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Out-of-the-Box

Malcom Gladwell provides some tantalizing insights in his best selling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference:

The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.
Gladwell describes three traits of epidemics that also apply to social change: that change is contagious, just like a virus; that very small causes can have dramatic and disproportional effects; and, that when change manifests, it tends to happen suddenly rather than gradually.
Of the three, the third trait the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to the one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.
Gladwell points out that change may be in progress for a long time before it manifests. He illustrates this with the example of a lily pond. The number of lilies doubles every day, and it takes 30 days to fill the pond. On the 29th day, it is only half full. A few days before that it will seem nearly empty. In the last days, it tips.

The idea of dramatic, logarithmic change arising from relatively small causes is admittedly counter-intuitive. However, Gladwell teases out some of the "natural laws" that help us understand the mechanics of change, both epidemiological and social:
The three rules of the Tipping Point-the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context-offer a way of making sense of epidemics. They provide us with direction for how to go about reaching the Tipping Point.
While he cites several epidemics of disease to illustrate how a very small number of "transmitters" plays a crucial role in spreading the infection, he goes on to observe that "social epidemics work in exactly the same way. They are also driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people...it's things like how sociable they are, or how energetic or knowledgeable or influential among their peers" that sets them apart. He calls this the "Law of the Few" and the role they play in change. He describes the "Connectors," who know a wide range of people in different circles and share information across social or geographical boundaries; the "Mavens," who enjoy developing expertise and sharing it with others; and, the "Salesmen," who have an almost uncanny knack for influencing others.

The Stickiness Factor is the fairly straightforward idea that an interesting message is easier to communicate than a mundane one. Paul Revere, Gladwell points out, would not have raised the countryside if he had only been announcing a sale on pewter mugs at his silver shop. Stickiness may arise from either the content of the message itself ("the British are coming!") or from the way a message is presented a catchy jingle, a superstar spokesperson, or an eye-catching graphic.

Finally, the Power of Context shows us how important the details of our surrounding can be. Gladwell illustrates this with the phenomenon known to criminologists as the "broken window" theory:
If a window is broken and left un-repaired, 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...are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.
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