If you haven’t read Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, you are missing out on some amazing insights into what makes things go “viral.” In the book, Gladwell covers everything from crime reform in New York to Syphilis in Chicago all in an attempt to understand why some ideas hit the tipping point after which they become unstoppable.

The latest phenomenon to hit the tipping point online has been quizzes. Today, more than 10,000 new quizzes are made every day and more than 200 million people visited the popular site Buzzfeed in March, largely due to the growth of quiz traffic. The question then becomes – why did quizzes hit the tipping point? Let’s see what Gladwell would have to say.

The differences that cause virality are not as large as you would think. In the late 1980’s New York City was a crime ridden territory and the most dangerous place in America. By 1995, it was one of the safest cities in the nation and had all but eradicated the epidemic of violent crime. The immediate assumption would be that a massive police push was enabled or a large wave of immigrants had changed the population makeup to cause such a change in the crime rate.

The truth is much less dramatic but also amazing. In the late 80’s a new chief of police came into power in New York City, and he began enacting a series of strange and subtle reforms. He started with graffiti on the subways. A system was put in place to systematically eliminate graffiti on every rail car in the city, and within a few months of implementation the entire network was eradicated of markings.

Next, the police force focused on subway “fair-jumpers,” people who jumped over turnstiles and skirted the fees that were normally associated with taking the train. The police would dress in plain clothes and reel in groups of jumpers every single day. Before long, the subway jumping stopped, and order was restored to the system.

By 1995, crime in New York was below the national average, and the city was considered safe once again. The drop in crime was exponential, and the tipping point was triggered by simple reforms. Here’s why.

It turns out that graffiti and subway fair jumping are gateway crimes, which means they are the entry point to violent crimes that were so prevalent in New York in the late 80’s. When the police began arresting people for fair jumping, they were surprised to find out that nearly half of the offenders had outstanding warrants or an arrest record.

For graffiti, it turned out that this act of vandalism was a source of new criminals. When the police arrested taggers, the majority were very young and committing crimes for the first time. Graffiti was somewhat of a rite of passage for bigger and badder crimes.

By cutting off the source of crimes, New York was able to dramatically decrease crime in a short period of time, a real life example of something good going viral.

How quizzes copied the New York Police to go viral.

To cause a mass effect, you must start at the source. Quizzes, like crime, have been around forever, but have remained somewhat of a novelty until recently. To fundamentally change the position of quizzes, Buzzfeed and the other pioneers in the industry had to rethink the basics. Namely, the quiz design and content.

Buzzfeed began running quizzes in 2009. They looked like the screenshot below and remained obscure, performing pretty terribly (at least in comparison to how they do now).


It took them four years to figure out the key to designing amazing quizzes that don’t remind us of the terrible questions we all had to answer in school.  The tipping point on design came when quizzes stopped being associated with work and began their connection with fun. Looking at the new quizzes, it’s clear that there’s nothing school-related about them – no teach would have pictures of cats as the answers to a quiz question.

The second piece of tipping quizzes into the mainstream is the actual content. Digging through the quizzes that are being run today, they differ very little from the ones ten years ago. However, the differences that do show up are enough to create a fervor. What quiz writers have done is take quizzes that start with some piece of real advice – for example “What kind of friend are you?” and turn it into a clickbait article “Which Celebrity Would Play You in the Movie Version of Your Life?”

In many ways nothing has changed, but at the same time everything has changed. Simply changing the wording of a quiz title can increase its share by many times.

Just like violence in New York City died quickly after small changes were put into place, quizzes took off in popularity when the formula was perfected. All it took was some simple edits to the design and content and we got to where we are now – with quizzes taking over the web.