July 28, 2014
By: Morgan Borer @morganborer
What are social epidemics? The word “epidemic” is an adjective meaning widespread, contagious or sweeping. The word “social” suggests person-to-person contact. This concept seems awfully simple to understand. However, before diving into “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell, I didn’t understand the meaning of a social epidemic, nor had I ever heard of a “tipping point.” These concepts were as foreign to me as the French language.
This summer, after finishing “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham (a New York Times bestseller, which I highly recommend), I was hungry for another good book. I blatantly ignored all of the hype about “The Fault in Our Stars” and did a Google search instead. Though I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I typed in “best books for read for PR professionals” or something of that nature. BAM! I found Business Insider’s list of the “10 Must-Read Public Relations and Marketing Books.” Seems legit, right? Number two on the list was “The Tipping Point.” Moments later and a few clicks on amazon.com, the book was en route to my doorstep.
In “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell examines the way that ideas, trends and social behaviors change all at once and spread like fire. He takes something very small and explains how it can cause great change. In the book, Gladwell points to three rules of epidemics: the law of the few, the stickiness factor and the power of context.
The law of the few means that it takes a tiny army of people to drive a social epidemic. These few people cause something – perhaps a disease – to tip and spread rapidly. These people are not ordinary; they possess qualities that you or I do not have.
The stickiness factor means that people remember it. Advertisers want to impact people with their messages by making them memorable. Finally, the power of context highlights the fact that epidemics are extremely sensitive to changes in context. The conditions and circumstances in which an epidemic occurs cause it to “tip.”
In “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell addresses a wide range of epidemics to aid his arguments, including Hush Puppies (the once-popular American suede shoes) a gonorrhea epidemic, and even Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street. Having watched both shows a generous number of times as a child, I was very interested in his comparison and evaluation of the shows. Sesame Street was wildly successful because the researchers and producers tapped into the minds of preschoolers. They ran tests to see what the teenyboppers remembered and what “stuck” with them. Month after month, year after year, the segments became more entertaining and memorable. Sesame Street was a television epidemic, and the world became infected.
Blue’s Clues took a different approach. It relied on one actor, Steve, and a star dog, Blue, instead of a large cast. It’s less humorous and clever than Sesame Street. How did it see higher ratings? According to Gladwell, Sesame Street used advanced humor to appease adult viewers. Often, children simply didn’t understand it. When children don’t understand what they are watching, they stop paying attention. Also, Sesame Street was divided into dozens of very short segments, all separate from one another. Children were scratching their heads trying to connect ideas and concepts. Blue’s Clues turned a new page and invented something unique. They created an interactive show – one where Steve asks questions, pauses and waits for the viewer’s response. The predictability, simplicity and repetitiveness of the show worked like a charm. Sesame Street was more sticky than jam.
Personally, I felt like I could relate to the majority of Gladwell’s ideas, particularly the idea of “social channel capacity.” Humans are highly sophisticated when it comes to relationships. We enjoy socializing with large groups and having intimate relationships. Is there a limit to our socialization? The answer is yes. 150 is the number of people that we can have a genuine, close relationship with. My lips curled into a smile when I read this. Think about that next time you feel envious of someone with 1,000+ Instagram followers. How many of those people do they really know?
All in all, this book is a must-read for public relations professionals, but also journalists, marketers, advertisers, psychologists and business professionals. It’s about communication and how ideas and trends spread. It’s about people and social dynamics. It is extremely clear and well written. It broadened my mind and challenged me to think critically about everything from the connector Paul Revere and his legendary “nighttime ride” to the decline of crime in New York City. Most importantly, Gladwell gives practical information, something that I think every (and I hate to use this phrase) “20-something” is hungry for.