Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tipping Point

Today, I'd like to riff on a comment made by Valtin in Buhdy's essay this week about fear:

All fears are conquered, ultimately, by facing them, and by accepting the fear that is felt, and acting anyway.

The trick is to face the fear. For that, one needs social support. This is how soldiers go into battle: solidarity with their comrades, and with leadership they believe in.

The same will be true for the legions who must be mobilized to change things. Once people perceive that others are willing to take the risk, things can begin to move quickly.

It is my assessment that the political elites, both Democratic and Republican, are sitting on a social volcano.

And when it blows...

(emphasis mine)

His statement reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . I'm not one to give total credence to any one theory as the sole explanation for human behavior, least of all social behavior. But I think Gladwell has some interesting ideas that we might explore a bit in our thinking about how large-scale change happens.

By way of background, Gladwell says the idea of the tipping point came from his investigation of the AIDS epidemic:

The word "Tipping Point", for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic.

Tipping points then, are the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. What Gladwell does then, is help "unpack" the process by which change becomes unstoppable.

Robert Paterson has a nice summary of The Tipping Point on his blog. Here's one of the things he says:

There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work.

So how is it that Gladwell defines these "special people?" He puts them into three categories that he calls "The Law of the Few":

1. Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together." (page 38)

2. Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." (page 19) They accumulate knowledge and know how to share it with others.

3. Salesmen are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.

Gladwell also spends time talking about the importance of the message, which he calls the "stickiness factor," and the power of context. But the process of the spread of epidemics involves:

1. Clear examples of contagious behavior.
2. Little changes that make big effects.
3. In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

All of this makes me think we're on to something here with our talk about ripples. And I know we could all probably identify the connectors, mavens, and sales(wo)men among us. So I agree with won't be too long before this baby blows!!!

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