At various points in modern history, ideas, products, messages, and other behaviors have suddenly and unexpectedly become very popular. Certain clothes become fashionable, crime rates go down at an unprecedented rate, and religions find millions of new worshippers. This phenomenon is called a social epidemic. Intuitively, most people would like to think that social epidemics happen slowly and gradually. But in fact, many changes in society are so sudden that they almost seem to happen overnight. The moment at which a social epidemic goes from invisible to seemingly ubiquitous is called a “Tipping Point.” The book seeks to understand how social epidemics happen, and whether it’s possible to start and control them.
There are three ways to understand social epidemics: in terms of the people who cause them; in terms of the content of the epidemic (i.e., the product, message, idea, or behavior being spread); and in terms of the environment or context in which the epidemic takes place. Each way of understanding a social epidemic corresponds to a different rule or law of epidemics.
The first law of social epidemics is the Law of the Few. In all social epidemics, a small handful of people wield a disproportionate amount of power. All people are connected to other people through family, friendship, work, hobbies, etc. But some people have more connections than other people—these people are called “Connectors.” Connectors have so many friends and acquaintances that when they hear an important piece of information, they’re likely to spread that information to many other people. Another kind of person who’s important to social epidemics is a “Maven.” Mavens are important because they love to accumulate knowledge. When there’s an exciting new product, a Maven will tell other people about the product, explaining why it’s such a good bargain. If the Maven tells a Connector about his discovery, then news of the product will reach many people, helping the product to become a major trend. The third kind of person who’s important to social epidemics is the Salesman. Salesmen are adept at persuading people to change their behavior. If a Salesman becomes aware of a new trend, then he will be likely to persuade many of his friends to “get in on” the trend. So when news of a trend passes from Mavens to Connectors to Salesmen, the trend will influence the behavior of many people, allowing the trend to reach its Tipping Point.
The second law of social epidemics is the concept of “stickiness.” People are important in disseminating information and spreading word about trends, but that’s not enough. The idea, product, or message being spread must be at least somewhat intriguing, memorable, or addictive—in a word, “sticky.” Advertising agencies often spend millions of dollars to identify what is and isn’t “sticky” for consumers. One of the best examples of stickiness is the TV show Sesame Street. The show’s producers devoted an unprecedented amount of research to determining what attracts young children’s attention. The producers tried to teach children about reading and math by first interesting them. Researchers for Sesame Street found that children enjoyed TV shows that blended “fantasy and reality,” hence famous characters like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Later on, children’s shows like Blue’s Clues improved on Sesame Street research by showing that children like shows with strong narrative and lots of repetition. Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues have not only been very popular, but also educated millions of children about reading and counting—demonstrating how “stickiness” can be of great help to TV watchers.
The final rule for understanding epidemics is the principle of context. Intuitively, people believe that human beings behave a certain way because of their innate talents, personalities, or inclinations. But in reality, real-world human behavior is more often dictated by context—in other words, the physical environment in which humans live and move. A good example of the importance of context and environment in shaping human behavior is the Broken Window Hypothesis—the idea that cities can cut down in serious crime by preventing minor crimes like graffiti and public urination. Gladwell argues that the Broken Window Hypothesis proved to be successful in New York City in the 1980s and 90s: officials focused on fighting seemingly minor crimes, thereby making the overall environment, or “context,” of the city safer. The people of New York City had the same personalities and abilities before and after officials enacted the Broken Window Hypothesis, but they were less likely to commit serious crimes, because their city’s environment did not encourage these crimes.
Another important example of the importance of context is group size. Scientists have determined that groups of more than 150 people tend to be less cooperative and close than groups of 150 people or less—even an increase from 145 people to 185 people has big implications for the cooperativeness of the group. Businesses like Gore Associates have been successful in part because they keep their office sizes capped at 150 people. As a result, Gore employees know one another well, cooperate, and feel comfortable specializing in specific areas of the company.
There are many potential applications of the three laws of social epidemics. One potential application is marketing and advertising. In the 1990s, a shoe called Airwalk became very popular among young, “hip” people. Airwalk was successful in large part because it was able to stay informed about new trends and popular ideas, and then incorporate these ideas into its commercials and ads. In other words, Airwalk was able to reach a large number of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, who were inspired by the “stickiness” of Airwalk, and spread news of the product to their friends.
Another potential application of the discussion of social epidemics is the trend of teen smoking in the United States, which bears a lot of resemblance to the teen suicide epidemic in Micronesia. Even if a behavior like teenage suicide or smoking doesn’t seem at all healthy or desirable, it can be both sticky and contagious. Studies suggest that many of the teenagers who began smoking were originally inspired by “cool” people who also smoked. In other words, the teenage smoking epidemic is partly the result of powerful Salesmen who persuade teenagers to smoke. Also, smoking is a sticky behavior in itself because it’s chemically addictive. The question becomes, then, if the government wants to reduce teen smoking, should it try to reduce the stickiness of smoking or try to change Salesmen to persuade teenagers not to smoke? Gladwell argues that it would be highly difficult to change the power of Salesmen, since adults’ attempts to persuade teenagers not to smoke often serve to make smoking seem “forbidden” and therefore more desirable. Gladwell suggests that instead, officials should try to make smoking itself less addictive, either by mandating that tobacco companies reduce the amount of nicotine in their cigarettes or perhaps by trying to treat depression, which often acts as a chemical trigger for teenagers to become addicted to nicotine.
The book concludes that the world is not immoveable. In fact, the world is constantly “tipping” in different directions, because of the laws of social epidemics.