What is a social epidemic? Gladwell has a number of examples - an inexplicable overnight resurgence in popularity of Hush Puppie shoes; a tragic rise in teen suicide in Micronesia; a startling decrease in the New York City crime rate -- Gladwell uses all of these to illustrate what he defines as the three principles of social epidemics: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context.
The law of the few is roughly comparable to the 80/20 rule, that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Gladwell attributes the success of social epidemics to the efforts of three types of individuals: connectors, mavens, and salesmen.
Connectors are people who because of their personalities and their ability to exist in numerous worlds and cultivate weak-ties with a variety of individuals, make the world a smaller place by bringing people together. They are the ones responsible for the six degrees of separation theory.
Mavens are shoppers. It doesn't matter what the market is - cars, computers, clothes - the maven is the person with her finger on the pulse of the industry, the early adopter. Mavens accumulate knowledge about the industry; the maven is the guy in the cubicle next to yours who knows exactly what the next version of the iPod is going to look like and do. He's also the guy who has one first.
Salesmen are people who through the shear persuasiveness of their personalities are able to sell ideas, products, practices without even trying. We buy what they buy and do what they do because they make it seem so appealing, and we just want to be more like them.
The second principle of social epidemics is the stickiness factor; it is the impact that something has, it's ability to stick, to grab your attention, to stay on your mind. Gladwell purports that there are "relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring" of an idea that can make it more sticky, and he uses the creation of hugely successful children's television shows, Sesame Street and Blues Clues, to illustrate this point.
The Power of Context
Gladwell's third principal is the power of context, the notion that epidemics are sensitive to the context, or the time and place, in which they occur. In a compelling example of how during the 1990's the crime rate in New York City dropped precipitously and without explanation, Gladwell points to something called the Broken Windows theory, theory of two criminologists based upon the notion that, "if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will bee broke, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a a signal that anything goes."
Gladwell harnesses other compelling examples and social theories to support his own. I particularly liked his illustrations of social channel capacity, the idea that human beings are less effective in social groups of more than 150 individuals.
The Tipping Point is a powerful and fascinating book that cuts across a variety of fields of interest. Within, Gladwell constructs and details ideas that change the way we perceive social trends we might not otherwise think to question.