Idea epidemics

In "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell makes a valuable contribution to the literature of contagion. But is it worth its $1 million advance?

Topics: Books,

Idea epidemics

A million dollars. What sort of book
would justify an advance that large? It
would have to be a big book — a really,
really big book, probably a book that
could suck in America’s great throngs of
airport and poolside readers through
name recognition alone. Edmund Morris’
quixotic href="/books/feature/1999/10/07/morris/index.html">Reagan biography, for
example, pulled in a $1 million advance on
the strength of its subject’s having
appeared on a lot of TV in the ’80s.
Joan Collins got $1.2 million for her
infamously unpublishable novel, “A
Ruling Passion,” for a similar reason.
And whatever figure href="/people/rogue/1999/05/13/rodman/index.html">Dennis Rodman got for his
autobiography, it probably had a couple
of commas in it, too.

In the grand scheme of things, Malcolm
Gladwell is no Rodman, no Collins — not
even a href="/people/feature/2000/03/07/chopra/index.html">Deepak Chopra or a
Barbara Cartland. He’s a low-highbrow
nonfiction guy, a fact-piece writer of
great talent but limited celebrity — a
href="/books/feature/2000/02/17/new_yorker/index.html">New Yorker writer.
But according to the best accounts,
Gladwell’s agent managed to negotiate an
advance of $1.5 million for “The Tipping
Point,” while not even the lowest of the
lowball estimates suggests a sum below
the $1 million mark. Naturally, this
news caused a certain amount of
speculation in the publishing world,
chiefly as to what the hell might be the
flaming-ass huge deal with the goddamned
book and with that so-and-so Gladwell
character who wrote it. And the
inevitable question hung in the air: Can
it be that good?



Nobody knows how much the goddamned book
is going to sell (probably lots), but
the short answer is no. It’s not any
better than you’d expect from a gifted
nonfiction guy like Gladwell. The
flaming-ass deal about him goes
something like this: He is a fairly
young writer, not yet 40, who made a
sensation at the href="/june97/tina970625.html">Tina
Brown New Yorker three years ago
with a piece called “The Coolhunt,”
about a type of marketing research in
which companies send out field reps to
track and survey really hip consumers in
order to figure out what everybody else
will probably be doing a year or so down
the line. The piece was, in essence,
about where buzz comes from and how it
can be harnessed to commercial interests
– which was the one topic in the world,
barring perhaps a nude celebrity cocaine
brawl, that was most likely to set
Brown’s heart aflutter and prompt her to
spread out a comfy pet bed in a warm
corner of her office.

Gladwell had arrived. When Brown
decamped the following year, it was a
friend Gladwell had known at the
Washington Post, href="/media/poni/1999/02/23poni.html">David Remnick, who took over
operations. This year “The Coolhunt” was
tapped for display in Remnick’s
anthology “Life Stories: Profiles
From the New Yorker.” Gladwell had
become a mainstay.

But this isn’t success; it’s only
success at the New Yorker, an
institution with a long tradition of
anointing nonfiction superstars whose
gemlike books end up launched straight
over the bookstore display shelves and
into the u-take-’em bins. And to
continue the argument for the
prosecution, “The Tipping Point”
probably never seemed like an especially
gemlike book in the first place: It’s an
eclectic sort of project that draws from
a number of Gladwell’s disparate, though
mostly buzz-oriented, New Yorker pieces
on such topics as the science of
shopping, the diffusion of trends and
the “broken window” theory of crime
control. All in all, the book is
supposed to be about the way small ideas
can spread in epidemic fashion when they
reach a certain critical mass, “tipping”
the conditions under which we live from
one state into another.

A certain small, hip crowd in the East
Village, for example, started wearing
Hush Puppies for no reason that anyone
has ever figured out — a local trendlet
that tipped into a full-blown movement,
whereupon the Hush Puppies company found
itself fielding calls from superstar
designers and selling shoes as fast as
it could make them. The href="/news/1999/01/cov_14newsa.html">crime rate in New York (and in the
country at large) declined precipitously
in the early ’90s, for reasons never
adequately explained. It just tipped.
Rebecca Wells’ “Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood”? Tipped.

