by Malcolm Gladwell
(Boston: Little, Brown & Company; 2000; 279 pages)

How are a steep rise in teenage smoking despite huge sums spent on anti-smoking campaigns, a significant drop in criminal activity in New York City, and Paul Revere’s ride that began the American Revolution alike? They are all illustrations of social phenomena reaching their critical mass, or the point at which a series of small events tip over into a social epidemic of major proportions. This is what author Gladwell calls “the tipping point.”

Fascinating as a suspenseful mystery novel, this book shows how such social epidemics start, grow, and are sustained. What could be more engrossing for people dedicated to making a positive difference in our social-political and natural world?

Gleaning his material from social research, interviews, and case studies of widely differing kinds of phenomena, Gladwell leads us on a merry chase after the details of three factors that make all the difference between changes that take off and those that fizzle out. Whether considering a first-time novelist becoming a best-selling author, getting continuously high ratings for Sesame Street, or the spreading of teenage suicides, three rules have crucial interlocking influences.

The first rule, “The Law of the Few,” shows how social epidemics depend on a few exceptional people. Three types of change makers, Connectors (those with wide personal networks), Mavens (those who collect all kinds of information and love to share it), and Salesmen (those who can persuade others to adopt or change), are profiled in stories that alternate between hilarious encounters and amazing examples of charismatic exploits. We need one of each type on our team for all activist projects!

The second secret ingredient for significant change is what Gladwell calls “The Stickiness Factor.” The first rule deals with the messenger of change, but “stickiness” refers to the quality of the message itself. Case studies show that the message is “tipped” into wide-spread acceptance through tinkering, with the presentation of the ideas. Small adjustments are tested with the populations that change agents seek to influence until a fit between message and receivers is achieved.

The third rule, “The Power of Context” says that social behavior is a function of social context. Considering how a crime epidemic in New York city was reversed, Gladwell proves that neither major social-justice factors often cited by liberals (unemployment, racism) or the theory of criminal personality were as significant as little things (like graffiti, trash, and broken windows) that create an environment triggering anti-social behavior.

Another aspect of third rule is the effect of close-knit groups. Methodist founder John Wesley created communities to change people’s beliefs and behavior. Gladwell explores factors that develop the kinds of groups most effective in reaching the tipping point for starting an epidemic. Understanding this aspect is crucial for social change movements.

Taking the three rules together, we have a formula that accounts for paradigm shifts, and how to reach the threshold where they will occur. For an eye-opening experiment, try taking any major movement currently taking off and apply the rules yourself. For example, the Internet activist group, MoveOn, reached a tipping point when it brought together Wes Boyd, a Maven, with Eli Pariser, excellent Salesman and Connector. Using the interactive medium of the Internet combined with online discussions and petitions, they have created small groups of local activists that connect with the national political context. The stickiness of their message comes from MoveOn organizers constantly testing what members think about issues and candidates, and giving feedback on the success of group actions.

Whatever positive change your group is attempting to achieve in the world, this book will be a tremendous help, and may save you many costly mistakes.

Liana Forest can be reached at [email protected] .