Thursday, June 1, 2000

Q&A Malcolm Gladwell: : Astroturf


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review in 2000

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of "The Tipping Point." (2000)

These three characteristics -- one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment -- are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third, epidemic, 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 that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point
   "The Tipping Point"

HB: What got you interested in the material that led to "The Tipping Point"?

MG: I covered the HIV epidemic for the Washington Post and got very interested in epidemiology. A lot what I learned about how epidemics work surprised me. Then, in 1996, I wrote "The Tipping Point" article for The New Yorker dealing with crime as an epidemic. That was inspired by the work of Jonathan Crane, who had written on the subject, and by George Kelling, who had put forward the broken windows idea. Once you have that paradigm, the fun thing to do is to see how many other places you can make it work.