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Lance forced me at beer-point to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” [1]. The book is largely based on a concept known as Memetics, which takes its roots in the work of sociologists and anthropologists, who attempted during the 1970s to adapt basic rules of biology (such as evolution and virology) to understanding how humans think and communicate.

The term “meme” comes from Richard Dawkins, a popular cultural behaviouralist who is fairly celebrated in academic circles for his 1982 article “The Selfish Gene”. Memes are essentially the non-embodied versions of genes; carrying thoughts, ideas, fashion whims, catch phrases, ways of doing things, punchlines, etc. They can and have propagated quickly through cultures and societies with dramatic effect: Socialism is a meme, as are Converse High-Tops. The former gave wind to the sails of Hitler, Stalin, and Castro; the latter adorned the feet of Kurt Cobain, and millions of his devoted fans, as he lay dead from suicide in his garage.

Like a gene or a virus, the degree of success in how a meme is propagated depends on a number of factors, including how that meme successfully captures on the conditions of its environment. HIV is a big scary virus but it’s not very successful: research indicates that it’s been around since at least 1880; and despite having mutated several times it still dies easily out in the open, requires a large exchange of fluids, and has infected a relatively low percentage of humans. Influenza is a highly successful virus — we have all had it at one time or another, probably all of us have had multiple mutated strains of it, and it propagates very easily through hand contact, can survive hours on doorknobs and public telephones, etc.

Gladwell opens his book with a specific (and, I think, his strongest) example of a meme in action: the rebirth of Hush Puppies shoes. In 1994, the Hush Puppies brand sold about 30,000 pairs worldwide. The parent company was thinking of shuttering the brand because it was so clearly un-cool. Unbeknownst to them, a grey market in used Hush Puppies was quietly supplying a counter-culture of teenagers, hipsters, bike couriers, and punk rockers in New York’s East Village.

Slowly, the anti-cool subversion of wearing Hush Puppies caught the eye of trend-setters such as fashion designer Isaac Misrahi. Quickly, the anti-cool became cool, and Hush Puppies started receiving special orders from designers looking to use their shoes on the runway. From there, the predictable happened: Hush Puppies became a fashion trend, with sales over the next two years eclipsing those of the previous decade.

At a certain point, says Gladwell, Hush Puppies reached a Tipping Point in propagating the idea that they were newly “cool”: and this is the point at which that idea, or meme, fed upon itself and spread — like a flu virus — to the malls and markets of America. All of this occurred beyond any intent or influence of Wolverine, the company marketing Hush Puppies shoes.

For a meme to reach its Tipping Point, Gladwell says, three factors have to conspire:

– The Law of The Few: There must be a select group of trend-setters who lead the charge and inspire others to follow – The Stickiness Factor: The message must be impactful, memorable, and easy to propagate – The Power of Context: The message must capitalize on the immediate wants, needs concerns, desires, of the carriers (people) whom it infects

All of these key concepts of the book are discussed within the first 3 chapters (the book is based on Gladwell’s original piece for The New Yorker [2]). Most of the rest of the book’s 280 pages are devoted to exploring examples of various Tipping points in modern society and in business

Gladwell is careful to avoid the use of the term “meme” or to make any reference to memetics, though he is clearly influenced by the work of academics like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Douglas Hofstadter. This could be to distance himself from stuffy academicia, or to shed previous meme-themed efforts such as “Virus Of The Mind” [3], which author Richard Brodie is actually also the original developer of Microsoft WORD.

Whatever the case, Tipping Point makes for an excellent primer in understanding the basic principles of Memetics and how they apply to modern society. While Gladwell cannot specifically advise us one how to create our own memes, he does allow those marketers among us to more carefully hone our ideas and creations to stand the best chance of succeeding amid the din of memes which swirl around our heads each and every day.

-Ian.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0316316962/ianbellcom-20 [2] http://www.gladwell.com/1997/1997_03_17_a_cool.htm [3] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0963600117/ianbellcom-20

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