That’s what author Malcolm Gladwell attempts to explain in his book, The Tipping Point.
Of course, the tipping point hasn’t always referred to going viral on the Internet. “What is the tipping point?” you may ask. The tipping point, as Gladwell explains it, is the moment in time when something, say, Hush Puppies, becomes popular again because of some hipsters in New York. The tipping point is when something becomes incredibly, impossibly popular, despite its overwhelming unpopularity just weeks, days, or even hours ago. It refers to something that no one would have pictured would be so exceedingly popular, something that we had no idea existed until we saw it on TV or heard it on the radio (like Gangnam Style) or became so wildly unpopular it became unlikely it would ever surge again (Furbys?!)
Gladwell likens the phenomenon of the tipping point to an “epidemic,” going as far as to site the syphilis outbreaks in 1990’s Baltimore to illustrate his point. Like any epidemic, there are three essential rules: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
Let’s take Psy‘s Gangnam Style, for example. It is, by now, a worldwide phenomenon, a catch Korean pop tune you don’t understand the words to but love to do the dance with. How did you first hear about it? Chances are, you saw it on a social networking site, such as Facebook or Twitter. Maybe a co-worker should you during the lunch break. Regardless of where you heard it, the person you heard it from heard it from someone else, who heard it from someone else, etc. But it had to start somewhere. The Law of the Few emphasizes the importance of transmission through word-of-mouth, and Psy’s recent success is thanks in large part to the initial underground following that led to mainstream popularity. Sure, he wrote the song, recorded it, came up with a unique dance and then posted it to YouTube, but someone else had to do the work. Someone else had to decide this was worth sharing, and since it was so catch, it was indeed worth sharing to everyone they knew.
This leads me to the next point: the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell explains the Stickiness Factor as how well something… well… “sticks.” Think about this for a second. Take, for example, the wildly memorable Stanley Steemer jingle. You know exactly what that company does: “Stanley Steemer gets carpet cleaner!” It’s so easy to remember, in fact, that you can’t help but sing along to it. But that’s just it: you may not exactly know all the words to Gangnam Style, per se, but you do know the moves: the lasso, the phantom horse-riding, the posing. And that’s what makes it stick. So in order for something to get to that tipping point, you gotta stick the landing. Psy did that.
The Power of Context is the last of the three rules, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. Epidemics are fostered by the circumstances and conditions of the times and places in which they occur. Turn on the radio–go on, I’ll wait. How many of Nicki Minaj’s hysterical words and Justin Bieber’s high-pitched crooning do you actually understand? Gangnam Style works perfectly in this day and age: There’s an easy chorus, a great bass line, and lots of dubstep-like technology. In other words, it’s just like a lot of American Top40 songs (look, Psy is still at #12!). Psy’s hit song might not have been such a hit ten or even five years ago, but because our culture is conducive to his music, it has become an international sensation.
There you have it. Those are the three major rules of the tipping point. But don’t take it from me: take it from Malcolm Gladwell. After all, he’s the one that wrote the book that’s gone viral.