tipping point Picked up Malcolm Galdwell’s The Tipping Point yesterday, and it quickly made its way from the bottom to the top of my sizeable unread stack. This is due in part to the fact some other bloggers are writing a lot about this topic, and in part to the fact that Gladwell is an exceptional writer (he’s a New Yorker editor). I mentioned his work in a previous post about corruption in Olympic sport .

What got me most excited was how Gladwell’s thesis — that diseases become epidemics if and only if they meet three criteria — lends itself by analogy to just about every change initiative (what Gladwell calls “social epidemics”) you can imagine: getting your blog recognized, achieving enduring change à la John Kotter in business, or changing the world from a consumer culture to a citizen/conserver culture. The three criteria are:

  1. The Law of the Few: A few exceptional people doing something different start and incubate the epidemic. These people, who Gladwell calls “mavens”, have the energy, the vision, the style, the intelligence, the charisma, the perseverence, to rub two sticks together in such a way that they improbably catch fire. Incubation also requires people called “connectors” who get the gene or meme out of the cliques and into other communities and networks. Connectors are people who have the “strength of weak links”, i.e. acquaintenceship with a lot of people who move in different circles who they enjoy bringing together, so that the epidemic reaches escape velocity and spreads (as virologists said during the SARS crisis) “dangerously into the community at large.”
  2. The Stickiness Factor: Some attribute of the epidemic allows it to endure long enough to “catch”, to become contagious or “memorable”. Mechanisms to make something sticky or memorable include reinforcement and repetition, refinement and distillation, celebrity, hooks and triggers, clarity and understandability of message, conveyance by narrative (story) , suspense, and other ways of “packaging to make it irresistable”.
  3. The Power of Context: The physical, social and group environment must be right to allow the epidemic to then suffuse through the population. New York City credits the sudden and dramatic drop in crime in the late 1980s and 1990s not to changes in income, demographics or enforcement, but to an effort to rid public spaces, one at a time, of graffiti and other symbols of lawlessness. The theory was that “broken windows”, signs of disorder, invited an “epidemic” of crime by signalling its permissiveness, and the closing of those windows ended the epidemic. A concentration camp environment, as a number of distressing psychological experiments have shown, will change human behaviour at epidemic speed, where harsh rules, codes and processes in a less austere environment will not. 

Gladwell goes on to talk about the magic number 150 as “the maximum number of individuals with whom anyone can have a genuinely social relationship”, or, put another way, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them at a bar”. He argues that the same social span is present in hunter-gatherer societies, in the military, in the most effective business units of decentralized businesses and in many other areas.The epidemic is enabled when the idea champions of these groups, who Gladwell calls “salesmen”, receive and “translate” the message to put it into the group’s own shared context. As an example, he explains the success of the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood this way:

  • It had an inherently sticky message that resonated with many women,
  • It was incubated by the few early wildly enthusiastic readers and spread by connectors to other communities,
  • Each group of new readers adapted the message and the value of the book to the group’s own unique social environment, their own social context, 

and the result was a runaway best-seller. Similarly, in the case of HIV, the “few” were a small number of exceptionally gregarious and sexually active men, the “stickiness” came with the mutation of the virus to a much more virulent form, and the initial “context” was provided the close-knit communities who participated unknowingly in high-risk activities.

Gladwell then applies the model to everything from the success of children’s show Blues Cues to the effort to stop young people from smoking. He only briefly describes how you can create your own epidemic: Focus (identify the small group of mavens who have the talent and the passion to nurture the idea,  and the connectors who can break it out into the community), Test (refine the idea with others to see how best to package and convey the message) and Believe (that change is possible, that what might seem on the surface unlikely or illogical could be the breakthough that can change everything, and that human communication has immense power).

shirky Do blogs have Tipping Points, or is Shirky’s Power Law inexorable? Shirky’s Law basically says that, once a community of blogs (or of anything else) has been established, it gets harder and harder for newcomers to “break in”. In the blogosphere, that means that a mere handful of early successful bloggers get the lion’s share of the traffic, and the rest of us have to settle for the dregs. Of course, new communities continuously emerge and break out, and every emergence creates a new opportunity for someone else to dominate that new space. But if what you have to say isn’t enough to create a new community, and if you’re not satisfied with a small handful of (not more than 150, and most likely much fewer) blog readers within your own self-selected community or group, can you use the Tipping Point model to break into, or even break up, the “A-list”?

