Iconic author Malcolm Gladwell explains how social movements start small, expand and become popular currency – and he ought to know.
New Yorker staff writer, best-selling author and cultural icon Malcolm Gladwell also wrote Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. His latest book is The Bomber Mafia.
But it all started with The Tipping Point, the bestseller that made Gladwell a household name. Published in 2000, it remains among the top 1,000 bestsellers on Amazon. Gladwell introduces concepts that still resonate – for example, that effective ad campaigns, clothing trends, ways of thought and cultural change stick in your mind and influence your actions, purchases and self-perception. He discusses social epidemics and social contagions defined by the spread of localized trends or attitudes – such as hipsters wearing Hush Puppies brand shoes. These branding epidemics spark broad change, generate solutions both conservative and counterintuitive, and may even redefine what you regard as normal.
The theories Gladwell raises and the case histories he cites support his central theme: that significant change doesn’t always evolve slowly. It can occur suddenly and spring from the influence of a small, select, well-connected few. His classic provides a context for those who want to understand how small events spark larger ones and how social changes reach a tipping point.
The Library Journal understood the limitations and reach of this work, saying, “The book has something of a pieced-together feel (reflecting, perhaps, the author’s experience writing shorter pieces) and is definitely not the stuff of deep sociological thought. It is, however, an entertaining read that promises to be well publicized.”
That last phrase is the understatement of the century.
Gladwell breaks down social science and academic research for a mass audience. Many of the ideas he popularizes – most of which, as he always points out, didn’t originate with him – become truisms and are as hard to dislodge from the common view as the ideas that they dislodged. As he discusses the concept of stickiness, you realize that Gladwell is as sticky as they come. The central concept he describes in his bestseller Outliers – that mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of practice – now pops up in nearly every other business, leadership or self-help book. That’s how a “virus” turns into a social epidemic. The messenger matters. Not everyone can spread a social virus because not everyone gets respect for his or her opinion. Gladwell certainly does.
Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.Malcolm Gladwell
To understand any widespread social phenomenon, Gladwell explains, regard it as an epidemic. Someone does, says, wears, buys, sings or builds something. Somebody else likes and copies it. Then three more people like it and copy it. Visibility builds around this tiny core, and suddenly, everyone is doing, saying, wearing, buying, singing or building it.
Consider The Tipping Point as the prime exemplar. Gladwell wrote the book. His publishers showed it to influential people. They wrote or talked about it in influential publications and social settings. More influencers praised it. By the time it hits the stores, positive word of mouth had spread like a virus, and reviewers echoed it. Some people bought it because they’ve heard about its ideas, and they were curious. Some bought it because everybody else was buying it.
You may not be able to identify the precise moment The Tipping Point passed its tipping point, but when it popped up on the bestseller list, you knew the dominoes had fallen.
“Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen”
Connectors connect. Gladwell notes that these catalytic conduits know the right kind of people – other connectors. This illustrates a crucial connector trait: For you to be a connector, people have to connect to you and to believe that you connect with others.
Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances.Malcolm Gladwell
Mavens know a lot about one thing or a lot about a number of things, but people recognize and respect them as experts who accumulate knowledge. Gladwell explains that information drives markets, so mavens make markets move. But mavens don’t sell – by Gladwell’s definition, they educate.
Salespeople sell. When they like something, they want everyone to embrace it. Good salespeople convert others to their taste, and their followers convert the people they know, and so on. A connector, maven or salesperson, alone, can’t turn a virus into an epidemic, Gladwell finds. All three types must embrace the virus and spread it in their own way.
Even when Gladwell’s style proves a little tedious or impenetrable, his ideas remain irresistible. He’s an intelligent, articulate repackager of relatively simple explanations of human behavior. Once Gladwell reworks these explanations, they seem profound while remaining accessible. That he repeats this feat book after book testifies to his genius – not necessarily as a writer or a thinker, but as someone who understands what makes a bestseller and how to maintain his brand.
It is safe to say that word of mouth is – even in this age of mass communications and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns – still the most important form of human communication.Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell has become an adjective; “Gladwellian” now refers to thinkers and pundits who use social science research to uncover and explain counterintuitive causes for societal trends and markers. This book was Gladwell’s launch vehicle, and you can’t help but savor the irony that his first bestseller addresses how social epidemics rapidly expand from the actions of a few prescient, energetic pioneers into a mass movement. That’s exactly what happened to Gladwell. All the ideas he raises here apply to his own career, success and celebrity. The Tipping Point is Gladwell’s tipping point.