Skip to main content

The Tipping Point: on the emergence of fads in the global social network

The above URL is a link to a New York Times review of the book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”  In this book, published in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell explores the way products and ideas travel through the global social network.  He seeks to answer the question of why certain new ideas become fads and spread like wildfires, while others never make it past a small, localized community.  He theorizes that when something is on the verge of becoming a fad, it undergoes a “tipping point” where the conditions within the network are just right to send the idea surging outward at an astonishingly fast rate.  The New York Times review is a good overview into the topics Gladwell discusses, but the book itself is filled with interesting and insightful analysis and will change the way you think about the spread of ideas.

In class, we’ve talked a little about how the way information travels through a network is dependent on the structure of the network itself.  For example, we mentioned that people will often receive new information (such as a new idea, or a job opportunity) through “weak ties” in the network — that is acquaintances rather than close friends.  We analyzed some small networks where the edges between nodes had weights such as “strong” or “weak.”  However, in “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell argues that it is the characteristics of individual people (i.e. the nodes, not the edges) and the nature of the idea itself, that determine how an idea travels through a network.  He divides people into three main groups: the “mavens:” those who will amass a deep and detailed understanding about a particular topic, idea, product, etc; the “salesmen:” who never tire of sharing their own knowledge with others, whether it’s with a close friend or a distant acquaintence; and finally the “connecters:” those people who have connections to large numbers of other people and act as the main hubs in the network through which information spreads.  Each of these groups plays an essential role in the network allowing ideas to spread rapidly and virally.

Gladwell also points out that no matter what the state of the network, certain ideas will never have the potential to spread as far and as fast as others.  He says that a tidbit of information must have a certain degree of “stickiness” so the mavens will have enough interest to delve into the idea, so the salesmen will feel compelled to share it, and so it reaches the connecters who can dispel that idea far and wide in the network.  A “sticky” idea, he says, is one that you will find yourself thinking about long after you heard about it for the first time.  If an idea isn’t “sticky” enough, people will forget about it before they pass it on to other nodes they’re connected to.  Having a dense, highly connected network is not enough on its own to have ideas and products become fads.  The information itself must be “worthy” of being spread.

This book adds some great new perspectives on the theories of information travel through a network that we’ve discussed in class.  It makes us realize that the behavior of a network is determined not only by its edges, but by the properties of its nodes, and the very nature of an idea or piece of information that has the potential to spread through the network.



Leave a Reply

Blogging Calendar

September 2012