The small things that change the world
In its own way, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point exemplifies its subtitle: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, tells the stories of seemingly minor incidents that build to matters of great consequence. The tipping point, Gladwell writes, is the moment at which an idea catches on and spreads. He uses the metaphor of epidemics to describe these events, posing the questions, Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don't? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?
Part of the effectiveness of The Tipping Point lies in the intriguing illustrations Gladwell uses to explain his ideas. Chapters focus on such epidemic catalysts as Paul Revere, cigarettes, the Columbia House gold record advertising campaign, "Sesame Street," Rebecca Wells' Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, subway shooter Bernie Goetz, teen suicide in Micronesia and Airwalk sneakers.
These examples serve to illustrate Gladwell's three components of the Tipping Point, which he calls The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. As diverse as these topics are, Gladwell manages both to maintain the specificity of each example and apply it usefully to his Tipping Point theories. The Bernie Goetz case, for example, illustrates what Gladwell calls the Power of Context, which argues that the psychological or sociological backgrounds of Goetz and the youths on the train have less to do with what happened than their environment. Gladwell argues that the eventually historically significant altercation had everything to do with the message sent by the graffiti on the walls and the disorder at the turnstiles. The Power of Context says you don't have to solve the big problems to solve crime. Instead, cleaning up the subway system can help.
The Tipping Point alternates between daunting and heartening in what it asks its readers to do and understand; as Gladwell writes, What must underlie successful epidemics is a bedrock belief that change is possible. That faith is often elusive. After reading Gladwell's book, however, and comprehending exactly what Paul Revere's ride and the Columbia House advertising campaign have in common, the world around us seems eminently ripe for tipping for the better.
Eliza McGraw teaches English at Vanderbilt University.