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In the spirit of mavens: Book review of ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was the tipping point of Malcolm Gladwell’s book writing career. Published in 2000 it was a ground breaking study about how to recognize and develop sociological and economical trends. What I found thought-provoking about reading the book in 2014 was how certain elements of trend birthing may have changed since most of the book’s data was gathered in the 90s when the Internet and social media culture was in its infancy.

Gladwell writes about “The Law of the Few” which includes the 80/20 Principle that contends 80% of the work is done by 20%. This principle can be applied to a wide range of topics including the criminal element in our society – as in 80% of crimes are done by 20% of criminals. The 20% who do the “work” are broken down as mavens, connectors, and salespeople. Mavens are the ones who have the expertise. They are the ones who might know a lot about specific subjects like tires or medical care for example. Connectors are people who belong to several social circles. Often they are acquainted with people of different cultures, economic statuses, and various philosophical beliefs – they introduce one person or idea to another. Salespeople are the ones who persuade others to commit to a cause, or product, or an acceptance. Together these people are responsible for sparking a new trend.

After the birth of trend there is “The Stickiness Factor.” Like a gymnast sticking a landing…or not, this is where a trend can either flourish or become the next Trivia Pursuit question. Is the message worth remembering? Gladwell used examples of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues for demonstrating the stickiness factor. Sesame Street is the most studied television program ever. Through trial and error many innovations were discovered as to what and how long something will hold a child’s attention along with how long said child maintains learned information. Piggy backing on the innovations discovered by Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues structured its shows around the idea that young children learn things by repetition therefore Nickelodeon showed the same show five days a week to the delight of toddlers and one can assume the exasperation of parents.

The third test for a trend is the context of which it is born – “The Power of Context.” Is the social and physical environment ripe enough for a trend to grow sticky roots and entice mavens, connectors, and salespeople to buzz about its charms? Gladwell gave the example of the Broken Windows/Zero Tolerance theory of crime management that New York City began practicing in the 90s. At that time the populace of the Big Apple was tired of crime be it major and minor, but instead of taking a top down approach to stymying corruption, a bottom to top approach was established. Ergo addressing minor offenses such as jumping subway turnstiles may* have led to statistics of major crimes dropping. By addressing the small things it made it more difficult for criminals to commit larger crimes.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. Because it was written fourteen years ago part of the fun was to put newer trends into the formula as well as lament on the fates of some of the examples Gladwell used. Hush Puppies shoes are still in business but I don’t think they are the shoe of choice amongst the New York hipster class…in fact I would argue that the New York hipster class are no longer the kids sitting at the popular table in the school cafeteria. Although Blue’s Clues got a lot of praise in the book for taking the lessons learned from Sesame Street and going one step further; the show was canceled in 2006.

Gladwell has written several books, all best sellers, since the debut of The Tipping Point, but I wonder if he will ever revisit the material. In the paperback version of the book (2002) his Afterword warned about the “rise of immunity” in reference to email. His observations were so quaint that I felt like knitting a tea cozy. Surely the rise of social media changes the game, but how does it change it?

What Gladwell does not examine is the death of a trend (I imagine the formula is much the same except bad word of mouth and a changed context and/or altered stickiness factor). Recently in the news has been closing of Crumbs a cupcake centered bakery chain due to a delisting from Nasdaq. Crumbs never came to Kansas City but several little cupcake boutique bakeries did open in town but many are gone and their vanilla cream cheese frosting is but a distant powder sugared memory. Although I am sure cupcakes will soldier on (imagine a cherry topped confectionary leaning on an adorable edible crutch) does the demise of the nation’s cupcake obsession mean the rise of the cronut or the ending altogether of stamp-sized bakeries owned and operated by two women who have known each other since third grade?

Throughout the book Gladwell uses many of the techniques he is writes about such as establishing the stickiness factor by constantly coming back to examples he used in previous chapters. In fact he mentioned Hush Puppies so much that I wondered if he had stock in the company (which was probably a better investment than the spread of syphilis cases in Baltimore).

Much like Steven Levitt’s 2005 Freakonomics, The Tipping Point provides a lot of food for thought along with information that can be used in life. I recommend The Tipping Point for anyone interested in sociology, psychology, or business. Yes, some references felt like they needed a little dusting and updating, but overall the book was a fun fast read which lends itself well for discussion.

Happy Reading!

*Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt in their separate books disagree as to the effectiveness of the Broken Window Theory. Levitt famously linked the fall of crime to statistics on access women had to abortions. Overall I conclude that taken together it all mattered.

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