It should be possible. From what I’ve read, successful bloggers reach plateaus of hits and readership at about 30, 100, 300, and 1000 hits/daily readers. At each plateau discouragement sets in, and some bloggers give up and stop writing if they can’t get past them. What intrigues me is that these plateaus don’t get progressively harder to break out from. You would expect Shirky’s Law to make each breakthrough, like pushing a snowball uphill, progressively harder, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. There is an offsetting phenomenon, perhaps related to Gladwell’s connectors that make each blog a little more infectious as it gets further out. For the first four weeks I blogged, I averaged 30 hits a day, for the next nine weeks I averaged about 100 a day, and over the last two weeks I’ve been averaging about 300 a day. There were clear Tipping Points in both breakthroughs, but the amount of effort I’m spending blogging now is no more than it was the day I started. All I’ve done is a little bit of what Gladwell would call testing (mainly through some promotion of my business posts to some of the business “A-listers”, which worked, promotion of the Salon Blogger survey to some Radio “A-listers”, which worked, and promotion of some of my creative works to some artistic “A-listers”, which did not work). Beyond that, all I’ve done is to keep blogging, believe . I have no idea if I’ve seen my last Tipping Point, if readers will “build up immunity” to my blog or not. We will see…

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  1. mrG says:

    The number of logical flaws in Gladwell is impressive. One could start with the great many of other factors involved in NYC changes and in the social changes within those high-risk communities seeking change from within, or how every maven is a connector is a salesman it just depends on the circumstance or … well it all adds up to circumstance, inextricable ecologies that he dismisses with convenient excuse ideas like “environment must be right to allow the epidemic” which, if you stop to think about it, invalidates all of the rest of the thesis.But quite apart from this, I’d just want to throw up a general caution about punditism, especially those who list “Believe” as their last ingredient (one could also list “persist” and still not help Sisyphus one iota. The litmus test for any theory is very easy to administer: A good theory must be predictive … if we restrict ourselves to appeals to selective anecdotes, everything can be proven, even extraterrestrial intervention :) But to be reliably predictive, to be able to take even an absurd and impossible idea and proclaim that you will make it an epidemic, and then actually make it into an epidemic, that’s something we generally only see from the likes of Malcolm Maclaren :)Don’t mind me. I’m in that sort of mood. I don’t discount that there are elements of truth in all this, and I like the tipping-point’s immunology model for the fate of the Shirky curves, but I remain unconvinced that it’s even the majority of the story.

  2. mrG says:

    as an addendum (I wish these Radio blogs had “preview”), I’ve been wondering about the Purple Cow thesis lately, and comparing that to Malcolm McLaren I wonder, will Seth’s cows spawn a cultural revolution to persist a quarter century after his last 12-pack of books are shipped? Or was Macolm just lucky?

  3. And then there are those of us who screw up the curve. I’ve been blogging for about eight months. I average about 30 hits a day, but can’t post as regularly as I’d like. Once in a while, I’ll grasp the brass ring and get 100 hits or so. Then, things get back to whatever passes for normal at Salon. Maybe it’s because I don’t give a happy damn about how many hits I get. This is cheap therapy for me and I intend to go on my idiosyncratic way, posting when I can and trying not to abide by any of the rules of the game.Lots of bloggers have come and gone during my brief tenure. Even our Godfather, The Raven, has called it quits, at least temporarily. That’s the nature of the game.Some of us are shooting stars, who make a spectacular display, then burn out quickly. Others are not so spectacular, but have staying power.Here I am. Here I remain.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Christopher: Absolutely nothing wrong with being a ‘local virus’. Not only are you not screwing up the curve, you’re what makes the curve what it is. I hope my post didn’t come across as arrogant or critical — that wasn’t its intent. If I can draw an analogy to business, it’s small-to-medium enterprise that keeps the economy afloat and provides all the employment. The business “A-list” (Fortune 500) are in many ways parasites that exploit the system. I’m merely trying to illustrate that if a blogger does aspire to become an “A-lister”, the Tipping Point may provide a mechanism to get there despite Shirky’s Law.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Love to have the chance to talk to you about all this stuff (and about KM, in response to your eloquent post on your blog). Please e-mail me if you’re ever down in hogtown and might be free for lunch, or even if you have some time on the way to drop by here (Caledon is probably right on your way).You’re absolutely correct in your demand that Gladwell’s model be predictive, though intuitively it seems compelling to me, and I have enough appreciation of inductive logic to respect Gladwell’s ‘anecdotes’ as a reasonable basis for his model. I therefore think it’s exciting (in a very different way from Shirky’s deductive model). I suspect there is much more to a full ‘useful’ model of social epidemics but you have to start somewhere. I also see how Seth’s purple cows could fit into an expanded Tipping Point model. My interest in all this BTW is not to become an “A-list” blogger — not sure I have the time to live up to that billing. I’m interested in helping incubate what Daniel Quinn calls ‘Tribal Ventures’ (what I prefer to call ‘Collaborative Enterprises’) — I’ll explain what they are in an upcoming post. To do that on a large scale (which is my ambition) will require creating a philosophic epidemic about our entire economic system. Tipping Points seem to have potential for that. -/- Dave

  6. mrG says:

    [ Caledon! Wow — 8 years ago, we lived on the Gore Road about half way between Bolton and Caledon E. I don’t make Hogtown often, but next time, sure, I’ll let you know! ]There’s a big difference between, Seems true and true … this is exactly how psychotherapy can be used to implant false memories (“Oh that explains everything!”) — and it’s a powerful tool for pursuasion, as is evidenced by the average psychologists’ income ;)But ad-hoc after-the-fact is not a proof, it’s a game, and it’s a game I love to play too, only I never hold out any elegant sophist proofs of 1+1=3 as anything more than entertainment. I can also prove thermodynamically that you can loose weight by drinking cold beer with hot pizza, it don’t mean nuthin’.This A-list thing is not a new problem. Consider the old Simon and Garfunkle song “Richard Cory” or Phil Ochs’ “There but for fortune” … we are dealing with a system where every node makes simple choices, but makes it’s own choices, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s the criteria for Chaos Theory, not Power Law. Cory and Doc and all were just standing in the right place at the right time, and it could all vanish in an instant, but it’s not the numbers game; your connector may be a hermit priest who only knows two people, your salesman may be a one-hit wonder (as we say in the music biz).

