The Tipping Point is one of the more entertaining reads I've found lately. Author Malcolm Gladwell explains how little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashion trends, disease epidemics, crime waves, and other aspects of societal behavior.
Gladwell points to three kinds of people who are especially influential in the dynamics of a connected world. Connectors keep in touch with many, many more acquaintances than the average person. Mavens maintain an encyclopedic awareness of the ins and outs of products and services in the marketplace. Salespeople have preternatural powers of persuasion. The difference between an isolated baseball cap and an unstoppable fashion trend (for example) hinges critically on the effects of these three types of people, even moreso than it depends on the intrinsic merits of one hat vs another.
Two points really stuck with me after breezing through The Tipping Point.
First, Gladwell discusses the 80s crime wave in NYC, which was turned around in the 90s thanks to some seemingly minor housecleaning. By cracking down relentlessly on subway graffiti and fare-cheaters, NYC communicated a subtle but important change in its law enforcement attitude. The clean cars and vigilant token-collecting continually reinforced the attide that NYC takes care of its responsible citizens and does not tolerate crime. The result was a chain reaction of respectable citizens taking back the subways and neighboorhoods, and it was these people who played the biggest role in ending the crime wave.
This story of NYC law enforcement convinced me to enact my own crack-down on office clutter. A clean in-box and polished desktop may not directly bring my job-hunting and research interests into clearer focus, but they do start a powerful chain reaction.
Second, Gladwell addresses some of the questions raised by Leonard (see my previous post). Does e-mail threaten to end the influential reign of connectors, mavens, and salespeople? Gladwell answers a resounding no. As we become increasingly bombarded by e-mail solicitations from friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends (etc), we quickly learn to tune out all but the most important information. And how do we ultimately decide what is important to us? The same way we always have, based on our values and relationships, which we develop in concert with our friends and colleagues -- especially the connectors, mavens, and salespeople.
In his excellent book Six Degrees, Duncan Watts points out some limitations to Gladwell's thinking. I'll talk about that next time.