More psychology… Malcolm Gladwell and seminars

Malcolm Gladwell has become something of a Rockstar Journalist. Back in November, I saw his lecture at the Lyceum Theatre timed with the release of his new book Outliers. It’s one of his two previous books that I find relevant again to this project, The Tipping Point. The following is from Wikipedia…

Tipping points are “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”[1] Gladwell defines a tipping point as a sociological term: “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”[2] The book seeks to explain and describe the “mysterious” sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.”[3] The examples of such changes in his book include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the precipitous drop in the New York City crime rate after 1990.

The two following points described in detail in the book struck me as particularly relevant in developing a good idea…

The three rules of epidemics

Gladwell describes the “three rules of epidemics” (or the three “agents of change”) in the tipping points of epidemics.

  • The Law of the Few, or as Gladwell states, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.”[4] Also according to Gladwell, economists call this the “80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the ‘work’ will be done by 20 percent of the participants.”[5] These people are described in the following ways:
  • Connectors are the people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”[6] They are, in other words, “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [… for] making friends and acquaintances”. [7] He characterizes these individuals as possessing over one hundred individuals in their social network. To illustrate, Gladwell cites the following examples: midnight ride of Paul Revere, Milgram’s experiments in the small world problem, the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” trivia game, Dallas businessman Roger Horchow, and Chicagoan Lois Weisberg, a person who understands the concept of the weak tie. Gladwell attributes the social success of Connectors to “their ability to span many different worlds [… as] a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.”[8]
  • Mavens are “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.”[9] They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is “almost pathologically helpful”, further adding, “he can’t help himself”.[10] In this vein, Alpert himself concedes, “A Maven is someone who wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own”.[11] According to Gladwell, Mavens start “word-of-mouth epidemics”[12], due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate. As Gladwell states, “Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know”.[13]
  • Salesmen are “persuaders”, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, that makes others want to agree with them. Gladwell’s examples include California businessman Tom Gau and news anchor Peter Jennings, and he cites several studies about the persuasive implications of non-verbal cues, including a headphone nod study, done by Gary Wells of the University of Alberta and Richard Petty of the University of Missouri and William Condon’s cultural microrhythms study.
  • The Stickiness Factor: the specific content of a message that renders its impact memorable. Such popular children’s television programs as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues pioneered the properties of the stickiness factor, thus enhancing the effective retention of the educational content in tandem with its entertainment value.

These points can be related the mediums we have used for our advertising. “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.” Facebook effectively carries out this work for us and will link us sooner or later to the few who would hopefully spread the idea to its ‘Tipping Point’. Facebook is an incredibly powerful medium as it, using Gladwell’s theories as an example, allows the Connectors, Mavers and Salesmen to all be within easy reach.


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