Tipping the Stacks in Our Favour

15Dec11

I’ve just finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s an interesting look at how products (whether that product be a physical item or an idea or concept) go viral. Basically, by getting the right type of people, the right number of people, and knowing how to make your message “stick,” it can cause a social epidemic, just as a carrier can infect the right number of people with a contagious virus to cause a disease epidemic.

However, these social epidemics do not all have to be negative. Gladwell cites examples from the fashion world, like making shoes popular, as well as crime prevention models. I find it all to be very McLuhan-esque. McLuhan stated that the medium is the message. The way a message is presented to us is equally, if not more, important than the actual message itself. This corresponds with Gladwell’s analysis of epidemics. Having the right type of person (a “connector”) spread a message through a short-list of acquaintanceships is more important than what exactly the message is. No one will listen to it, even if it is truthful and important. Not only that, but unless your message has the right context and “stickiness” (generally, how well a message sticks in the minds of the receivers, and how well they interact with it), it will not “tip” into an epidemic.

The one thing that stuck (haha) in my mind, was an example Gladwell used at the end of the book, to pull all his ideas together. He discusses an incident that occurred in Belgium in 1999. About 100 children in 5 different schools became ill; symptoms included nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shaking, and headache. It was noticed that the first few cases occurred right after a bottle of Coke was drunk. When the company analyzed that batch, they found that indeed, the Coke was contaminated with sulphates, which should have produced a bad smell. However, not only were the levels so low that they should not have produced illness, less than half of the cases were actually associated with drinking Coke. Gladwell’s hypothesis was that one of the kids to get sick was a connector type. The child gave the rest of the children a context for being ill, and the message stuck. Many of the other children who became sick, did not do so because they had a contaminated drink, but because it became an expression of their social surroundings.

Does this remind you of anything? It sure reminded me.

In Ontario recently, there has been a lot of concern about wireless networks in schools. Parents reported seeing symptoms in their children shortly after a wireless network was installed in their school. Symptoms included dizziness, anxiety, faster heart rate, hyper activity, and a whole slough of other symptoms that are fairly vague. Now many have dismissed this as being overly concerned parents buying into the media hype. And, I suppose to some extent it is, but I think Gladwell’s explanation fits rather well, and may give clues on how to combat the nonsense that wireless networks cause harm to anyone. It’s the same situation as the Coke. The first few students probably did get sick. It could have been anything though; allergies, exam anxiety, anemia, etc. However, because of how our minds look for patterns, parents correlated the sickness to the wireless, but didn’t look for confirmation. Then enter “experts” and the media, and we get the nice circus that has been going on.

Then, because of the “stickiness” of the message – these sick kids are getting way more attention than normal – a context evolved. More children could become ill, because there was a social situation that allowed it. Suddenly we have an epidemic of children who are becoming ill.

If we know that we have a social epidemic that has tipped, how do we answer it? Just telling the truth about wireless networks wont be enough, because the message isn’t sticky enough compared to the epidemic of sick children. If the medium is the message, then the message is sick kids, and there’s not too many things that will trump it.

The message that wireless technology is safe needs a new context. The message itself needs to be spread through a smaller network – national newspapers wont do, even if they did publish the science behind it. Perhaps the answer is for businesses who provide wireless to promote it, thereby making people realize how ubiquitous it is. Perhaps as more people get smart phones, they will become more accustomed to the technology and fears about it will ease. I know I don’t have the answer, but it is worth trying to find one so that we don’t lose a valuable technology (yes, useful for education too) to irrational fears.

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