One useful way to think about social epidemics is to analyze them in terms of the kinds of people who enable them. It’s commonly accepted that certain ideas and products become popular because information about them spreads by “word-of-mouth”; in other words, people tell other people about a trend. However, the process in which a trend spreads by word-of-mouth doesn’t depend equally on all people; instead, certain kinds of people with a disproportionately large amount of “social clout” are usually responsible for making an idea or product popular (or so Gladwell argues in the book, at least—this conclusion has subsequently been heavily disputed).
Gladwell describes three specific kinds of people who allow for word-of-mouth trends, each with a distinct social function. First, there are “Mavens”: people who spend a lot of time researching information, especially information about new kinds of products and ideas. Then, there are “Connectors”: people who know a large number of other people, and have a large number of casual acquaintances. Finally, there are “Salesmen”: people who naturally excel at persuading other people to follow a particular course of action. When new information arises, and a Maven is interested in the information, she is likely to spread the information to other people. If one of these people is a natural Connector, she is likely to pass on the information to a large number of other people. If many of these other people are Salesmen, they’ll be able to persuade people to act on the information: by buying a new product, converting to a new religion, wearing a new kind of shoe, etc. In this way, individual people play a vital role in helping a trend tip into success.
Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective ways to analyze social epidemics, particularly because it helps explain why social epidemics have become more common and pervasive in the last hundred years. The power of Connectors and Mavens has expanded considerably in recent history, due to the invention of new technologies. Communications technologies allow Connectors to reach out to unprecedented numbers of new people, and travel around the world to meet new friends. Similarly, newspapers, magazines, and computers give Mavens the tools they need to investigate prices, products, and new devices, allowing them to stay abreast of as much new information as possible. It’s commonly understood that technologies like the Internet allow for more trends, and that trends succeed because people tell other people about them (that is, in fact, the definition of a trend). Gladwell’s goal, then, is to emphasize the role that Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen play in a trend’s success. In the end, Gladwell recognizes the power of individual human beings to change the world, for better or worse. If ideas must “tip” into popularity, then it only takes a few special people to tip them.
Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” ThemeTracker
Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” Quotes in The Tipping Point
There is more than one way to tip an epidemic, in other words. Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.
Six degrees of separation doesn't mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.
But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night.
The subtle pro-Reagan bias in Jennings's face seems to have influenced the voting behavior of ABC viewers. As you can imagine, ABC News disputes this study vigorously.
The ABC viewers who voted for Reagan would never, in a thousand years, tell you that they voted that way because Peter Jennings smiled every time he mentioned the President.
At Lambesis, Gordon developed a network of young, savvy correspondents in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Dallas and Seattle and around the world in places like Tokyo and London. These were the kind of people who would have been wearing Hush Puppies in the East Village in the early 1990s. They all fit a particular personality type: they were Innovators.
Between 1955 and 1965, there wasn't a single case of suicide on the entire island. In May 1966, an eighteen-year-old boy hanged himself in his jail cell after being arrested for stealing a bicycle, but his case seemed to have little impact. Then, in November of 1966, came the death of R., the charismatic scion of one of the island's wealthiest families. R. had been seeing two women and had fathered a one-month-old child with each of them. Unable to make up his mind between them, he hanged himself in romantic despair.
The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers. That's a well-known fact. But … that does not mean that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. It simply means that smokers' children have inherited genes from their parents that predispose them toward nicotine addiction.
It's not about mimicking adult behavior, which is why teenage smoking is rising at a time when adult smoking is falling. Teenage smoking is about being a teenager, about sharing in the emotional experience and expressive language and rituals of adolescence, which are as impenetrable and irrational to outsiders as the rituals of adolescent suicide in Micronesia.
What these figures tell us is that experimentation and actual hard-core use are two entirely separate things—that for a drug to be contagious does not automatically mean that it is also sticky. In fact, the sheer number of people who appear to have tried cocaine at least once should tell us that the urge among teens to try something dangerous is pretty nearly universal. This is what teens do. This is how they learn about the world, and most of the time—in 99.1 percent of the cases with cocaine—that experimentation doesn't result in anything bad happening. We have to stop fighting this kind of experimentation.
A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.
Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.