Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading :: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
By Malcolm Gladwell

What can I say about The Tipping Point? It's a national bestseller -- as well as a former First Year Forum selection at the University of Texas (meaning that it was taught in all first-year composition courses that year). The author, Malcolm Gladwell, became tremendously well known based on it. And it apparently helped people think very differently about "how little things can make a big difference," as the subtitle suggests. It's compellingly written and accessible.

And yet I felt frustrated by it. Gladwell wants to study human phenomena such as trends, crime, and the popularity of children's shows, and he wants to answer the question of how they reach the "tipping point," the critical mass beyond which change happens rapidly. To understand the tipping point, Gladwell investigates it in the same terms as epidemics, an approach that has some inherent attraction to me. Gladwell's approach is to set up a three-legged stool for understanding how tipping points occur: "These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context" (p.19).

The Law of the Few is that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others" (p.19) - whether those people are spreading gonorrhea or networking with others in a business capacity. Gladwell subdivides these into Connectors (people who make connections with others), Mavens (people who learn about and educate others about their particular specialty of information), and Salespeople (people who are unusually persuasive and charismatic.

The Stickiness Factor "says that theere are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes" (p.25).

Finally, "The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem" (p.29). Gladwell provides several examples of how contextual or environmental factors appear to have a causal relationship with certain human behaviors we would normally consider individual.

Okay, none of these laws seem earth-shattering to someone who's read much in the sociocognitive literature. It's a systems approach. So why did I find it so frustrating? I think it's for two reasons. One, Gladwell's typology isn't that well fleshed out. We get many engaging stories, but it's hard to know how well these three factors cover or explain the phenomenon. The book popularizes the typology, but it doesn't make a strong case for it. In particular, we don't get a good sense of how the three relate, when one accounts for the phenomenon vs. the others, or how they interact to collectively explain phenomena. We might even begin to wonder what other factors are out there. Are there others? Are others even more important? It's impossible to tell from this book.

The second reason is a bit more focused. Gladwell's typology has a built-in tension related to agency. How much can be explained by individual agents whose individual, situated actions matter more than others - the Law of the Few? How much can be explained by the system, particularly the context, in which agency is reduced to a network effect -- the Power of Context? And how much is explained by how alike audience members are - the Stickiness Factor? Gladwell asserts that each is important, but doesn't seem to deal with three very different understandings of human agency here, much less attempt to reconcile them.

Nevertheless, Gladwell writes about these cases well and does a great job illustrating the three principles he's forwarding.

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