Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point

An Interview with Malcolm Gladwell About How People Can Change the World

By John Milton Fogg



From 1987 to 1996, Malcom Gladwell was a reporter for The Washington Post, first as a science writer and then as New York City bureau chief. Since 1996, he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, where he works today (when not writing his next book on "Intuition," due in 2004).

The Tipping Point is, in Gladwell's own words, an "intellectual adventure story." Drawing from psychology, sociology and epidemiology, using examples from the worlds of business, society, education, fashion and media, the book shows people how to start "positive epidemics" of their own. "The virtue of an epidemic, after all," Gladwell points out, "is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly." That makes it something of obvious interest to everyone building a networking business.

Malcolm, for readers who aren't familiar with the term, can you explain what "the tipping point" is?

"The tipping point" is a phrase borrowed from epidemiology. It refers to the concept that small changes will have little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. At that point, a further small change "tips" the system--and a large effect is observed.

This is the critical moment when an epidemic explodes: it seems to happen all at once. I think that is a much better description of the way change happens than our common notion--that change is something that happens slowly, over time. The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us.


What was it that prompted you to write The Tipping Point?

I kept noticing changes happening that couldn't be explained through the conventional perspectives. The one that got me going was the increase of crime in New York City: we were all told that this was something we had just to live with, a permanent feature of urban life--especially New York City urban life. You could change it a little bit, perhaps, by spending a lot of money--but really, there wasn't much you could do.

I was living in New York City at the time, and when I first arrived, it was a dangerous place. Three years later I woke up one day--and the burglary rate had dropped by 70 percent: New York was now the safest big city in the United States!

I said, "How did that happen?" You know, it wasn't supposed to happen. Then I began to see that there were lots of changes like that happening very quickly and dramatically, virtually overnight.

That's the tipping point.


What did you see as being the importance of this, other than satisfying your own curiosity about what made this happen?

 

If you want to create change, the challenge is not to reach as many people as you can--the challenge is to reach that relatively small number of people who play a disproportionately large role in creating change.

I thought, "Maybe we can use this epidemic model to structure radical change." When we use our conventional information to effect change, we miss a lot and misinterpret a lot. We are constantly surprised by change, we are not prepared for this kind of transformation. We get very pessimistic. If you thought about crime in New York before the 1990's, you'd have thought there was nothing anyone could do. If the only way you can change crime is to double the number of police officers, or move--that makes you pessimistic.

What the Tipping Point idea showed me was, No!--some of these things that appear to be completely unmovable are actually quite sensitive and can be altered. In fact, they can be moved with just the smallest trigger.


Have you gotten feedback from people who utilize what they learned in The Tipping Point to begin to create tipping points, in a business or social context?

Yes; for example, one of the real lessons from epidemics is that they are generated by an incredibly small fraction of the population. That's a crucial lesson for people who want to create an "epidemic" in the real world with their ideas and products: an extremely small number of fundamentally social people do all the work. If you want to create change, the challenge is not to reach as many people as you can--the challenge is to reach that relatively small number of people who play a disproportionately large role in creating change.


Can you put a number to this "extremely small" group of people?

In the social epidemics we're talking about, maybe four or five percent--not a large group at all; frequently even one or two percent. You see, it's possible for one person out of 100--or one person out of 500--to create an extraordinary amount of change.

Certainly, you could have more, but the point is, you can effect the change through really small numbers of individuals. Some people simply have the particular kinds of social skills, gifts, contacts and power to create enormous change, just through their own actions, in a way that would be unimaginable for the rest of us.


Is part of your message that we can become one of those people?

No, I think we need to find those people. It's very hard to turn yourself into someone like this. These are gifts that I believe you are either born with, or not.


Is this idea what gave rise to Seth Godin's "sneezers" [see "Unleashing the Ideavirus," Networking Times August 2002--ed.]?

Yes, I think that's the same kind of notion.


Can you describe these people, Malcolm?

I identify three groups in my book; the first two are particularly important.

The first are Connectors; they are the people who are extraordinarily social and "well-connected." They know lots of people, and they have great memories for people's names and faces.

