PhysicsThe idea of a tipping point is one that comes from physics. Adding a small amount of weight to a balanced object can cause it to suddenly and completely topple. The point at which it does so is known as the tipping point. References to the idea of a tipping point with reference to water buckets tipping over date back to the 1800s.
Chaos theoryChaos theory has the closely-related concept of a catastrophe. This is dealt with by catastrophe theory. There is also the related concept of self-organised criticality. Before catastrophe theory came along catastrophes were treated as a form of runaway positive feedback.
Since chaos theory is so well established it would make a lot of sense to refer to "tipping points" as "catastrophe points" or "critical points". However, the term "catastrophe" has powerful and not always appropriate negative implications.
SociologyThe "tipping point" phrase was first applied in a sociological context by Morton Grodzins who studied American neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. He discovered that most of the white families remained in the neighborhood as long as the comparative number of black families remained very small. But, at a certain point, when "one too many" black families arrived, the remaining white families would move out en masse in a process known as white flight. Inspired by the physics term, he referred to that moment the "tipping point".
MemeticsThe term is a fairly general, but it appears to have an important application to memetics and cultural evolution.
The term is frequently applied with memes that "go critical". For viral content to explosively spread virally, people need to share it more frequently than they forget about it. For most wannabe-memes, they don't reach the required critical threshold - and are quickly forgotten about. However, other memes find themselves on the other side of the threshold - and spread virally - increasing in an exponential fashion. This effect is similar to what happens when a nuclear reaction goes critical. The critical threshold is now referred to as the epidemic threshold - a topic which I have a post about.
There are several possibilities here for memes to cross the threshold:
- Mutation - One is that your meme needs to mutate. An example of this would be the geddan meme - which had to cross the divide between video-game glitch and popular dance before making the big time.
- Hitchhiking - Another possibility is that it needs to find the right hitchhiking partner. An example of that is Keyboard Cat. The original keyboard cat video languished in obscurity - until it was used in a mashup by Brad O’Farrell - and then it exploded onto the internet - with thousands of copies being made, all of which used memetic hitchhiking with other viral content.
One example of an environmental change is when there is a competitive shakeout in a contested market, usually leading to one winner. Initially the market is small, and several contenders aim to reap the rewards of dominating it. As time passes, one competitor draws ahead, and then users switch to their product or service in a rapid cascade.
We see this with VHS vs Betamax and HD-DVD vs Blu-ray, Facebook vs MySpace - and so on.
Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping PointThe idea of tipping points was popularised by Malcom Gladwell in his popular book, The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
VideosHere's Meme Molly, explaining the The Tipping Point concept.
Here's a Guinness advert - illustrating Malcom Gladwell's point.
- The Tipping Point - book - on Wikipedia
- The Tipping Point - sociology - Wikipedia
- Tipping Point Project - Durham university
- The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
- The Influentials - One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy
- The Tipping Point - on Malcom Gladwell's web site
- The Tipping Point's metaphorical windfall
- What's Plaguing Viral Marketing? - The Tipping Point Might Be More Myth Than Math - by Matthew Creamer
- There is no Tipping Point
- Is the Tipping Point Toast? - By Clive Thompson
- The Tipping Point - disambiguation page - Wikipedia
- Informational cascades - By Dan Zarella
- Information cascade - - on Wikipedia