Of course, the fact that things tip
isn’t in itself a groundbreaking
observation. Nothing, after all,
succeeds like success. And if “The
Tipping Point” were really just about
things tipping, it would be a real botch
of an expository work, all
Frankensteined together out of a bunch
of incongruous elements, such as
syphilis epidemics in Baltimore, the
vagaries of the athletic-shoe market,
the problem of turnstile jumping on the
New York subways … Bernhard Goetz …
“Sesame Street” …

No, the reason the publishing world
dumped truckloads of money on Gladwell
is that the book makes for a great
primer on avant-garde logrolling and
marketing techniques. It’s the perfect
buzz manual for the new century, culled
from research in epidemiology, the
social sciences, memetics, trend
spotting and similar fields and from the
author’s own experience in the careening
hype-mobile that was Brown’s New Yorker.
There are sections on “stickiness” and
on successful pitchmanship, on
behavioral research and on the mechanics
of rumormongering.

Gladwell and his publicists attach a
cheerful spin to all this, with the
author rounding out his introduction by
asking, in the manner of a
do-it-yourself social-science manual,
“What can we do to deliberately start
and control positive epidemics of our
own?” The publicity sheet remarks that
“The Tipping Point” “contains a
profoundly hopeful idea … that one
imaginative person, applying a
well-placed lever, can move the world.”
Well, in order to earn back that huge
advance, Gladwell is going to have to
supply an awful lot of people with
well-placed levers. And imagine
that ruckus. Gladwell plans to
destroy the world! It has been a long time
since a supervillain has unveiled his
doomsday device and demanded only a
million bucks — but maybe he’s planning
to ask for more once all the epidemics
start sweeping the globe and those
levers start pumping up and down. Maybe
he’s holding an antidote.

Then again, as far as instruments of
social control and manipulation go, “The
Tipping Point” is a pretty thumping-good
read. Gladwell’s style is nuanced yet
casual, as befits a New Yorker guy, and
he has that rare gift of the top-drawer
fact writer: free-floating curiosity
about the world and the way it’s put
together. He’s honestly, and probably
innocently, interested in the mechanics
of marketing and buzz; you get the
impression that he would’ve written the
book whether or not anyone thought that
social and sales engineers would pile
all over one another trying to snatch a
copy from the stacks. Moreover, when he
concentrates on bite-size ideas rather
than grand theories, he can be an ace
synthesist.

Specifically, Gladwell has an
interesting take on social scientist
Stanley Milgram’s href="/21st/reviews/1998/09/21review.html">“six degrees of separation”
research, which seems to indicate that
everyone on earth is connected through
href="/march97/media/media2970311.html">
Kevin Bacon. Or rather that people
everywhere, including Bacon, are
connected through far fewer and more
direct channels than you might have
thought possible. In the 1960s, Milgram
sent out letters to random people in
Ohio requesting that they mail a reply
either to a certain stockbroker in
Boston, if they knew him, or to someone
else whom they thought might know him.
Most of the responses that eventually
arrived had gone through only five
intermediary steps, and Milgram
noticed as well that a large number of
them were funneled to the stockbroker by
a single person in Boston. Gladwell
identifies that sort of character as a
Connector — someone who is skilled at
the “weak exchange” of casual
acquaintanceship and who therefore knows
a huge number of people. Just about
everyone, he says, knows at least one
Connector; and to a great extent these
Connectors provide the conduits through
which societies exchange information and
opinion. They talk to everybody. If you
get a Connector on the case with you,
it’s easy to tip stuff.

Of course, we already knew that;
otherwise Brown wouldn’t have instituted
the policy of sending special copies of
… that magazine to a select A-list of
buzzhounds so they’d talk about it. If
we didn’t know that, nobody would be
able to figure out where to send review
copies of “The Tipping Point.” But what
Gladwell suggests is that it’s not only
the P.R. demimonde that operates this way
– it’s all of society. For instance, on
the night that Paul Revere made his
midnight ride, a man named William Dawes
went galloping off in the other
direction to muster the militias to the
west of Boston. Revere’s ride stirred up
an army, while something like three
people showed up from the towns Dawes
visited. Paul Revere, Gladwell says, was
a classic Connector: He knew everybody,
and so he was able to storm into one
village after another, banging on all
the right doors and calling people out
by name.