I include a list of surnames in Chapter Two of the book. I have readers go through the list and give themselves one point every time they hit a surname of someone they know; then they total up their points. Most people on that test score about 35, but there will always be one percent who score not 35 but 150 or 200: those people are Connectors. Their social circle is four, five, six times larger than everybody else's; therefore, when they get information in their hands, they can spread it far more widely than most.


Are there fairly public examples you might cite?

The highest score ever on my test was Diane Sawyer, who scored, I believe, 213. Awesome. I scored 80; the average is 35. Diane was off the chart--and that makes perfect sense, if you think of her life. She has been involved in politics and journalism; she's had an extraordinarily public career. Her job allows her to meet all sorts of people, and she is an extraordinarily charming person who is genuinely interested in people. And that's not an act, it's part of her success, it's genuine. When she meets you and shakes your hand, you honestly think that you are the only person in the room with her.


Are you talking about relationships, friendships and partnerships of a personal nature, or can that be expanded, for instance, to a public person? I think that many of us think we have a relationship with Tom Cruise or Halle Berry.

No, it's not that movie star thing; I'm talking about a real, personal, two-way relationship: you know them and they know you. That is an extremely important part of the picture; these are not abstract social figures, they are people who know us, care about us, relate to us and remember us.

A writer I know told me about how he had introduced his three-year-old daughter to Bill Clinton in the original Presidential campaign in 1992. He met up with Clinton again a year ago and happened to have his daughter with him. Clinton went up to the daughter, now a teenager, shook her hand and said, "I remember you, your name is Ashley, I met you in 1992."

Well, how many people has Bill Clinton met in the last 9 years--100,000? But he remembers this sort of thing. That's the power of a connector. It's an extraordinary ability, and it's one of the reasons Bill Clinton was a successful politician.


So the Connectors are the first group; and the second?

The second group are Mavens--people who have specialized knowledge.

If you look closely at the way people make decisions, you find that we rely over and over on a certain kind of person. These Mavens have earned our respect and trust because they've mastered a particular field.

When we want to navigate any kind of unfamiliar marketplace, anything from a grocery store to figuring out how to buy a car or personal computer, we tend to rely disproportionately on people in our lives who know a lot about that particular area.

I believe this explains a lot of why things become popular: not because of the media, but because a certain group of people who control the preferences of their social groups have chosen to like it.

My brother is a computer Maven: when he likes a particular laptop, everyone in his life gets that laptop. He has probably 30 people who rely on him for computer advice; we just do what he says. Why? Because the world of computers is too complicated for us to master; we turn to him, because he has mastered it. That's a Maven.


Can people be both Connectors and Mavens?

Rarely; it's just too hard. If you think about it, Connectors spend all their time meeting people, talking to people, relating to people--how would they find the time to master a field? But what Connectors do is they connect the Mavens. They say, "You need to talk to so and so."


Would you say that Connectors are networkers?

Absolutely, born networkers. I think Mavens are networkers, too, in a way: they are probably engaged in smaller networks, but they are passing information to people.


Malcolm, would a difference be that Connectors work more within a given network, connecting other people like a hub--whereas Mavens tend to sit at the top of their network with something like a following?

Yes, that's a very good definition. Mavens are experts, we count on them for a specific area of knowledge in their specialized fields. I have a Maven who tells me all about restaurants in Manhattan and another whom I talk to about furniture. I happen to be a kind of car Maven; people come to me and ask me about cars. My brother has his own Maven whom he talks to about computers.


Can you point out any well-known, public Mavens?

Oprah became a public Maven through her book club; but that is not really being a Maven in the classic sense, because the classic Maven is not a public figure. Mavens are people who are embedded in our social fabric, people with whom we have two-way relationships. Oprah didn't know us, but we knew her, so that's a one-way street.

I think we spend way too much time talking about trying to understand the influence of public figures, and too little time appreciating the influence of private figures. I want to shift the emphasis back to the private figure, to the role a good friend plays in creating change.

We get so diverted by looking at the roles rich people play, or well-educated people play, or movie stars play--and this has totally exaggerated the role these people play. You forget that the person you lived through yesterday with isn't Tom Cruise--it's your brother, your cousin, your good friend from work who deserves your trust. That's the person you've been with every day for the last ten years. Those are the people who count.