    “… the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” – Ecc.

    I hate the “appeal to authority” rhetorical footwork as much as the next guy, but there’s deep wisdom in the Ecclesiastes observation.I knew a Carribean woman who saw “images of Jesus” everywhere … neuropsychology tells us the human visual system is highly tuned to look for patterns, and everyone who’s done LSD will attest to how we will find those patters even in the absense of any implicit order. This is why Science rose above Superstition.

  7. mrG says:

    Darn … missed a closing tag there :( … hope you can edit it)

  8. Rayne says:

    Okay, lots of data, lots of theory. Yada-yada-yada.Let’s cut to the chase. We NEED to apply this, NOW. The neo-cons here are poised to eat our lunch again. We need to make use of this information immediately. What does the anti-neo-con movement do specifically to seed a meme, light the fire, fan the flames, spawn a revolution?What’s your two cents Canadian on the subject, based on The Tipping Point and Shirky’s Law, to get it off the ground?

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne: The hardest part is the first part, which the Dems thus far have been unable to accomplish: select the meme — a simple, compelling, infectious statement like “The Great Society” or “Ask not what your country…”, but appropriate for today. After that, the political infrastructure is already in place to make it an epidemic. I think one single, powerful statement is the difference between winning and losing in ’04.

  10. Rayne says:

    Hmm, build the meme and they will come…Well, let’s start shopping for building supplies. What the hell, I’ll put it on credit, it’s the American way, isn’t it?What do you think would sell to a Canadian? we can always twink it a bit. Can’t possibly be worse than anything we’d come up with south of the border!

  11. Seb says:

    I think blogspace is a terrific, low-cost testing ground for memes. It lets you try many things out in parallel. Very different and much less risky than full-out traditional media campaigns, where you put many, many eggs in the same basket and hope it flies the way you intended it to.

  12. Rayne says:

    Okay, color it done! I just launched a new category, Build-A-Meme Project, to build a new Democratic/liberal/Green/Libertarian meme. Let’s see what happens!!

  13. Rayne says:

    OOPS!!! my link was broken!!! Try here: Build-A-Meme Project

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Great initiative, Rayne. I’ll answer your question in your new category. Hope Sébastien makes his way over there, too. He’s one of the brightest minds in the blogosphere.

  15. Ton Zijlstra says:

    Hi David,As I wrote in my own blog the absence of a predictive application of Gladwell ideas, and also the absence of any thought on how to do that (except for labeling actions afterwards)is a big hiatus in the book, and I agree with you and Gary there. On the intuitive compellingness of this book, could it be that it’s the promise of big change starting out with little things, and hardly any means, and thus promising the power of change to the powerless if they are clever enough to start an epidemic? Something big being just within grasp?As far as the power law and the plateaus you saw in your readership, have you seen the posts of Ross Mayfield on audience size, and their characteristics? (Blogging Bubbles, Repealing the Power-Law, and especially Distribution of Choice)I would be interested in trying to start a little epidemic of our own, to try and use Gladwell predictively. See if we can form a little group of people to come up with a meme to plant, and then start working Gladwell style to see if we get it to work.Kind regards,Ton

  16. Gladwell: talked to him a while ago. He’s a journalist, he digests what he hears and observes, and makes a nice story. It’s not intended to be predictive. Looking backward, it makes sense. Looking forward, just try it out: it works (for me: save your energy to work close to the tipping point, nowhere else).Power Law: I’m not sure but I would like to apply a diversity function to the data. See A simple statistical calculation, just not known well enough, answering the question “how many are there”: take the square of the sum, divide by the sum of the sqares. If I only could get the raw data without havin to learn Python, can anyone help here?

  17. gracie says:

    I saw Gladwell on Sixty MIN. on Sunday. I found him to be quite informative ( and handsome) I don’t quite agreee with the three principle (stickness, context, ect)in the book. How can these “universal” principles explain the phenomenon of Rap Music, Alpha-Betty, Phat Farm and SWANK. Oh well just my thoughts. Gracie

  18. Fiona says:

    I didn’t know you were so deep into this stuff… I just featured you at my blog before I discovered this. And I see it’s from last fall.

  19. melissa says:

    Just to let you know i found this great place to make holiday cards. They are usually like $20 but free if you click on this link. You can design your own cards with your own special touch. If your interested.

  20. Peace.I’m not big into theory. But, I appreciated the book. And, as a “connector,” I am starting ConnectorsNet to help us find one another using existing business and social networking systems (like ?)Please see for more info and/or to community,Steve “Habib” RoseConnecting People to Weave a Better World

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