Malcolm Gladwell’s “Connectors”: People Who Spread Ideas

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Who are Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors? How are they crucial to the spread of ideas and important for business?

Connectors are people who seem to know everyone. You can find Connectors in every walk of life. Connectors are sociable, gregarious, and are naturally skilled at making — and keeping in contact with — friends and acquaintances. The term comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

We’ll cover the role of Tipping Point‘s connectors in business and why they’re crucial to the spread of ideas, services, and products.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Connectors

The Law of the Few is about the people who spread messages, ideas, or viruses and cause epidemics to tip. These are specific types of people who have the contacts, knowledge, and social skills to effectively spread an idea far and wide. The types are connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Connectors: People With Strong Social Networks

Six Degrees of Separation

In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the “small-world experiment” to research how closely people are connected. He sent letters to 160 people in Nebraska, giving them the name and address of a stockbroker in Boston and instructing them to write their name on the letter and then send it to a friend or acquaintance who might get the letter one step closer to that stockbroker. Each person who received the chain letter would do the same, until a friend or acquaintance of the stockbroker finally received it and would send it directly to him. 

At the end of the experiment, Milgram found that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in five or six steps, creating the concept that people all over the world are all connected by six degrees of separation.

Even further, Milgram discovered that half of the letters were ultimately delivered to the stockbroker by three people. Although everyone is linked by just six degrees of separation, a small group of people are connected to a disproportionately large number of people. Those few, well-connected people are what Malcolm Gladwell calls Connectors. 

(Shortform note: The notion that a handful of powerful people can spread a message further and more effectively than the rest of the population is called the Influentials theory, and has been a staple in marketing for 50 years. However, several more recent experiments by network-theory scientist Duncan Watts determine that these rare trendsetters — or hubs, in his experiment — are no more influential in spreading an idea than the rest of the population. Watts recreated Milgram’s small-world experiment with email and found that only 5 percent of messages passed through Connectors. Additionally, Watts has found that the public’s mood and susceptibility to influence at a given time is a far greater determinant of whether an epidemic tips than the strength of the influencer spreading the idea.)

Connectors Bring People Together

According to Malcolm Gladwell, Connectors tend to be connected to many communities — whether through interests and hobbies, jobs that cause them to work with people in other fields, or other experiences. Their strength is in occupying many different worlds, and bringing them together. 

(Shortform example: A Connector may be a journalist who interviews many different people for her work, who also plays on a recreational volleyball team, and is a regular at the local rock climbing gym, as well as a familiar face at her church, and also active and well-known in a specific online forum. She knows many people in these communities on a first-name basis and would be able to connect them if, for example, someone on her volleyball team were looking for a lawyer, and she happened to know a great one who attended her church.)

A party game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” attempts to link Hollywood actors through their movie roles the way Milgram’s small-world experiment linked people through letters. This is a good example of one of Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors. You start with a random actor, then name another actor from one of her movies, then name an actor who has been in a movie with that second actor, and continue until you get to someone who’s shared the screen with Bacon — trying to make the connection in six steps or less. For instance, you can get from Mary Pickford to Bacon in three steps because she was in Screen Snapshots with Clark Gable, who played in Combat America with Tony Romano, who was in Starting Over with Bacon.

The game works because Bacon had roles in so many movies. However, when a computer scientist calculated the connectedness of about a quarter million actors who have appeared on TV and in movies, he found that the most well-connected actor was actually Rod Steiger. You could connect any actor with Steiger in less than three steps because not only because he had roles in a lot of movies, but also because the movies were so wide ranging — from dramas to Westerns, and Oscar winners to flops. Within Hollywood, Steiger occupied many worlds, and in those many diverse circles he accumulated a huge number of connections. 

The Strength of Weak Ties

According to Malcolm Gladwell, Connectors are not close with all their connections. In fact, in Tipping Point, Connectors’ power is in having lots of acquaintances, or “weak ties.” Acquaintances create a wider reach because they typically occupy different social circles and communities, exposing them to different people and information than you encounter. 

Weak ties can help spread a message beyond your reach because they belong to different worlds than you do. On the other hand, your friends’ knowledge and social ties tend to largely overlap with your own. Your friends can help spread a message in the same communities you occupy, which doesn’t do much to expand your reach in spreading a message.

A study by a group of psychologists found that although we tend to develop relationships with people who are similar to us (e.g. age and race), proximity plays a bigger role than similarity in choosing friends. This means that if someone lives down the street from you, you’re more likely to develop a friendship with her than with someone who you have more in common with but who lives an hour away. You’re also likely to be exposed to a lot of the same news, people, and information. This is one reason why weak ties are an advantage for Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Connectors”: People Who Spread Ideas

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  • What makes some movements tip into social epidemics
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  • How to cause tipping points in business and life

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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