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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Tipping Point; How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Reviewed: January 30, 2008
By: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Backbay Books
301 pages, $22.95

“The tipping point” is a phrase we hear a lot these days. Our fascination with American politics causes us to wonder what will be the tipping point at which one candidate clearly takes the lead over the others. What was the tipping point at which the government decided to fire Linda Keene from her post as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission?

The notion of a tipping point is a appealing one. Anyone who remembers playground teeter-totters (before they were all banned as unsafe due to fear of lawsuits) has a visceral appreciation of the concept of balance, and the sensation of having tipped past that point.

Gladwell didn’t coin the phrase as it relates to sociology; that happened in the 1960s. But his 2000 book certainly began the process of bringing the idea into everyday use.

Marketed originally as a business book, The Tipping Point examines how the dissemination of ideas and products resembles an epidemic, and how, as the subtitle suggests, it may be very small things that can push them from obscurity to fad status.

Gladwell attributes the success or failure of movements - from the resurgence of Hush Puppies to antismoking campaigns and the popularity of certain books - to three rules. Most of the book is a series of engaging anecdotes that prove his points.

The first rule is the Law of the Few, which basically says that a few key types of individuals (Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen) can make or break a concept or product. This is similar to theories related to studies on adoptive and adaptive behavior as they pertain to public acceptance of technological innovations.

The second concept is the Stickiness Factor. What makes a idea memorable? Did you know, for instance, that Sesame Street, as originally planned, had no interaction between the human characters and the muppets? Test runs of the program discovered that the muppets were they key to making the concept memorable. Repetition of program material also helped concepts to stick. Another program, Blue’s Clues, makes far fewer episodes, but repeats them, and uses the idea of audience participation to catch attention.

Last is the Power of Context. In New York they cleaned up the subways, removed all the graffiti, and repaired the ravages of vandalism before they could accumulate. The crime rate in the subways dropped. The book Divine Secrets of the Yah-Yah Sisterhood tipped because it became a favorite item in reading groups, members of which recommended it to other people. Suicide rates among teens in Micronesia skyrocketed when it suddenly became socially acceptable behavior.

In a 2002 afterword to the book Gladwell also provides an interesting analysis of addictive behavior among smokers and drinkers. I’m sure Gladwell would apply the same reasoning about coolness factors, stickiness and context to last week’s MacLean’s cover story about the rise in popularity and acceptance of teen pregnancy.

Gladwell is a British born, Canadian raised non-fiction writer currently living in the USA.

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