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Tipped Off

Malcolm Gladwell's new book isn't just a look at how fads work--it's a sinister exercise in the manipulation of information, meaning, and, ultimately, us.

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Maybe you've heard of a little book called The Tipping Point? It's a modestly interesting review of current theories about how ideas and products become popular that has itself become immensely popular. It has been covered in four different departments of the New York Times, not including the best-seller list, and in March made the front page of both the Tribune Books section and Tempo. It warranted a plum spot on the home page of Barnesandnoble.com, and it's currently the 56th best-selling book on Amazon.

In fact the author, New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, didn't just write about how things become popular--he demonstrated it. Like the out-of-fashion Hush Puppies whose revival he traces to a group of East Village trendsetters in his opening chapter, The Tipping Point has been adopted by a relatively small number of people--the People Who Matter--and voila! It's a sensation.

Gladwell argues that being "hot" is a function in part of having been recognized as "hot" by people he calls Connectors. Connectors, who know everybody, are one of the three types of People Who Matter, the others being the Mavens (who know everything) and Salesmen (who are persuasive). In a New Yorker story last year called "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," dedicated to the proposition that Chicago Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg is the ultimate Connector, Gladwell explains that he is friends with Weisberg's son Jacob--who works for the New York Times. Chunks of that story made it into The Tipping Point, including the following passage: "When I go down my list of forty friends, thirty of them, in one way or another, lead back to Jacob. My social circle is, in reality, not a circle. It is a pyramid. And at the top of the pyramid is a single person--Jacob--who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the relationships that constitute my life." At this point it seems fair to wonder whether tipping is something one does while bending over to kiss ass.

But The Tipping Point doesn't merely embody social climbing any more than it merely describes it. It contains a sub-rosa promise to make it possible. It's the kind of book that's bound to be a success as long as people like to think they're important. Gladwell even provides a test that readers can take to see whether they themselves might be Connectors. "In the paragraph below is a list of around 250 surnames, all taken at random from the Manhattan phone book," he writes. "Go down the list and give yourself a point every time you see a surname that is shared by someone you know." After the list he explains, "There are people whose social circle is four or five times the size of other people's. Sprinkled among every walk of life, in other words, are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors." An objective measure of whether one is "truly extraordinary" in less than 20 minutes? Who could resist? The Tipping Point is more like a self-help book than the "biography of an idea" its author grandly calls it, or maybe it's a parlor game--Who Wants to Be the Tipping Point, the new Monopoly for our fame-crazed era.

To explain his concept Gladwell expands on an old metaphor, "the germ of an idea," by trying to assess the contagiousness of said germs. This approach requires him first to explain how epidemics work mathematically and then to explain how they work sociologically. He is more successful at the first explanation than the second, but of course the first is by far the less interesting. In his endnotes he offers this straightforward example: Let's say that one summer 1,000 Canadian tourists with a 24-hour flu come to Manhattan, and that the flu has a 2 percent rate of infection. If the average New Yorker runs into 50 people a day, at first there's no epidemic--just 1,000 people with the flu each coming into contact with 50 people a day and giving it to one of them. The first 1,000 get well just as the next 1,000 gets sick. But come the Christmas shopping season, and say each infected person runs into five more people a day--just a small increase. By the end of the week, you've got 2,000 sick New Yorkers, and by Christmas you've got an epidemic.

Gladwell wants us to be astonished by the very phenomenon of epidemics. He compares the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies to the decrease in crime in New York in the 90s, which has been attributed in part to a crackdown on graffiti and turnstile hopping. "In both cases little changes had big effects," he writes. "All of the possible reasons for why New York's crime rate dropped are changes that happened at the margin; they were incremental....Yet the effect was dramatic. So too with Hush Puppies. How many kids are we talking about who began wearing the shoes in downtown Manhattan? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred--at the most?" Finally, he notes, "both changes happened in a hurry.

"These three characteristics--one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment--are the same three principles that define how measles move through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third trait--the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment--is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point." In other words, there is a straw that can break the camel's back. Stop the presses.

The sociological stuff is much murkier. What makes an idea or a product "contagious"? Is it being "carried" by the right few people, people who are knowledgeable, people who are persuasive, people who know everyone? Does it have some inherent quality of infectiousness--some essential appeal? Is there something about the context in which the germ is spread that reduces resistance or enhances receptivity?

In assessing these factors, using examples that range from Airwalk sneakers to Sesame Street, he claims to be explaining why things get popular. But he's really only explaining how--and that debatably. At one point he describes an experiment performed in the 60s to see what sort of information might make a student go get a tetanus shot. Researchers found that more effective than any dire warning about the dangers of tetanus was a map that showed where the clinic was and a listing of its hours. Here Gladwell reveals the weakness of his own analysis: "The problem probably wasn't with the overall conception of the message at all....What it needed was a subtle but significant change in presentation. The students needed to know how to fit the tetanus stuff into their lives." But only in hindsight can we isolate what that change was. Though he purports to be offering a method for devising successful ways of communicating ideas, in fact what he provides is an explanation that stretches to fit every outcome but can't predict anything.

