The second in my occasional series of books by thought leaders is ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who has written for the Washington Post and New Yorker magazine. The book explores how ideas and trends spread through communities and the factors that determine whether or not a social epidemic will be precipitated.
According to Gladwell there are three main factors which determine whether a phenomenon will spread: the involvement of the right type of people as messengers (the Law of the Few), whether the phenomenon is sufficiently memorable to spur messengers into action (the Stickiness Factor) and the context in which the message is received (the Power of Context).
The ‘few’ required to spread messages through communities are types of people Gladwell categorises as ‘connectors, mavens and salesmen’.
Connectors, as the name suggests, are those who have the knack of making and retaining friendships. They are often people who have had careers in several different areas and have eclectic interests, both of which bring them into contact with a large range of people. Connectors specialty is spreading messages through the community.
Where the connectors are the collectors of people, mavens (a Yiddish word meaning one who accumulates knowledge) are collectors of information and seem to have an innate desire to share their knowledge with others in a useful way. For example, if a maven learnt of a great deal for a piece of electronic equipment, not only would they be likely to buy it themselves, but they would also tell their friends about the deal in order to be helpful.
The third type of person required to spread ideas are the salesmen. These people with infectious personalities have the knack of talking people into or out of ideas. I’m sure we’ve all come across these people.
The stickiness factor refers to the impact a message has and how memorable it is for those who encounter it.
The context is, as the name suggests, the events surrounding a message and how that can affect spread of a message. The right message at the right time may take off in a community while in another time and context will not spread in the same way.
This book was published in 2000, before the rise of social media and I wondered how Gladwell’s framework would fit into the new phenomenon. I see connectors as people with a huge number of Facebook friends who post about their activities and events in their world and comment on others’ posts constantly. Mavens may be people who blog or post about products or experiences frequently and encourage others to make use of their expertise and advice. Salesmen may be those who, through their enthusiasm and style, build up many followers on different digital platforms who follow their lead on products or experiences. The difference now is that information and opinions of influential people spread much more quickly through the new channels of communication.
The new forms of information dissemination and the importance of the degree of influence of the messenger has resulted in the coining of the term ‘social networking potential’ which can be calculated for individuals. This is explained further in this blog post from Scott Duffy. I love Godin’s term ‘sneezers’ and would equate it in some ways with the mavens in Malcolm Gladwell’s framework.
Celebrities make great messengers due to their networking potential. Some of you may have heard of the Kony2012 earlier this year which was a campaign to increase awareness of the activities of Ugandan warlord. The spread of this message through Twitter was tracked by a journalist from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It started with a tweet by Invisible children, a US based not-for-profit organisation and spread through Oprah, academics and Justin Beiber to become a world-wide phenomenon. It was an example of the right message (stickiness) at the right time (context)spread by the right people (the law of the few).
Although I feel that Gladwell’s model is perhaps a little outdated due to the arrival of social media, the book made me think about the dissemination of ideas, a topic I touched on here when blogging about Twitter, but also the framing of the message. There’s next to no chance that Justin Beiber will tweet about your latest research results or teaching methods, it is worth considering the these ideas to improve the dissemination of your work and think about who may be the connectors, mavens, salesmen or sneezers who can help get your message out.
Image by Tim Vickers