I just finished The Tipping Point, a book that has been recommended to me by quite a few people.

My review is a bit mixed. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, uses a series of disconnected events and attempts to use them to prove a larger theory regarding the rules of causation. This movement from specific to general is somewhat successful, but falls far short of providing adequate proof for his theory.

Another weakness in the book is disorganization. Gladwell's theory is made up of a disjointed set of smaller theories. The book could have been much better if he had included a better summary at the end.

So why then is this book so recommended? I think part of that phenomena is due to the fact that people desire to attach meaning to the events of their lives. This book offers to explain many events which appear unexplainable.

But also, for me personally, this book created some interesting new terms that I find useful in thinking about issues with which I am actively involved.

Gladwell introduces the term "Tipping Point" to describe the moment when a set of occurrences explodes into mass adoption. He presents examples from a wide range of field, both good and bad:

  • Crime waves in New York City
  • Suicide rates among adolescents in Micronesia
  • Shoe sales by Airwalk
  • A syphilis epidemic in Baltimore
  • Teenage smoking

Gladwell describes two things which are required for this tipping point to occur, "stickiness" and "contagiousness."

Stickiness is, roughly, the ability of any specific event to create long-term change. Sticky things are things we remember. Sticky things are things that we return to over and over again. Cigarettes are "sticky" because they are physically addictive. Other things are sticky because they are "cool" or "useful."

Contagiousness is the ability of an idea, behavior, or germ to spread. Gladwell focuses on how contagiousness is dependent upon the actions of a limited number of people. He calls this "The Law of the Few." You might recognize this under another name, the Pareto Principle -- often called the 80/20 rule. The Pareto Principle is the rule which roughly states that most real change is accomplished by twenty percent or less of all actors. Common applications are "80% of all work is done by 20% of employees" and "80% of profit is made from 20% of customers."

Gladwell takes this 20% and distills it down to a much smaller number of people. He then divides these people up into three groups, based upon what they contribute to a phenomena going viral. These three groups are Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Mavens are people who research new things to determine what is good or bad. Gladwell's mavens include people who always know what new restaurants to try, what clothing items are trendy, or what automobiles are most reliable.

Connectors are people who communicate new ideas (or even viruses like syphilis) to the largest number of people. Connectors know a lot of people and they keep in continual contact with people.

Salesmen help people accept new ideas. They package information in ways that make it more accessible and acceptable to a wider audience.

Gladwell offers no comprehensive theory as to how these three groups interact, opting instead to provide numerous examples of anecdotal evidence where each group has played an important role in helping something become "contagious."

The Tipping Point is popular reading among people involved in the marketing business, because each of them dreams of helping a product or service achieve market dominance by "going viral." Gladwell's model of stickiness and contagiousness provides some general direction for them to work with.