I read Gladwell’s latest non-anthology1, Outliers last year, and his sophomore effort a few months later. It appears that I am working backwards, having just finished his debut book, The Tipping Point. My review of Outliers was more favorable than Blink; this was due in part, I think, to Gladwell’s progression as a writer and thinker. Sadly, it also means that The Tipping Point being his first published book and now a decade old, is the weakest offering yet.
Perhaps the big problem is muddle. The Tipping Point, you see, is an attempt to put layer bits of epidemiology over social science. Using a few workhorse examples, such as Hush Puppies and Airwalk brand shoes, he tries to explain the phenomenon of small changes suddenly snowballing into large events. Actually, that’s not even quite correct; as the title suggests, what we’re really talking about is things (e.g. shoe sales) which show little response to stimulus until a certain input variable tips them over the precipice. It’s a particular distinction, and Gladwell doesn’t do a very good job of staying true to it; much of the time, I’m unaware exactly what Gladwell is trying to tell me outside of the most immediate anecdote.
He identifies three factors which influence these so-called “tipping points”. The first is the “stickiness” factor, which is merely a different way of calling something memorable or engaging. As his example, Gladwell cites Sesame Street, which would have failed early on had its initial creators not done studies in order to maximize child engagement in the program. In the context of, say, shoe sales, I suppose you could call the product advertising and cultural importance its “stickiness”.
The second factor, so obvious that it hardly needs stating, is that humans are powerfully affected by context. In other words, criticality in epidemiological terms requires a suitable environment for the “outbreak” to happen. One of his examples is New York City’s attempt to combat turnstile jumping (historically considered a waste of manpower) which had the effect of lowering crime—including violent crime—in general; the implication is that turnstile-jumpers also happen represent a disproportional amount violent criminals, though Gladwell doesn’t ever say this outright.
Finally, and most importantly, Gladwell builds upon Stanley Milgram’s 1967 “Six Degrees of Separation” experiment to construct a theory of how people and word-of-mouth creates tipping points. Gladwell renames the Pareto Principle (or “80/20 rule”) the “Law of the Few”, and fashions, RPG-like, a set of character classes to define the constituent members of these “Few”. Though he never claims to have come up with it, and initially refers to it by its more common “80/20” moniker, Gladwell’s persistent use of his own term feels just slightly underhanded to me; the effect is to build the notion in the reader’s mind that it is in fact Gladwell that came up with the term.
As if feeling the need to contribute, Gladwell proposes three archetypes: the Connector, or the well-connected person whose relationships spread important cultural data; the Maven (also called a “wonk” where I’m from), or the person emotionally invested in a particular product or family of product whose enthusiasm forms the initial momentum toward a tipping point; finally, the Salesman, or the charismatic persuader, which I feel is the least developed and least relevant character in Gladwell’s trio.
Toss these disparate elements together and you have Gladwell’s thesis, which is….. well, I’m not sure what his thesis is. He’s established that certain phenomenon do “tip” and he’s described, in general terms, the actors involved in the process. He’s even posited, in even more general terms, why some things tip and others don’t. But what he doesn’t ever tackle is why so many phenomenon have predictable causal relationships (i.e., imagine a smooth line on a graph) and others appear impervious to change before suddenly exploding overnight (i.e. a near-flat line on a graph spiking midway through). Though he mentions “geometric progression” as a boilerplate explanation for sudden rapid change in his comparison of sociological phenomenon to viruses, he doesn’t identify what qualities of some phenomena make them progress geometrically as opposed to arithmetically.
Despite the many criticisms one could level at Gladwell and his work, I am generally a fan of his: I think his approach to topics is refreshing, his stubborn curiosity admirable, and his writing style well-suited for his intended audience. That The Tipping Point is a lesser book than Outliers comes as no great surprise, and neither are the tendencies of science popularizers to over-simplify their subjects to the point of inaccuracy or banality. For those who haven’t read Gladwell and would like to, my advice is to focus on his newer books and essays, and they are an entirely different level of quality.
- Strictly speaking, his most recent work as of this writing is What the Dog Saw, a compendium of his New Yorker essays.[↩]