Going Over The Tipping Point

A couple of months ago, as my debut on 3 Quarks Daily, I wrote about my frustrating experience of being the intended victim of an apartment rental scam on Craig’s List. You can read that piece, entitled Web of Lies, here. Of course, the crooks haven’t been stopped yet. Last I heard the other Beth Ann Bovino has moved to Arizona and cut the rent price, since the apartment had been sitting “empty on the market’” for some time. That’s not surprising. What is surprising, and amazing, is how the story spread so rapidly across the country, enough to catch the attention of regulators.

Screenhunter_01_mar_05_1257The morning after it was posted, the Daily News called and asked to interview me about my problem. I agreed and spoke with a journalist on the phone that day. She even sent a photographer by to take my picture. I happened to be dressed up that day, and got ready for my close-up with a big smile. I was asked to stop, given the seriousness of my situation. OK, I can do that, and I frowned. The next morning my frown appeared on the cover of the Daily News.

I thought I ran through my 15 minutes of fame and then some. But the story reached its boiling point. It cascaded into huge headlines nationwide. National Fox News asked to have me on their 8 AM show that day. Associated Press interviewed me over the phone. Another TV network came in for an interview. After over four interviews that morning, I declined local Fox News. They showed up at my office anyway, interrupted a meeting and pleaded that I comply. They said I have been on the news all day and that they had to have an interview. Choosing between sitting in an interoffice meeting or staring in the news, I did the interview. They sent TV crew to the apartment in question, which was my old home as I recently moved. Some asked that I leave work so that they could get a picture of me in front of my (old) home. My name even made it to the 1010 WINS (radio) news loop, in between traffic updates. I was told that my name and issue was raised during a Press Conference with Craig’s List, which was now under investigation because of the event. Inside Edition both called and wrote asking for an interview to use in their investigation into Craig’s List.

Ms. Jordan Lite, the Daily News reporter who first covered the story, said that it’s “a classic New York story (real estate, aggressive renters) with a modern-day (cyber) twist”, and that she wouldn’t be surprised if it got more attention. It did. It was linked to many other web sites, blogs and received countless local and national TV and radio attention, possibly some international press. People called my office or emailed my office to give advice. Sitting at a restaurant in the Miami airport, someone asked me if I caught the crooks. In upstate New York for the weekend I heard “Oh! You’re the girl that…”

How did it spread so quickly?

The_tipping_point713215The surprising impact of Web of Lies was likely an example of a social epidemic proposed in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. The word “tipping point” comes from the study of epidemiology, and refers to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the moment where the line on the graph starts to shoot straight upwards.

Web of Lies hit Gladwell’s tipping point and quickly spread. It received over 12,000 hits in the first hour posted, and soon after, received about several hundred hits per MINUTE. It received over 70,000 hits in 3 days. To give some perspective, a recent PEW/Internet report said that about one in five bloggers (22%) have fewer than ten hits a day in blog traffic, and 17% say they have 10 to 99 hits on a typical day. Just 13% have more than 100 hits a day. In contrast, Web of Lies spread so quickly, that within 36 hours it reached national headlines. In other words, the line on the graph shot through the roof, much like a virus turned epidemic.

Gladwell explains that ideas and behavior and messages sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. He compares it to an epidemic of measles in a kindergarten class, saying how “one child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. Within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again.” In this sense, they are seen as social epidemics. The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly.

Even more fascinating was how Gladwell explains the three criteria that diseases must meet in order to become an epidemic. This lends itself, by analogy, to practically every change initiative, such as social ones. The three criteria are:
The Law of the Few: A few people doing something different start and incubate the epidemic. These people, who Gladwell calls “mavens” are the ones who rub two sticks together in such a way that they improbably catch fire. Incubation also requires “connectors”. These are people with contact to a lot of people, enough to get the idea out into other communities and networks. They are the ones who move in different circles, so that the epidemic reaches escape velocity and spreads, much like HIV or SARS.
The Stickiness Factor: This allows the epidemic to endure long enough to “catch”, or to become contagious or “memorable”. Ways to make something sticky include repetition, hooks and triggers and an understanding of the message, some kind of story, and suspense. In other words, ways of “packaging to make it irresistable”.
The Power of Context: This requires that the physical, social and group environment must be right to allow the epidemic to then suffuse through the population. A concentration camp environment, for example, will change human behavior at epidemic speed. In a less austere environment, harsh rules and codes will not be as effective.

The success Web of Lies had in reaching such a large audience was likely because it met these three criteria. To begin with, the story had an inherently sticky message that resonated with many. People who had received numerous emails from scammers with the SUBJECT: URGENT!!! in the header would undoubtedly identify with the story. Moreover, given the popularity of “whodunit” TV show; someone trying to crack his or her own case would certainly be very appealing to many. The audience would essentially be “hooked”. The story caught the eye of a few early enthusiastic readers, likely within the blogospere, who incubated the story. It spread by connectors, such as digg.com and other web sites, which spread the message to other communities. Each new group then adapted the message to the group’s own unique social environment and own social context. Postings from renters searching for a home in Canada, relay operators handling phone calls for the deaf, or those fighting consumer fraud online indicate that the story reached across social circles. Together they may explain why the story spread far enough that I could be recognized in a small town a few hours north of New York City. The original internet real estate scam likely meets the same criteria as well.

What is amazing, and what he makes clear, is how frequently this pattern can be seen. Gladwell notes a number of positive epidemics, such as Sesame Street that started a learning epidemic in preschoolers, turning them onto reading and “infected” them with literacy. To a much smaller degree, the impact from readers of the Web of Lies would be considered a “positive” social epidemic in that readers then pushed for change. Of course, there are also social epidemics that have destroyed, he mentions the spread of teen suicides in Micronesia, for example, or the rash of mass shootings at schools and elsewhere. The wave of internet crimes, costing hundreds of millions of dollars yearly, would lie here. In the end, his book attempts to show people how to start positive epidemics of their own, and, hopefully, help wipe out those that could destroy.