Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

The Tipping Point, "that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once," is about social epidemics, such as the case of the stunning and dramatic revival of the once-square and forgotten Hush Puppies shoes, which became the hippest shoe you could wear in the mid-1990s, to use a prominent example in the book. Malcolm Gladwell, much like the Stev(ph)ens of Freakonomics, takes theory that could very easily be mind-numbing in someone else's hands and makes it exciting and revealing with clear examples.

Gladwell explores word of mouth, how it spreads, and the differences between those we take information from (such as restaurant advice or what kind of car to buy) and those we don't. For example, many may not know there was another man who took part in Paul Revere's midnight ride (I didn't). There's a reason we don't remember him. Most of the people he warned that night didn't remember him either. They were much less prepared than those who were warned by Revere. Turns out Revere would have been a supremely popular guy who everyone knew if he was around today. And that's part of what made him the perfect person to spread the message about the British.

And as we are in the age of information, if you're trying to sell a product, you have to be aware of the "clutter problem" in advertising. We're inundated with so much information, it's really hard to get our attention. "Coca-Cola paid $33 million for the rights to sponsor the 1992 Olympics, but despite a huge advertising push, only about 12 percent of TV viewers realized they were the official Olympic soft drink, and another 5 percent thought that Pepsi was the real sponsor."

Gladwell also shows how small modest changes can create a social epidemic. Blue's Clues, the highly popular children's show, took what worked best from Sesame Street, and then made it "stickier." Surprisingly, stuff most people would think made Sesame Street most effective (the humor that also worked with adults, creativity, and word play) was not what the creators of Blue's Clues kept. They made a very literal show, which turned out to be perfect for preschoolers, and they made it interactive. "Sometimes Steve will play dumb. He won't be able to find a certain clue that might be obvious to the audience at home and he'll look beseechingly at the camera. The idea is the same: to get the children watching to verbally participate, to become actively involved. If you watch Blue's Clues with a group of children, the success of this strategy is obvious. It's as if they're a group of diehard Yankee fans at a baseball game."

I go could on with every more interesting and surprising examples. Like how the degrees from Kevin Bacon isn't six, as most of us believe, but is instead 2.8312. I think saying that a book will make you think differently about the world is a fairly big statement, but I do think this book is one that can change your perception of everyday life.

Next book up: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell


rsalamo said...

I've never read The Tipping Point, but I have read Blink, and it was fairly enjoyable.
Anyway, another book that can (minorly) change the way you look at the world is Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. It's a book that attempts to show the problem with the societal acceptance of people saying, "I'm not a math person." I don't think the consequences are really laid out that well, but the examples are interesting and it does encourage critical thinking, which is always a plus.

rsalamo said...

I messed up the link - here's a correction...
Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos