JITE v38n4 - Book Review - A Critical Analysis of The Tipping Point

Volume 38, Number 4
Summer 2001

Book Review:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
By Malcolm Gladwell
Format: Hardcover, 288 pp. ISBN: 0316316962
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company.

Andrew Schultz
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Given that technology educators are often creative and possess strong technical skills, technology education's inability to sell some of its best ideas is simply astounding. The Tipping Point , by Malcolm Gladwell, helps explain why. Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, has been studying and writing about the nature of trends for years. Although Gladwell never specifically mentions technology education, his arguments provide food for thought that may prove useful to this audience.

Sometimes when data is rich yet comprehension is poor, understanding is gained through finding the right metaphor. In this book, Gladwell has found an apt metaphor for helping readers understand how worthy ideas can languish in our culture while superficial ones sometimes flourish. After reading about a syphilis contagion in urban Baltimore in the early 1990s, Gladwell found the metaphor that became the thesis of the book. He proposes that social change is analogous to, or has some of the same characteristics as, a medical epidemic.

Gladwell offers many vignettes that demonstrate this phenomenon. He writes about why crime dropped dramatically in New York City in the mid-1990s, and describes how an unknown novelist ended up as a best-selling author. He deconstructs why teenage smoking is so out of control, despite the general public's full knowledge of its ill effects. He describes the rigorous, insightful research that made "Sesame Street" so good at teaching kids how to read and how "Blue's Clues" was made even better. Gladwell compares the success of Paul Revere's famous ride with the other unknown rider who set out from Boston at the same time, with the same message, and analyzes why Revere achieved fame. There are many other well-researched stories that illustrate the key elements of what makes a trend tip into an epidemic.

According to Gladwell, the tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold and subsequently spreads with incredible speed through society. Just as a sick individual in a crowded store can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push start a fashion trend or cause the popularity of a new restaurant to take off overnight, or cause crime or drug use to taper off. In The Tipping Point , Gladwell shows how very minor adjustments in products and ideas can make them more likely to become immensely popular. He reveals how easy it is to cause group behavior to tip in a desired direction by making small changes in the immediate environment.

Through his study, Gladwell found that epidemics have three characteristics in common. First, the thing that spreads the epidemic is contagious. In the case of a product or an idea, Gladwell refers to its "sticky" quality or ability to lodge in the cultural mindset. Second, small changes in the environment result in large effects on the spread of the epidemic. Third, at some identifiable point the trend "tips" and causes a dramatic change - an epidemic. Factors that lead to this tipping include key people or promoters and the contexts in which they operate, among other things.

In Gladwell's terminology, stickiness is a characteristic of ideas that are memorable, catchy, and inescapably applicable to a particular situation. President Bush's recent, "let's roll" line was sticky. "Winston tastes good" was a sticky advertising slogan. In technology education there is no sticky phrase.

Describing how little things can lead to big effects, Gladwell relates the example of crime-ridden New York City. In the early 1990s, public officials identified small, reachable goals to reduce crime. For example, by refusing to let subway cars return to service each night without cleaning and by arresting gate jumpers in stations, officials saw subway crimes plummet by the mid-1990s. Similar small-scale efforts have reduced street crime in New York City from epidemic to manageable proportions. People once again feel safe on the streets and children ride bikes in neighborhoods where ten years ago gunfire was commonly heard, all due to identifying and achieving these small, inexpensive goals.

These effects can happen quickly, too. Gladwell reports that the subways became safe within months, and neighborhoods that formerly had been plagued with crack houses, prostitutes, and violent crime completely turned around in less than five years. These effects were not just due to new policies, but resulted through the efforts of three kinds of people: mavens , connectors , and salesmen . The maven is what Gladwell calls a person who knows everything about some specialty area, whether it is subway cars, food, woodworking equipment, or technology. Know any mavens? Think of the technology educators who have encyclopedic knowledge about some area of technology. These people are mavens, according to Gladwell's definition.

Connectors, however, are relatively rare in technology education. Connectors are connoisseurs of people. They maintain vast networks of appreciation for people with special talents, talents that mavens may never discover because their own specialties are so interesting. The connector's specialty is linking one person's talent with others who need it. True connectors play critical roles in linking individuals to create networks of capability.

The role played by salesmen is a familiar one. Salesmen, too, are relatively rare in technology education. At the state and national level, technology education desperately needs effective salesmen. At the local levels, where technology education programs are most effective, we typically find an effective salesperson at the helm.

Others have criticized the book for its relative simplicity. Writing for a website devoted to reviewing new books, a marketing executive from Boston said that:

The book is really about systems dynamics, about how related phenomena build on each other in feedback loops (for example, adding food to the environment for rapidly growing species expands their populations). However, because the book never makes that connection to systems dynamics, the marketing challenged probably will not make that connection either. That's a problem because they will need the tools from these other resources [systems dynamics] to apply this book's thesis of pushing the tipping point.

Essentially, the book's thesis is that trends grow by expanding the base of those who will spread the word of mouth and be listened to, aided by powerful messages that stick indelibly into the mind and an environment that psychologically encourages the trend. The weakness of that argument is that it fails to fully address the physical needs that might be served to support the trend." (Retrieved from the WWW July 30, 2001 at: http://shop.barnesandnoble.com )

This criticism is probably appropriate for sophisticated marketers, but for most technology educators, the book will be relevant and meaningful. The good news for technology educators is that The Tipping Point is about change and how certain kinds of people make change happen. The bad news is that, despite all of our collective skills and capabilities, we are probably not the type of people who inspire change. As a group we tend to possess the skills of the maven, an essential but incomplete ingredient for fomenting change. This book may enable technology educators to look more clearly at the topic of marketing, recognize the sorts of people who have the needed personal characteristics for handling different aspects of influence, and structure the core ideas of our profession into a message suitable for a mass market (or perhaps for targeted market consumption). It is not the only book we can use to help market the core ideas of the profession, but it represents an interesting and accessible starting point.

Schultz is an Assistant Professor in the Program for Industrial Education at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, NE.