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From an unexpected and head-shaking experience, America now knows the difference between epidemic and pandemic. A pandemic is an escalation of an epidemic because the spread affects a much wider geographic area and engulfs a more significant portion of the population. But neither epidemic nor pandemic is a welcome word. We ascribe it to illness and death.

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But there’s another form of epidemic/pandemic that can be quite good—sometimes necessary. And America today (one could say the world, too) is experiencing bad and good forms simultaneously. The bad form we know all too well. It’s COVID-19. The good form? It’s a social epidemic/pandemic.

Perhaps more than any other public intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the social kind in his frequently cited book, The Tipping Point. “Look at the world around you,” Gladwell asks. “It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”

Gladwell is talking about significant social change, the kind that Margaret Mead talked about decades earlier when she said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

What we know about social epidemics/pandemics (what we often call ‘social movements’) is that they are biological in nature, spreading via person-to-person contact. If social change is to occur, you’ll find a whole bunch of people rallying and organizing in different places. Disparate efforts, often unconnected formally, push in the same direction.

What’s fascinating about the dynamic is that is flies in the face of what most of us are taught about how to organize and administer change efforts. In business and other organizational settings, somebody in charge leads and provides direction. There are plans and objectives, roles and responsibilities, and reporting lines. There are charts and goals, and performance data and tracking metrics. There are presidents/CEOs and boards and staff, and there are office doors with names and titles. It’s all quite organized and structured.

While organizational change efforts are grounded in systematic, ‘planful,’ and structured approaches, the social change world is often shrouded in mystery.

We tend to like that approach because it offers continuous control and the prospect of mastering the future. But social epidemics/pandemics are about ideas, passion (often outrage), determination, and persistence. Like tornados, they ‘seem to come out of nowhere’ and pick up steam quickly. No single person is in charge, no single directive is given, and it’s not possible to predict when or where the ball will start rolling or even how far it will roll. And in the organizational and political worlds where recognizable names and faces get in the news time and time again, it’s not unusual for previously unrecognizable people—often young and fresh faces—to emerge in social movements.

While organizational change efforts are grounded in systematic, ‘planful,’ and structured approaches, the social change world is often shrouded in mystery. For example, why did George Floyd’s death become the trigger for what we’re experiencing today? He certainly wasn’t the first young Black man to die at police hands. And why did Minneapolis erupt as it did? There have been other police-linked Black deaths in Minneapolis, including one that went viral (Philando Castile). And while we believe ‘this time’ will yield significant social change, keep in mind that other eye-popping efforts weren’t change-generating affairs (e.g., ‘Occupy Wall Street’).

Today, America is experiencing a social epidemic/pandemic of awareness, social consciousness, and desire for change. And that observation brings me back to Gladwell’s work. In his now-famous 1996 New Yorker article, Gladwell used an epidemic model to explain why the NYC crime rate fell. It wasn’t because the mayor or police chief did this or that or because a citywide committee had formed with lowering the crime rate as its goal. Gladwell found that a number of people and groups got fed up with NYC crime. A disparate, but collective effort, made the difference. They all pushed in the same direction.

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Gladwell expanded that frame of reference in his previously cited 2000 book. Gladwell wrote about the Law of Context, which includes the mental state of a population. Nothing people are learning today about the State of Black America is inherently new. It’s just that many more people are open to hearing about the plight of Black America and, then, evaluating it as unacceptable. The context is set.

There is also what Gladwell calls The Stickiness Factor. Many Americans are not doing what almost often happens, that is, going on with their lives without further ado. This time, many are concluding, “We need to do something!

Finally, different people (seasoned activists, and others not) are playing critical movement-accelerating roles. Some are what Gladwell calls Mavens (information gatherers, aka, ‘grievance detectives’). Others are Salespersons (propagating news and views about what’s going on and what can be done about it). Still others, Connectors, connect people, locally and beyond, including friends and family members, often by using social media, like Facebook.

I’ll bet that you are playing one of those roles or, at the very least, you have family and friends who are so inclined.

All of it requires social networking, but not just the kind we know well, that is, networking with people we know and with whom we interact frequently. That form of social networking requires deep ties. There’s another kind of social networking—a form that Nick Granovetter wrote about decades ago—called weak ties. To spread—really spread—social movements require weak ties.

And what about these things? Authority. Title. Chain of command. Power. None of that is front-and-center, at least not at this stage. But make no mistake about it: all of that will come into play soon—when organizations face the ‘We’re in’ decision and act as though they really mean it. At that point, another truism of social movements will come into play: Don’t expect everybody ‘who’s in’ to be in for the same reason. ‘True believers’ will need to accept a fact of human life—that to get to the social tipping point, some buy-in will be an expression of self-interest, not deep conviction. Transplanting values is an ill-fated operation.

But rather than fret about that now, let’s celebrate the glorious social epidemic/pandemic afoot. Yes, it comes at the time of another pandemic—the awful kind. But the social kind (one that took a very long time coming) gives hope.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the words “all men (sic) are created equal” will come true.


Frank Fear

You can listen to the spoken version of this article on Anchor.FMat Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear. UTR is also available at AppleSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerRadioPublicPocket Casts, and Overcast.