and I would recommend this book.


h4. Related Reading:
bq. Malcolm Gladwell has a great website at "http://www.gladwell.com":http://www.gladwell.com.

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