In the mid 1990s, Hush Puppies—an old-fashioned kind of shoe—became suddenly, unexpectedly popular. Fashion photographers in New York City were talking about how Hush Puppies were becoming “hip” again; supposedly, young people were going to stores and buying Hush Puppies in bulk. By 1995, a handful of key fashion designers had included Hush Puppies in their work, and a handful of celebrities wore Hush Puppies to fashion and film premiers. Hush Puppies quadrupled their sales in less than a year; then, they quadrupled again in the next year. How did Hush Puppies become so popular, so quickly?
Hush Puppies are an important example of the Tipping Point phenomenon for Gladwell, because, on, the surface, it seems so unlikely that they could suddenly become popular. Hush Puppies were a product of the 1950s, a decade often associated with “square-ness” and conventionality; therefore, it seems unlikely that such a shoe would become popular among young, hip people in the 1990s. The fact that the shoes did, in fact, soar to popularity is a mystery in need of a solution—and in his book, Gladwell will try to provide one.
Gladwell gives another example of sudden, unexpected changes: the New York neighborhood of Brownvsille. At late as the 90s, there were staggering numbers of murders in Brownsville, and children grew up learning not to ride their bikes through Brownsville—there were gangs and drug dealers everywhere. Then, suddenly, crime started going down. Some experts say this is because policing became more efficient and effective in Brownsville—but changes in policing can’t entirely explain how Brownsville changed so rapidly. The murder rate in Brownsville fell by 66% in less than 5 years.
The second phenomenon the book describes, crime rates in Brownsville, is wildly different from the first (the popularity of the Hush Puppy), and yet they have a couple features in common. The crime rates in Brownsville didn’t just decrease; they fell extremely rapidly, to the point where traditional criminological explanations, such as improvements in policing technique, failed to explain the changes.
This book, The Tipping Point, will study how ideas, products, messages, and behaviors spread throughout society. There are three aspects of the spread of ideas that the book will focus on. First, ideas are contagious, almost like a viral epidemic—people imitate an idea, other people imitate those people, and so on. Second, ideas seem to spread because small changes can have big effects—for example, the handful of Manhattan hipsters who wore Hush Puppies started a trend that eventually influenced millions of American consumers. Finally, the spread of ideas is quick— Hush Puppies quadrupled sales in one year, for example. So the book will focus on the contagiousness of ideas, the fact that small changes in ideas can have major effects, and the speed with which ideas spread.
The topic of The Tipping Point is very broad and somewhat difficult to describe, so Gladwell offers a convenient outline here. The book will study many different kinds of trends: trends in products, trends in ideas, trends in behaviors, etc. But what is a trend? As Gladwell sees it, a trend is a sudden, large-scale increase in the popularity and pervasiveness of an idea or product. The book compares trends to outbreaks of disease (an analogy it will use again and again), but the fact that Gladwell compares trends to viruses doesn't mean that he’s criticizing them. He isn’t primarily concerned with the ethics or moral implications of trends: he wants to describe why trends do or don’t happen.
One term for a sudden change in ideas, products, messages, and behaviors is a “Tipping Point.” The Tipping Point is a counterintuitive phenomenon, for a couple reasons. Most people think that life is full of steady progressions. But in fact, many of the most important events in life happen suddenly and unexpectedly, so that there’s no way to predict them in advance. The phenomenon of snow is a great example of a Tipping Point that everybody knows: water gets colder and colder without changing visibly—but then, when it cools to below 32 degrees, it suddenly changes in very obvious ways.
In this important section, Gladwell coins the phrase “Tipping Point” to refer to small changes that nonetheless trigger major trends. In the years since Gladwell’s book, “tipping point” has become a common phrase in business science, sociology, and dozens of other fields. The passage is also interesting because it tries to correct for people’s intuitive understanding of how the world works. While many might think that major events in life take place either because of large changes or slow, accumulating changes, Gladwell argues that tiny, inconspicuous changes often trigger the longest lasting effects.
Gladwell’s book will study many different people and places, in order to answer two major questions about Tipping Points: 1) why do some ideas, behaviors, and products start “epidemics” while others don’t? and 2) How we can deliberately start and control epidemics?
Gladwell outlines the structure of his book: the first five chapters study different rules for social epidemics, while the final three chapters look at specific attempts to control epidemics.