One dramatic moment

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 4, 2009

Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell defines “the tipping point” as “one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.” Gladwell rose to prominence back in 2000 when his book, The Tipping Point , was first published. In a New York Times review that year, Alan Wolfe called The Tipping Point “a lively, timely, and engaging study of fads.” Wolfe mischievously suggested that the study of fads has merit, because they “remind us of the potential for disorder always lying behind the placid surface of daily life.”

Gladwell argues that tipping points are the product of the interests of influential individuals, whom other people want to emulate. They can provoke revolutions in fashion, entertainment, and politics because momentum for change builds as more and more people emulate and adopt the perspectives of these influential individuals. Eventually, that momentum reaches a tipping point at which new behaviors and values become the norm. The 2008 election of Barak Obama is a perfect example of a tipping point, in which the previously unthinkable became a desired alternative to the political status quo largely as a result of the support of “influentials.”

While Wolfe, the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, may have been amused by Gladwell, he accused the author of engaging in fuzzy science. Fads can’t be interpreted as viral episodes because they are created, unlike viral epidemics, by thinking individuals, he reasons. Yet Wolfe also acknowledges that real-life tipping points can transform rationally thinking individuals into panicked, unthinking mobs.

In the eight years since Gladwell published his book and Wolfe reviewed it, business and social networks have embraced the lessons of The Tipping Point. What has become the theory and practice of viral marketing may not be science but it is leveraged by marketers, public relations practitioners, and political operatives who swear that influential individuals can be used to virally transform otherwise rational consumers, clients, and voters into unthinking constituencies with profound results. And since perception is reality, Gladwell is right.

Because tipping points depend on influential individuals, organizations go to extreme lengths to identify them. Procter & Gamble, for example, as part of its annual $5 billion marketing budget developed an entire consultancy, tremor.com, to virally market its products. The company sets up websites that qualify influential teenagers, solicits ideas from them, and then gives these influentials products to test and word-of-mouth market to their personal networks.

Individuals can use viral networks to exert influence and get themselves noticed, too. The obvious examples in the Philippines are Journey lead singer Arnel Pineda and Oprah-darling Charice Pempengco. These now world-famous influentials continue to influence and inspire their fans, much to the delight of their sponsors. President Obama leveraged influentials Stevie Wonder, Oprah and other celebrities and their networks to expand his own network of voters.

Can a tipping point be reached without influential individuals provoking change? No. Consider the Philippines and the second people power revolt referred to as Edsa Dos. It can be argued that Edsa Dos was not catalyzed by a network of overwhelmingly influential individuals, but mob dynamics. In fact, an intensely disliked chief executive, former President Joseph Estrada, played the role of influential in reverse, bringing about his own downfall by enraging, rather than inspiring, the collectively influential middle class. Although dysfunctional, Edsa Dos was very much a tipping point.

Many analysts believe that dismay over the performance of Estrada’s successor has helped prevent a recurrence of Edsa Dos. But developments so far this year may suggest that momentum for an Edsa Dos-like tipping point could be building.

Those developments involve two reports pointing to widespread corruption in the Philippines. Unlike perception indices that ultimately have little direct influence on a country, these reports are different. In the first instance, the World Bank – which provides loans to the Philippines for badly needed infrastructure – sanctioned seven companies accused of rigging road construction bids with the knowledge and participation of government officials.

The World Bank report on collusion was followed by a US Department of State report which like the World Bank report has been widely discussed in collectively influential networks. The 2008 Human Rights Report on the Philippines accused the government of failing to effectively implement anticorruption laws with the result that “officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

”It may be difficult to fight corruption institutionally in the Philippines as the State Department report suggests. But these reports show that corrupt officials cannot hide from scrutiny, or enraged voters. Indeed, the high level of corruption in government suggests that those engaged in such practices are testing the political tipping point, and that the placid surface of daily life may not reflect the prospects for disorder in yet another dramatic moment.

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