A Plague of New Ideas: How Change Infects Us

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference , by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company, 279 pages, $24.95.

Malcolm Gladwell is a David Macaulay of ideas. He won’t tell you how a zipper or a gearshift works, but he is illuminating on the subject of ideological behavior. Which is to say, ideas in their American incarnation; we’re not talking about how humiliation, fear and dire economic news might combust into national socialism, or why existentialism emerged from a mushroom cloud of Gauloise smoke. We’re talking about those great cultural tripwires that, when activated, send us reeling off in search of Pet Rocks, or DVD’s or a table at Pastis. In the Gladwellian universe there is a sound explanation for our lemminglike behavior, one that draws from history, sociology and psychology and that takes its name–the “tipping point”–from epidemiology. His modest volume proposes to answer one very immodest question: Where does radical change come from?

Mr. Gladwell postulates that ideas–rumors, behaviors, addictions, footwear fads–spread like viruses. And that three factors account for the contagion. Every good social epidemic deserves a spokesman; in Mr. Gladwell’s glossary these are “Connectors,” “Mavens” and “Salesmen,” the highly social, or the highly articulate, or the highly placed, the ones who get the ball rolling, who knit the social fabric together. This time around, the medium is the messenger. Blessedly, Mr. Gladwell makes his point without reference to Oprah, that Great Connector in the Sky. Instead, he does a splendid job describing mere mortals such as Texas economist (and “Maven”) Mark Alpert: avid reader of Consumer Reports , electronics wizard, evangelist and all-around know-it-all, a paragon of the “pathologically helpful.” You know the type: hell at dinner parties; heaven when you’re shopping for a car, or need emergency Yankees tickets. Walking data banks like Mr. Alpert–along with the Connectors, and the Salesmen–are crucial to the spread of social epidemic. Together they explain why the New York family in need of orthodontia will end up, sooner or later, in the office of Marc Lemchen, D.M.D., P.C., Park Avenue at 62nd Street (570-2333). This is Mr. Gladwell at his sprightly best, as he was in his memorable New Yorker piece, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” some of it recapitulated in the book.

Mr. Gladwell’s second law will drive the perfectionist to distraction. The tinkering matters. Immensely. With enough finessing, any message can be made more memorable, more “sticky.” Sometimes all it takes is a lowly breach of grammar. None of us is in any danger of forgetting that “Winston tastes good … like a cigarette should.” With enough fine-tuning, we could all be walking around like the jingle-jangled Alan Strang of Equus . Contagion and stickiness are not to be confused; the first is a property of the messenger, the second of the message. And the sultans of stickiness are by definition the professionals; there are no Mark Alperts here. Which may explain why this section of the book sports less of Mr. Gladwell’s lucid connection-making and feels more like a sermon to the advertising man. It doesn’t help that Mr. Gladwell takes as his example Sesame Street , a show that–”out of a desperate desire to be sticky”–was test-marketed to within an inch of its life. Detailed descriptions of various Sesame Street episodes follow, which have about them as much charm as the all-text edition of the collections of the Louvre.

Mr. Gladwell undermines his own argument. As the producers of Blue’s Clues discovered, three decades after the debut of Big Bird, children’s television could be more compelling still. Sesame Street was too long. It moved too briskly. There was too much talk, not enough narrative, too much wordplay. There were too many clever concessions to that mythical beast, the adult viewer. Soon enough, Blue’s Clues was trouncing Sesame Street , a show it furiously out-stickied. For all its resounding success, Sesame Street turned out not to have been sticky after all. Of course, the improvements devised by the producers of Blue’s Clues did not make their show more educational. They made it more addictive. In any event, what Mr. Gladwell winds up with is a repetitive section about the value of repetition for young children.

Mr. Gladwell turns to crime to illustrate “The Power of Context,” his third epidemiological law. Disease requires a breeding ground, a propitious time and place. “Paul Revere’s afternoon ride” just wouldn’t have done the trick, maintains Mr. Gladwell; correlatively, a well-kept subway will foster fewer transgressions. It’s a stretch, but Mr. Gladwell is nothing if not nimble. He has combed the literature, and he has engaged in experiments of his own. Best of all, he is blessed with a supremely limpid prose style. Citing the studies, he argues that the population does not divide neatly into the honest and the dishonest, the sadistic and the compassionate. There are some dispiriting lessons for the modern world here, among them the fact that the good Samaritan, when pressed for time, is no longer any kind of Samaritan at all.

His three agents of infection in hand, Mr. Gladwell analyzes a number of seemingly unrelated epidemics, from the rise and fall of Airwalk footwear to a rash of suicides in Micronesia to teenage smoking. With the last he puts his Tipping Point theories to work on how to reverse a brushfire; having come to understand what makes an epidemic possible, we should be able to beat one back. How to devise a less sticky form of smoking? Abandon the absolutist approach. Let the kids smoke, but reduce the level of nicotine below the addiction threshold. Treat the serious addict with Zyban. Of course, to do all of this is to fly in the face of the most determined Salesmen and the most effective Connectors out there. Never mind.

The arguments don’t always add up; there’s some loopy logic there. Sometimes a felicity is just a felicity, as should be clear from Mr. Gladwell’s discussion of the rebirth of Hush Puppies, a happy accident on which a company capitalized. There is no advertising equivalent to focusing a nation on a Ford Bronco or an Ermenegildo Zegna tie. And a tipping point by any other name remains equally effective. Critical mass remains critical mass. As every Beanie Babies-turned-Pokémon-turned-Crazy Bones collector knows, exponential growth is exponential growth. You could argue that anyone who had the freedom and luxury of testing his product three times before introducing it–as do the Blue’s Clues producers with each episode–could succeed brilliantly. That isn’t stickiness; it’s practice makes perfect. The Connectors are the cool kids in high school, that land of perpetual epidemic. The stickiness “discovered” by the Blue’s Clues team was the old chestnut of telling them what you’re going to tell them, telling them and then telling them again.

The Tipping Point buttresses a Costco-sized aisle of flash-frozen truths. Nothing succeeds like success; nothing sells like word-of-mouth. God is in the details. He who does the most market research wins. We live in an infectious age, of memes, modems and malls. But what Mr. Gladwell has done–in a tone only slightly dumbed-down from the New Yorker pieces from which his book derives–is to penetrate this seemingly unporous bedrock. He has isolated these familiar notions, and he has analyzed them, and he has demonstrated how they amalgamate, in planned or unplanned but highly predictable patterns, and in geometric progression, to the point where suddenly, overnight, in a mass exercise of free will, we are all guzzling Fresh Samanthas.

Now if only someone would explain where the Pet Rocks disappeared to.