Connectors are supposed to be the
vectors through which political
movements spread, through which we hook
up with friends and dates and connect
with potential employers, through which
restaurants and bars (say) become hot
and styles become manifest. And in fact,
that might be a far more elegant way to
look at things than the old just-so
theory of group dynamics, according to
which we assume that if we’re hanging
out at the Loop Lounge with our pal
Steve on a Friday night it’s because the
Loop rules and Steve is just a helluva
guy. More elegant, but also more
impoverished and less humane — but
that’s progress for you. And it
certainly helps explain the degree to
which logrolling can get you ahead in
this world.

Revere was also, Gladwell continues, a
Maven — a person who collects and
organizes vast stores of useful
information and shares it with the
people around him. He knew all about
what the British were doing and was
zealous about digging up new
intelligence. The Maven is the other
type of individual you’d want to fax
your press releases to. A Maven
recommends things and people listen; and
just as with the Connector, we’re all
supposed to know one. A third type is
the Salesman, who has a genius for
selling you on ideas or opinions.

But these last two categories are a bit
dodgier: Instead of explaining anything
new about the way the world works, they
just take elements of the exchange
relationship and turn them into basic
human types. Revere was, if anything, a
man deeply involved in the affairs
around him — a man, like Gladwell, with
interests. But Gladwell’s example of the
contemporary Maven is a guy who knows
everything about how to get great deals
on consumer goods; he’s merely a Smart
Shopper. And while Gandhi would come off
in Gladwell’s theory as a consummate
Salesman, the one in Gladwell’s account
is a guy who made a bundle closing real
estate deals — a small-”s” salesman.

And in any case there’s a fourth
category afoot in “The Tipping Point”:
the Social Engineer, who tries to sell
you on the idea that most people are
basically cells in a huge, dumb overmind
and that an elite should be able to
determine what that mind thinks about.
An example from history would be href="/books/feature/1998/06/cov_30feature.html">Hitler, although perhaps
that’s unfair: He qualifies more
properly as a Salesman — yanking on
that well-placed lever, spreading that
virus.

Essentially, the book succeeds wherever
Gladwell is content simply to follow the
epidemic of the trend through its human
vectors and gets icky wherever he widens
the scope of his analysis, making grand
observations about human behavior and
how blithely it can be manipulated. It’s
entirely true that people can be
influenced en masse by flummery,
propaganda and bizarre enthusiasms.
Since Charles MacKay’s “Extraordinary
Popular Delusions and the Madness of
Crowds” was first published in 1841,
the subject has been perennially
interesting — and inarguably valuable.
A lot of people have dealt with it,
including Gladwell’s New Yorker
colleague Bill Buford (in his 1991 study
of soccer hooligans, “Among the Thugs”)
and the entire flourishing field of
memetics researchers (including href="/21st/books/1998/12/22books.html">
Richard Dawkins, Aaron Lynch and
Richard Brodie).

But heretofore there’s been a general
consensus among authors on the subject
that the contagion of essentially
unexamined ideas among large groups of
people is, you know, fairly serious
stuff, and that the unthinking herd is
not the ideal unit of human
organization. Buford, who rampaged with
a herd of soccer toughs through the
streets of Turin, London and Sardinia,
wrote, “A crowd reveals our Darwinian
selves, primal hordes suddenly liberated
by the sway of the pack. A crowd reveals
our Freudian selves, regressing to a
state of primitive, elemental urgency.”
Gladwell, who watches the crowds on 42nd
Street from the 21st floor of the Condi
Nast building, might not fully
understand the implications of what he’s
saying when he speaks of “spreading a
virus” through groups of people. One
assumes that Buford, who ended up
collapsed in a Sardinian gutter with
riot police swinging well-placed levers
up and down on his skull, understands
the idea a little more fully.
Admittedly, as an author Buford is no
Rodman or Collins either — nor even a
Chopra nor a Cartland. But still: $1
million … Here’s a tip: Don’t believe
the hype.

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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