I finally got a chance to read a book that my brother and his wife gave me several Christmases ago, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which examines the phenomenon of word-of-mouth epidemics. The book has made me think, which is one of my highest compliments for a nonfiction work.
The title comes from the fact that word-of-mouth epidemics initially build gradually, but then there's a tipping point that suddenly increases the prevalence of the idea, the trend or the social practice. Gladwell examines possible causes for such tipping points, many of which are far more minor than one might suspect.
Among Gladwell's key observations is the identification of three key personalities who contribute to such epidemics: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.
A connector actively cultivates social ties to a wide range of people from different backgrounds. Somebody like this, of course, has a lot of power to transmit messages between groups. According to Gladwell, Paul Revere was just such a person: an active participant in numerous facets of colonial American life, with social ties to many communities. Therefore, his midnight ride to warn colonists about the British military plans was far more effective than other, similar rides.
You can probably think of some Connectors: people who have friends and associates from vastly different backgrounds, people who are constantly introducing people to each other, in order to advance their mutual goals. I have some Connector tendencies, but I've known others who are far more skilled Connectors. These people can be crucial in getting a message past the tipping point so that it becomes widespread.
Mavens cultivate authority in fields of their choosing, then share that information with others. Say you have a friend who knows all about the latest technological gadgets. He or she does research on them, reads the latest consumer reports, buys groundbreaking devices early and looks for bargains. That's the person you go to when you want to know, for example, whether it's worth it to buy the new iPhone. Mavens aren't paid for their services: they simply enjoy being informed and, likewise, informing others. If you've ever had a friend who's constantly recommending books or movies based on your interests, chances are they're a pop-culture Maven.
Salesmen are naturally good at convincing others. Typically, they do this through their charm and persuasiveness. They sell ideas to others because they believe in them.
Another of Gladwell's key ideas is the concept of stickiness. Is the message conveyed in a way that sticks with us? A particularly sticky ad campaign over the last several years has been the Mac ads, comparing a tweed-suit-wearing PC and a hip, young Mac. Each one of those commercials is short and entertaining, comparing the nebbishy, neurotic PC with the relaxed, confident Mac. This ad not only entertains us, but it drives home the idea that Macs are hip and easy to use, while PCs are difficult and old-fashioned.
Another example of a sticky ad is the Verizon ads, with the network guy testing the service, walking around the country saying, "Can you hear me now?" The ad drives home the idea that the network is reliable and that it is run by hardworking, trustyworthy employees. I've even seen people dress as the Verizon guy for Halloween, an example of just how sticky the ad campaign has become.
Gladwell discusses several other concepts and provides numerous case studies to illustrate how these concepts play out. But just looking at the concepts I've mentioned so far, you can apply Gladwell's ideas to Internet communications and discover why some ideas, videos and sites suddenly go viral.
For example, how did you learn that Tim Russert died? Did you hear it in the news? Read it in a newspaper? Or did you learn of it from an e-mail, message board, IM message or blog? I heard it first from my editor, then immediately hopped on a friend's message board and made the announcement there. When I checked my LiveJournal friends list, a number of people were already talking about it. A couple of those people are Connectors who link many different people. No doubt, their postings were instrumental in informing a good number of people about the sad news.
Or think about viral videos. In much the same way, once somebody has discovered something worth watching, they share it with friends, either through an e-mail, message board or blog. The friends who agree that it's worthwhile share it with their friends. If anyone along the way is a Connector, that video immediately goes to a much wider audience, which increase the chance of it becoming an Internet phenomenon.
I often rely on friends for information about products. I bought my digital camera because The Warrior Princess, an amateur photographer with a particular skill for nature photos, was using the same camera and recommended it. I've also seen numerous blog entries from people asking for advice on products. These are often answered in great detail by people who have first-hand knowledge of such products. And there are online communities where people can research products and read consumer reviews. All of these are examples of Mavens helping others to make purchasing decisions.
The Internet community also has its share of Salesmen. Think about some of the people who write thoughtful columns or blogs. Their words can serve to influence others towards their point of view. But they're not the only ones. Maybe someone in your circle of friends is an effective advocate for ideas. That's the sort of person who will write a response to someone else's blog entry, discussing an idea further and perhaps presenting a counter argument. A successful Salesman is not a flamer: it's not someone who effectively insults or screams at the other person. A Salesman is somebody who operates from good intentions: who uses personal charm and social grace, along with argumentation, to persuade. These are the people who, after their share their thoughts on a given topic, can make you reconsider. Or perhaps they'll help you solidify your own reasoning.
Stickiness is essential to Internet epidemics. It's got to be a message people want to share. The LOL Cats on ICanHasCheezburger, for example, have become an Internet phenomenon because the collective humor project is both entertaining and conforms to a recognizable pattern. Somebody might share one funny example, and then the people who view it may peruse the site. The next thing you know, they're regular readers, too.
It's really interesting to consider that a lot of times, the reasons we adopt ideas or become interested in trends is because of the people around us. Amongst teen smokers, for example, studies have found peer pressure to be a bigger factor than parental example. Coupled with certain personality traits, such as a desire to be a noncorformist, whether friends smoked was a bigger predictor of teen smoking than whether parents smoked.
If you, like me, are fascinated with social interaction, with how our culture transmits ideas and how we change and develop social practices over time, I highly recommend this book. I wish I had read it sooner, but I'm glad I finally got around to it!
Ideas take off because of who's sharing them and how.