Little Things Make a Difference

I am late getting to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been on the bestseller list for several months. But his dissection of socially contagious movements is compelling and instructive never the less.

He analyzes how social contagion sweeps across the landscape. He compares the effectiveness of Paul Revere, a connector, in rallying the colonists to take on the British with the parallel effort of William Dawes which was much less successful. Dawes was not a connector and he lacked the skills, personality and social network to create a word-of-mouth epidemic.

There is no clear recipe for instigating social contagion but there are, in retrospect, learnings that can inform those who would attempt to create them.

Context matters.In looking at the sweep of the Methodist movement across 19th century England, Gladwell says John Wesley’s penchant for organization coupled with the creation of small communities that stood for certain values made it possible for people to take on new values and live them out in a supportive community. This context made it possible for the movement to spread infectiously.

Similar contexts have developed for other, less religiously oriented movements, the re-discovery of Hush Puppy shoes, suicide among young men in Micronesia and smoking among teens, for example.

Small things matter. Cleaning up graffiti on subway cars and arresting fare beaters contributed to a turning point in crime in New York City.

The message matters. Learning from Sesame Street, Gladwell illustrates how giving attention to the structure and format of communication can greatly enhance the ability to get a message through the clutter and make it stick. The creators of Sesame Street tinkered with the format, eventually going against the grain of advice from learning theorists who told the producers to keep the puppet characters separate from the real people.

In fact, mixing the two created “stickiness” which Gladwell describes as messages that are retained rather than quickly forgotten.

One of the most intriguing claims in the book, however, is that even in an age of mass communication and million dollar advertising campaigns word-of-mouth is still the most important form of human communication. This is also the theme of marketers who are carrying out “viral marketing” strategies by providing information about products to everyday people who chat up the products in the course of their daily conversations with friends and acquaintances.

The risk of exploitation is obvious. On the other hand, so too, is the creative opportunity. If we listen to people and hear what really concerns them, offer them a supportive community in which they can address these concerns and, at the same time, offer meaningful values that provide a constructive way forward in a world that is too often isolating and alienating, perhaps the faith community can be an alternative to the commercial exploitation of these concerns and to the rampant materialism afoot today that promises much more than it can deliver.

If we could achieve the critical mass of people–the tipping point–who seek to reclaim life’s meaning and purpose as a journey of exploration with others with whom we share trusting and caring relationships, realize our God-given dignity and affirm our potential for making the world a more humane place, that would be a remarkable social movement.

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