Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

August 18th, 2008

People at work have been recommending The Tipping Point to me for a long time; now that I’ve read it I can see why. The book is about how ideas spread, specifically ideas that become popular. When it came out there was a lot of talk about it, and it was on everyone’s business book reading list. Strangely, though I don’t see companies using Malcolm Gladwell‘s observations to create wildly popular products. Ideas are still tipping, and I can see many things happening now which will tip soon.

Try to take the concepts of the tipping point as a rule or a law; rather this is just one way that ideas spread among humans. Think of the tipping point more as a tool or a path.

An idea or thing tips like this: something new is created and adopted by the crazy innovators who are always doing weird things. This new thing is then noticed by early adopters who take it and add to the thing some tweaks that make it more palatable. Then the large group of people who take their cues from the early adopters pick up the thing, tweak it a little more to make it more mainstream and more to their taste. Somewhere around this point this thing or idea will ‘tip’ – it’ll become popular among the mainstream and adopted by the vast majority of people. After it’s established among this group, is when the late adopters, the people who don’t like change all that much, will take up the thing – and this is when it begins to die (or be assimilated into society, Gladwell isn’t very specific on this part, probably because it’s not all that interesting).

That is The Tipping Point, grossly simplified. The beauty of the movement of this idea or thing is that its path among society is independent of the medium, save that every step of the way is aided by three things that humans love to do: communicate, evangelize, and learn.

For example, same-sex marriage and the use of ebook readers are about to tip, I think. Other things, like reading fiction for entertainment and interest in space exploration, will tip in the next 5-10 years. Things that have just tipped are using Mac computers and those scarves that look like PLO scarves.

What was most fun about The Tipping Point is seeing what kind of people my friends and coworkers are, as well as myself. Gladwell identifies communicators, mavens, and salesmen as crucial to passing along an idea or thing to make it tip; while the groups of people that adopt ideas or things are in this order: innovators, early adopters, early majority, the majority, and late adopters.

I fall into the maven type perfectly. I’m aware of many things going on in popular culture, subcultures, as well as a thorough knowledge of the past and present of technology. And I tend to be the one telling other people about this stuff. Meanwhile, most of my friends are either communicators or salesmen – I know a couple of people who are massive communicators that know many, many people. In addition, I’m usually an innovator or early adopter, depending on the idea or thing. I was an early adopter of mac computers, just before the early majority started using them (4-5 years ago), while I’m an innovator of ebook readers since most people still don’t have one yet. Strangely, I was an innovator of the metrosexual look – it sounds crazy, but I was dressing that way before the early adopter guys started dressing sharply (only an early adopter would have noticed: the stuff I was wearing was way off the mark and thank god there’s no pictures of me looking that way, that I’m aware of!). What’s fascinating is that I remember lots of ideas an things that came my way that I either didn’t adopt and pass on (raised collars, swing dancing, facebook), or I embraced them but they died (Korean soap operas, Charles Bukowski, Eee PC).

Malcom Gladwell is a fascinating writer. He tends to specialize in ‘human technology’ – things that we do that are as powerful as machines but all biological and only half-understood. His other book, Blink, is a good excuse for making snap judgments. Sometimes, the right answer is the the first thing that pops into mind. I can’t wait to read next book, coming out later this year. Here’s an article by him about how some ideas come about because a lot of people were thinking about the solution at the same time, it was just waiting to be discovered.

A recent example of this that I encountered was that my Mother was looking for a new car, so she went shopping with my Father and I. We looked at two small SUVs; the first one had lots of gadgets and cool features that Dad and I really liked (I get my love of gadgets and technology from him), but Mom was confused by how some of the features worked and didn’t like the size of the rear window. At the next dealership we looked at a similar model that was a very good vehicle without all the cool buttons. But before she took the SUV out of the lot for a test drive she loved it: the rear window was a good size and she was comfortable driving it. For the next hour Dad and I had the task of convincing her that it’s OK to buy something this fast, even a car, if your instinct is telling you this is the one you want, you’ll be happy.

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