So it's the people in our own lives, the people we are in relationship or friendship or partnership with, who have the most influence.

Absolutely. The time you spend with Tom Cruise is a fraction of the time you spend with your friends and family. There's no way that these disembodied voices coming to us over the airwaves can ever compete with someone you have an actual relationship with. That's why I'm so baffled by celebrity worship, the notion that public figures could be so critical; I don't buy it. How could they ever compete with someone, a flesh and blood person with whom you have an intimate relationship?


Malcolm, you spoke of a third category of influential people; is this third category not as important as the first two?

No; it's an interesting group, but not as crucial to the theory.

I call them Salesmen, the idea being that sometimes we adopt a new idea because we are persuaded to do so. There is a particular kind of persuasive personality that plays this role over and over, people who go around talking about things in place of doing things.

The chain that leads to The Tipping Point involves Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen in combination. That's when change happens: when you get those three groups of people together. That's what is happening in all the social epidemics I've described.

A relationship that is exclusively online can never match up to the social power of a live, person-to-person interaction. In fact, the most valuable kind of online relationships are those that start out face to face and are simply extended, strengthened and continued online.


Do the Salesmen have a particular agenda?

No, I don't think any of these groups have an agenda; I think they simply want to share their enthusiasm. They have things they believe in, and because they're all socially motivated people, they want to share those with others.

That's the difference between them and the rest of us: when we get a piece of information, our first notion is not necessarily social. We don't think of that information first and foremost as something we need to share; we might simply enjoy it ourselves. These are people whose first impulse is always to share.


What leads or drives these people to do that?

There's something I call the "currency of friendship." In our friendships, we all use something as a kind of currency of that friendship. It might be affection, loyalty, money...but whatever it is, we all bring something to the table in each of our friendships.

What these people bring to the table in their friendships is information. It's neither more nor less legitimate than bringing affection, experience, loyalty or listening; bringing information is just the way they are wired.


Is there one tipping point that has fascinated you the most, where you were really awestruck at what these Connectors and Mavens and Salespeople pulled off?

Yes--well, there have been many.

Napster is one set of Mavens--invite your kids to get music with no money. That one has always kind of struck me as fascinating. They turned the industry upside down, because they were incredibly well connected, they had a powerful idea, and they were powerful personalities.


Were you surprised or shocked at how it has turned out so far, that they were stopped and shut down?

No, what actually ended up happening wasn't particularly relevant, the whole thing just showed that the revolution is happening.


So has Napster died for all of our sins?

The concept that Napster had, what they've started, is unstoppable. There's nothing anyone can do to stop them. They are going to transform the entertainment industry--adapt or die.


It's interesting that you bring up Napster, because of its connection to the Internet. What do you think the Internet has done to the whole business of epidemics and tipping points?

Obviously, it has enhanced the power of highly social people, but I think it's possible to get carried away with the Internet.

It's really important to remember that it is person-to-person relationships that are the most powerful. A relationship that is exclusively online can never match up to the social power of a live, person-to-person interaction. In fact, the most valuable kind of online relationships are those that start out face to face and are simply extended, strengthened and continued online.


There's a line I loved, attributed to an Internet network marketer: "The most important thing to do with a customer on the Internet is to get them off the Internet!"

Yes, I think we've gotten a little carried away with the social networking potential of e-mail. The thing about e-mail is, you start getting too much of it--and all of a sudden, it's not that powerful anymore; all you want to do is delete it all and answer as little as possible. It's never going to compete with the extraordinary power and wonder of an actual conversation.


Are there any tipping points on the horizon that you are watching now?

I've always said that if I could predict the future I wouldn't be writing books.


(Laughs)

I have a big office on Madison Avenue. You know, of the many, many lessons we learned last September 11, the winner for me was something I heard someone say the other day: "People who think you know what's happening tomorrow--pray you don't!"

The world is an incredible, volatile place. The only lesson I have is that we ought to abandon this notion that we can control the future. We need to appreciate change for what it is--a strange, unpredictable, highly volatile thing.

What we can do is have some understanding of these kinds of social levers of change. But as to knowing what's actually going to happen...? Not a clue.