Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 2001)
Malcolm Gladwell was a journalist for The Washington Post and later became a staff writer for The New Yorker. In December of 1996 he published an article on the idea of a “tipping point,” the moment when a social trend crosses a threshold and starts to spread like wildfire. The original article was expanded into this book, with many additional examples.
How does a style of clothing become trendy? What causes a sudden drop in the crime rate of a major city? Under what circumstances can a political cause explode into a revolutionary mass movement? Why do some advertisements stick in people’s minds while others are ignored? How does a book become a best-seller? These are the kind of questions for which Gladwell tries to find a common denominator. Just as a single match can start a large wildfire under the right conditions, or one sick individual in a crowd can bring about a flu epidemic, Gladwell argues that little things can make a big difference in social dynamics. He selects examples from a wide variety of social situations to illustrate how an idea or trend can become contagious, spreading quickly from a small beginning to a mass audience.
For example, Hush Puppy shoes, with lightweight crepe soles and suede uppers, were a popular brand in the 1970’s, but by the early 1990’s sales had dropped to about 30,000 pairs per year and executives at the Wolverine Shoe Company were thinking about phasing them out. In 1995, however, Hush Puppies became a local fad among a group of young people in Manhattan. Subsequently, several nationally known fashion designers decided to incorporate the shoes in their fall showings. By the end of the year, over 400,000 pairs were sold. In 1996, sales increased to more than one million pairs, and the next year to almost two million. All this happened basically by word of mouth, without an advertising campaign by the manufacturer.
In a very different type of case, the New York City crime rate from 1975 to 1992 was very high, totaling over 600,000 felonies per year, including about 2,000 murders. In 1993, a tipping point was reached and the crime rate decreased dramatically. Within five years, serious crimes dropped to one-half and murders to one-third. What caused this huge decline? Some long-term trends such as less drug use, aging of the population, and improvement in the economy might explain a gradual decrease, but not the sudden drop that actually occurred.
Gladwell argues that the sudden decrease in crime can be attributed to two other factors. One of these was cleaning up graffiti in the subway system. Instead of assigning police resources to stop violent crimes, funds were allocated to remove graffiti by repainting. If a car was vandalized, it was repainted the next day. It took almost five years to clean up thousands of cars. Subway director David Gunn justified the subway cleanup project as follows: “The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system. When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes just weren’t going to happen.” The project put into practice the so-called Broken Windows theory of criminal behavior, developed by criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson.
If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.
In trying to restore orderliness for the subway system, another seemingly minor offense had to be addressed. People had gotten into the habit of climbing over or around the turnstiles to avoid paying their fare. The problem became so widespread that as many as 170,000 people per day rode the subways without paying. The loss of revenue was not as important as the loss of respect for law and order. Transit police in plain clothes were assigned to arrest fare-beaters. They were handcuffed and left standing on the platform for a while as a public signal that such behavior was no longer tolerated. The remarkable result of this new policy was not only that people paid their fares but also that serious crimes such as robbery, rape, and murder dropped more than 50 percent. Taking a firm stand on minor offenses brought the major felonies down as well, so that New York became one of the safest large cities in the world.
In the realm of revolution, the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere is cited by Gladwell as the most dramatic historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. It mobilized local militias to confront British troops in open rebellion for...
(The entire section is 2015 words.)
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