Tipping Point: How to Go Viral

I just finished ‘The Tipping Point’. The book was published in 2000, but coincidentally it fit with #EuropeTippingPoint discussed in Davos, and a recent podcast by the Economist Science & Technology about Facebook and friends. Let me explain.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book is about going viral in real life. The impact of a small number of people, doing different, becoming a trend and getting picked up by ‘the critical mass’. To ‘tip’ a small change has to become a contagious epidemic, in other words have a big and dramatic effect and not happen gradually. A social epidemic needs:

A Few People: Maven to provide the message, the Connector to spread it and the Salesmen to persuade the unconvinced. Together they have the unique characteristics of being sociable, energetic, knowledgeable and influential among their peers.

A few people spread the word of mouth, and Gladwell reminds how important friends recommendations are for our choice of movies, restaurants, books etc. While reading I wondered though if word by mouth has changed as we today are also influenced by online recommendations generated at our social networks, via algorithms and biased marketing.

Gladwell explains that ‘six degrees of separation’ actually means that ‘a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and that the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few’. Further, social circles are rather pyramids, and on top is the ‘Connectors’. They know a lot of and different people, from other cultures, sectors, subgroups, classes etc., and they manage to bring them together.

While the Connector know people, ‘Maven’ knows information, about products, prices and places, which the rest of us don’t keep track of. They are motivated by educating and helping, and are the ones that voluntarily give reviews. Are Mavens less unique today as reviewing has become a built in feature of most products, such as Tripadvisor, Airbnb and Spotted by Locals? (the latter I recommend).

A Sticky Message: that is memorable and have an impact. This makes it contagious and can therefore reach more people. To know what is sticky, we need to test it. Gladwell provides examples of many studies of epidemics, such as the children’s programme ‘Sesame Street’ and the sneakers ‘Airwalk’, all whom conducted plenty of studies to figure out what their target group really paid attention to, as well as what distracted them. Sometimes we only need to tinker the message a little in order for it to tip.

The Right Context and Circumstances: of both the time and place. Gladwell gives examples of how small interventions in the environment of a city can dramatically lower criminality. We have a tendency to overestimate our character traits and underestimate the importance of situation and context. Another condition is the size; the ‘Magical Number Seven’ guided phone numbers, as this was the digits people have the capacity to remember. Number 12 is about the people we tend to list as our ‘sympathy group’, those truly devastated if we died. Finally, number 150 represents the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have genuinely social relationships with. You probably ask yourself – just like I did – how this relates to our social networks such as Facebook, which often exceeds this number. This is exactly what the Economist Science & Technology talked about, and concluded that despite critical voices, 150 remains.

In 2002 afterword Gladwell responded to readers questions about the Internet by explaining that epidemics ends when people become immune, and this is the evolution we see with emails; the more we get the more selective we become and the shorter we reply. More than a decade later many questions remains. Is #EuropeTippingPoint really what Gladwell meant? I believe we shall look for Maven, the Connector and Salesman elsewhere to develop sticky messages that go viral about human rights, social justice and equality in Europe, and beyond.

‘To make sense of social epidemics, we must first understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules (—) Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential of change’

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