What Turns An Idea Into A Trend?


How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown 279pp $24.95

From time to time, we all confront a social or cultural enigma. A somewhat hot-headed iconoclast named John McCain is suddenly a serious contender for President. A cheesy game show that lets contestants call their friends or poll the audience for answers becomes the biggest thing on television. A once-obscure book gets to be all the rage. In New York City, the crime rate plummets.

For author Malcolm Gladwell, such phenomena are not merely the result of luck, fat budgets, and changing demographics. Instead, a distinct set of factors and players helps to create what he calls a "tipping point" that turns an idea, person, or product into the object of a hot trend that the author likens to an epidemic.

In his new book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell attempts to devise an epidemiology of social behavior. That's a difficult task, as legions of frustrated marketers and pundits will attest. But Gladwell, a Canadian writer who first developed his ideas in a 1996 New Yorker article, comes closer than most to fashioning a plausible formula and supporting it with compelling examples. The result is an imaginative, if sometimes forced, treatise that's likely at least to generate some buzz.

Gladwell would say that several preconditions have to exist to turn that buzz into a trend-setting roar--and very small changes in these ingredients can make a huge difference. Like any virus, an idea or product has to be potent, timely, and infectious to the right people to become a full-scale epidemic. Gladwell boils this down to three rules: the Stickiness Factor, the Power of Context, and the Law of the Few. Together, he argues, those rules can explain a great deal, including "teenage smoking, for example, or the phenomenon of word of mouth, or crime, or the rise of a best-seller." Phew!

"Stickiness," to the author, consists of those small, seemingly trivial elements that make a message memorable. Among other things, he dissects the ground-breaking stickiness of the children's television programs Sesame Street and Blue's Clues in about 30 pages that are among the least sticky parts of The Tipping Point. Then, Gladwell considers the power of context to define how events are perceived. Consider the case of Bernie Goetz, who in 1984 shot four youths who menaced him on a New York subway. Because the shooting came at a particularly crime-ridden period in the city's history, Goetz was regarded as a hero in some quarters. In the Disneyfied Manhattan of today, he might be dismissed as a kook or a villain.

For an epidemic to take off, though, it's especially important to reach the right few people--those that Gladwell refers to as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors are people who seem not only to know everyone but to glide effortlessly across different groups. At one extreme, there are dangerous connectors like Gaetan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant, notorious as AIDS Patient Zero, who claimed to have had sex with 2,500 people across North America. A more innocuous example is Kevin Bacon, the actor who is allegedly six degrees from everyone in Hollywood because he has appeared in such a diverse range of movies. As Gladwell puts it: "By having a foot in so many different worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together." That is what makes them critical for catapulting diseases or ideas beyond a few niche groups.

But Connectors don't discover the ideas. That's the job of the Mavens--those who delight in finding and sharing new information. We've all met them: They know the hippest new restaurant mere seconds after it has opened--and they are able to tell you which street in Tokyo sells erotic pantyhose. In Gladwell's universe, these folks are "information brokers," learning and passing on information.

Even so, they're not as crucial to the circulation of ideas as the Salesmen, who latch on to an idea and have the skills to persuade others that this notion matters. This lot of people has the energy, enthusiasm, charm, likability, "and something more" to make us believe their pitch. It goes beyond the glad-handing of Dale Carnegie apostles: Gladwell offers a study showing that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings' facial expression alone has the power to tilt voters towards a particular candidate, even when the journalist's verbal message is neutral.

These categories can seem artificial. Some of Gladwell's Mavens seem to be solid Salesmen, and vice-versa. Moreover, he offers too few cases in which the reader can see all parts of his theory acting together: Many of the anecdotes illustrate just one. Goetz, for example, may have won attention because of his timing, but his vigilantism hardly started a trend. And Sesame Street may have caught on with its audience--but just who were the Mavens and Connectors who promoted it?

What Turns an Idea into a Trend?

Still, it's hard not to be persuaded by Gladwell's thesis. Not only does he assemble a fascinating mix of facts in support of his theory--from the impact of Paul Revere to a rash of suicides in Micronesia--but he also manages to weave everything into a cohesive explanation of human behavior. What's more, we appreciate the optimism of a theory that supports, as another pundit once called it, the power of one. The Tipping Point may suffer a bit from an after-dinner-speech style, with Gladwell stating what he's going to say, saying it, and then reminding you of what he has said. But there's little doubt that the material will keep you awake right through dessert and coffee.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.