The key to this explanation is the "stickiness factor," some combination of persistence and significance. Nicotine, for instance, is very sticky--it provides a serious rush and literally stays with you. But when the commerce is in ideas, calling something "sticky" merely restates the outcome: we know ideas are memorable when people remember them, and we know they're significant when they act on them.

"The British are coming," to use another of Gladwell's examples, was a sticky message when the British were preidentified as a problem; it would be unlikely to have the same impact today. Ah, says Gladwell, that proves another aspect of my thesis: that everything depends on context. But once both content and context become variables, what's left to analyze? Things succeed if people notice and like them, and this depends on what the things are and who the people are. For this I paid $24.95?

Moreover, "the British are coming" is not an idea--it's a statement of fact. "Taxation without representation is tyranny" is an idea, and if people hadn't already thought about it Paul Revere's message would have had no stickum at all. And notions like that take a long time to develop. Abigail Adams was talking about women's suffrage in 1776, but the 19th Amendment didn't stick until 1920. If tipping-point analysis is relevant to the complicated process by which important ideas are spread, Gladwell hasn't proved it, and if institutions--government, churches, labor unions, the press--matter in how people assess them, Gladwell doesn't mention anything about it. He's too busy fawning over the 100 coolest kids in downtown Manhattan.

The deeply political subtext of this is that collective action is beside the point if you want to get things done. The Tipping Point's subtitle, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, is an endorsement of incrementalism, the belief in the value of small change. It's a convenient belief for the comfortable, because if little things can make a difference--if school uniforms can reduce gang crime--then none of us need bestir ourselves to do big things, like challenge segregation or the concentration of wealth. Likewise, the concept of stickiness is organized to give priority to the personal over the political--politics being by nature collective. Messages are sticky, Gladwell writes, if they're about us or the people we care about, or, as in the case of the students who got tetanus shots, if they're presented in such a way that we can see how they fit into the lives we already lead.

"There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it," writes Gladwell blithely. But this is false: the only information that's irresistible is information that people already want, information about how to be rich and attractive and cool or information about how to stay alive without significantly altering their behavior. Gladwell's book is filled with stories about how people made one version of such information preferable to another: how Sesame Street made the alphabet appealing (when children already want to learn and their parents already want them to learn how to read), how Airwalk produced a successful sneaker (when Americans are already in the market for sneakers). The sole example in the book of an effort to communicate information the target population doesn't want to hear--telling teenagers not to smoke--is the story of a failure. Gladwell's suggestion for making it a success is to modify not the communication but the product--make an unsticky cigarette--so that once teenagers decide not to smoke they can manage to stop.

Or maybe it's just as he says: any idea can be irresistible under the right circumstances. But unless he can tell us what those circumstances are, or how to bring them about, or how to circumvent them, who cares? We now know that under the circumstances of hyperinflation and debt and international humiliation the idea of exterminating the Jews was at one point irresistible to Germans, but that knowledge doesn't seem to have helped us prevent ethnic warfare in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Gladwell has merely articulated a formal way of saying "I told you so."

In the early 80s, advertising giant David Ogilvy wrote a book about his life's work, Ogilvy on Advertising. If you could overlook its and-then-I-wrote qualities, it was pretty interesting. To this day I remember tidbits from it, like the fact that reversed-out print is hard to read and therefore exciting to look at but fundamentally ineffective in getting people to do what you want them to. Ogilvy's book was a modest popular success, as was Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders two decades before, because people enjoy reading about advertising. It's our contemporary lingua franca, besides which we all suspect that if we could learn the secrets of advertisers we could be as persuasive, and therefore as successful, as they are. The Tipping Point falls squarely into this tradition of promising to teach Americans how people are pushing their buttons so that they can figure out how to push other people's buttons.

So, fine. But scratch its surface and what you find is a sinister--and probably contagious--idea of Gladwell's own. Toward the end of the book he describes one nurse's campaign to spread information about breast cancer in San Diego's black community. Disappointed in her efforts to work through churches, unable to afford persistent advertising, and unwilling to apply for federal funds, she used folklorists to train hairstylists to spin gossip about breast cancer, which apparently resulted in more black women going to get mammograms. She sounds like an innovative grassroots organizer to me, but here's what Gladwell takes away from her story: "She changed the context of her message. She changed the messenger, and she changed the message itself." At last, the secret of success: if people aren't listening to you, change what you're saying. Be more like everyone else, because only someone who is like everyone else has the power to jump on a bandwagon and make it tip. War is peace, freedom is slavery, and conformity means the power to change the world.

Don't you want to be the tipping point?

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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