The Tipping Point
It is important to understand social epidemics in today’s modern world. An interesting point of reference for this topic is The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.
This book talks about the “tipping point,” a medical term used to describe the moment when a disease turns into an epidemic and becomes uncontrollable. It is the point where the graph of the phenomenon shoots up without explanation. It looks deeply into social events that inexplicably explode.
Another interesting point of reference, though quite a bit more technical, about this phenomenon is Information Rules by Hal Varian, which talks about network externalities and other network effects that explain from the economic point of view these kinds of phenomena, which are becoming more and more frequent in an interconnected —not merely globalized— world.
Malcolm Gladwell attributes these phenomena to three agents of change: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few: a small number of people can cause great changes. For example, economists talk about the “80/20 rule”, according to which 20 percent of people are responsible for 80 percent of a phenomenon: 80 percent of crimes are committed by 20 percent of criminals; 20 percent of drivers are responsible for 80 percent of car accidents, etc.
The Stickiness Factor: some ideas stick and others don’t. There are kinds of bacteria that spread easily and others that die. Some products corner the markets and others disappear without a trace. Some phenomena simply enjoy the Stickiness Factor, which favors their expansion. In the realm of ideas, a stupendous book that I will comment on in the future is Made to Stick. Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, in which the Heath brothers talk about six characteristics that make ideas “stick”.
The Power of Context: finally, the social context is important. Human beings are extremely sensitive to their surroundings and the behavior of those around them.
We generally understand processes of change as something gradual, something that takes a long time. So, when we are confronted with sudden social changes, it is difficult to understand and assimilate them. Gladwell gives us elements to do just that. We always tend to suppose that social processes are like the movement of a pendulum that comes and goes, rhythmically, without abrupt movements. The Tipping Point dismisses this vision with forceful arguments.
Gladwell documents his hypothesis with several studies of social processes that suddenly exploded: one is the case of the start of certain fashions like Hush Puppies shoes. On the point of extinction in the 1990s, they suddenly went to the top of consumer preferences, without any advertising campaign: people just began to buy them again. The author says that that is what social epidemics are like: surprising.
He analyzes how an isolated event in the right social context, under the right conditions, becomes a world phenomenon, crossing borders and class lines.
Television is a natural beneficiary of social epidemics. In that sense, the book helps us understand, for example, the swift expansion of TV Azteca, which grew from practically zero to a 40-percent audience share in a relatively short time. Existing conditions (a monopoly and little freedom of expression) favored the entry of an open media. Drilliing down deeper, we have had our own social phenomena, like the telenovela “Mirada de Mujer”, which transformed the way stories were told on television, and “La Academia,” the birthplace of a whole new generation of musical stars when the country was going through a talent drought.
In short, The Tipping Point talks about social epidemics, about irreversible trends and how to be part of them or how to set them off, as long as they are linked to a positive change. Undoubtedly, understanding our society and its transformations is necessary for businesses to be an organic part of it and to contribute to its evolution.