by Stephanie Grover, Junior Project Engineer at VPG
Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference" discusses how an idea or trend can snowball into a social phenomena. Some trends can seem to happen overnight, but they've often been building popularity and rising just outside of the larger social landscape. When an idea or trend crosses this threshold of public perception, that is what Gladwell refers to as the "Tipping Point". He also identifies what factors lead to a trend reaching this tipping point. These are the three laws of social epidemics, the Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context.
The law of the few discusses how a small portion of people can hold a vast amount of social influence, and how these people are important for the success of a social epidemic. These people are called "Connectors" since they have such a wide social web with a plethora of connections. It's interesting to me to see Gladwell identify this law before the rise of social media. I think the existence of social media influencers today clearly demonstrates the law of the few in practice. Many trends can be easily traced back to a viral post, or celebrity. Companies will pay those with followers a lot to simply feature their products and being an influencer online can now be a full time job.
The second law, the stickiness factor, is the quality of the trend. Even if you have a lot of people promoting something, the actual idea, trend, or product needs to actually "stick" in people's minds. A catchy song or company slogan are good examples of this. Gladwell discusses how the TV show Sesame Street demonstrates the stickiness factor, with the producers deliberately adding in elements to the show, like the puppets, that will make the content, learning math and reading, actually interesting and "Stick" with them. I think the stickiness factor can explain why a lot of ideas or trends fail even with a lot of social influence, the quality is important as well.
Finally, the last law is about the power of context, which is our real-world surroundings and environment. People are subconsciously going to behave in a way that reflects their environment. Gladwell demonstrates this through the "Broken Window Hypothesis". In New York City, police focused on preventing smaller crimes, like graffiti, as a way to prevent larger crimes from happening. By targeting minor crimes, the overall context of the city changed and the number of serious crimes went down. The power of context can subconsciously tell people what is okay and not okay to do.
I really enjoy how Gladwell shows both the good and bad that can come out of social epidemics. In the case of the Broken Window Hypothesis, changing the context caused New York City to become a safer place and encouraged an overall positive social trend. However, Gladwell also discusses how suicide and smoking come to be a social epidemic as well. The stickiness factor of addictive substances is strong, and being in a social environment with these things helps the trend grow. I think The Tipping Point has made me think a lot about the trends of today, and how they can be manufactured to happen. Once you know the signs and understand the laws, you can identify what is controlling the social epidemic and in the cases where it's something harmful, you can use the laws to fight back as well.