Malcolm Gladwell is a New Yorker journalist fascinated by sociology, science and trends. In the Tipping Point he explains, through a series of case studies and a very clear and pragmatic structure, how social epidemics work. It is an elegant, fascinating and not to mention risky book that was first published in 2000. Although Gladwell’s masterpiece is considered to be by many marketers as a must-read lecture it has not been exempt of rough criticism –actually, he published in October 2013 his most recent work, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which has been widely accused of being unconvincing- So… does it make sense to introduce a review of a book that is thirteen years old?
The Tipping Point
“The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point. There was a Tipping Point for violent crime in New York in the early 1990’s, and a Tipping Point for the reemergence of Hush Puppies, just as there is a Tipping Point for the introduction of any new technology. (…) All epidemics have Tipping Points. (…) But the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility, It is –contrary to all our expectations- a certainty.”
Gladwell takes from the rational language of medicine its central expression, and uses several references to scientific studies. He also explains what are the key notions to understand how epidemics work and how to classify different kinds of Tipping Points, according to their context: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness factor and the Power of Context. All his case studies are introduced as short stories, and, thanks to a lively rhythm, they are memorable. Gladwell, without a doubt, masters the storytelling.
Some of the case studies are just fascinating, such as the one related to the decreasing of the crime rate in NY and its relation to the “Broken Windows” theory, the one about the cigarette consumption and its cool ambassadors , or the Hush Puppies anecdote, among many others.
Taking some judgmental distance…
However, some other cases are not convincing enough… For example, when arguing about how suicide among youths became an epidemic in Micronesia during the first half of 1990’s, and how it is related to a local subculture, the argumentation is exclusively supported by a study –an American one- that observed the number of newspapers covers about suicide stories versus the evolution of the suicide rate in a determined period. These noticely random examples push us to view the author from the distance and help to remind us that examples used by the author appear sometimes a little too punctual and forced to fit in a particular context, when compared to the scope of its theory.
In this context, it is important to remind ourselves that the author’s purpose is not to do a scientific study -even though he is methodologically biased- but an essay introducing his perspective on a particular issue. He uses permanently the first person point of view – although sometimes it is a general / doxa use of the “we”-, and he warns from the beginning the radicalism of his theory.
Changing the way we see the world
In this direction, The Tipping Point is a good contribution to the understanding of social phenomenons. Perhaps there is an evident entertaining purpose concerning the short stories illustrating the arguments, but the three rules that help to structure the reflection remain absolutely valid: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness factor and the Power of Context.
I first read it years ago when I was still a student. There is always a different perception when you read a book on subjects you have worked on after years of practice, and now that I reread The Tipping Point, and that I am able to take some more serious judgmental distance, I appreciate its ideas even more. In addition, in the era of social media and over-information, and after thirteen years of being published, it remains a contemporary and fascinating lecture. The reflection of how we are more and more isolated, the immunity we charge against the excess of information, and the emphasis given to our human nature as socially-needed beings, prove that the scope of Gladwell’s speech goes beyond the aim of provocation at the moment of its conception, and that he was clearly anticipating the social media phenomenon:
“My sense is that the way adolescent society has evolved in recent years has increased the potential for this kind of isolation. We have given teens more money, so they can construct their own social and material worlds among themselves and less time in the company of adults. We have given them e-mail and beepers and, most of all, cellular phones (Not Facebook at the time of this afterword (2001!!), so that they can fill in all the dead spots in the day – dead spots that might once have been filled with the voices of adults- with the voices of their peers. That is a world ruled by the logic of word of mouth, by the contagious messages that teens pass among themselves. Columbine is now the most prominent epidemic of isolation among teenagers. It will not be the last.”
The book’s validity over the years demonstrates its thesis was not –exclusively – a one-time bestselling idea, but one inspiring discussions regarding our relations with our peers, with the brands and with our entourage.