I couldn’t believe my eyes last night! One of the top trending topics on Twitter was #ripjackiechan. Had our Karate Kid Master actually “carked it” (died)?

The next step was to Google Jackie Chan and BAM! there were numerous articles reporting that Mr. Miyagi had died of a heart attack. The news swept like wildfire – retweets, posts and blogs were all spreading the word. RIP JACKIE CHAN.

There was only one problem, Jackie was Alive and well. Confirmed via his official Facebook page. (See Below)

Here’s how it all started. At about 6.pm last night (Mar. 29th) twitter user @forumn00b tweeted “Jackie Chan dies following heart attack, new details http://bit.ly/h67UWD #RIPjackieChan.” Roughly two hours later twitter user @tweetmeme re-tweeted @forumn00b bogus death hoax. You see the thing is, until 7 pm only five tweeters had re-tweeted the message. It had barely started to trend. So what happened?

@tweetmeme is a twitter account that tweets about twitter trends so it’s only natural that with 62,482 followers #ripjackiechan went nuts. Absolutely nuts! It quickly outranked Lybia, Gaddafhi and Japan as the world’s most tweeted topic!

The way @forumn00b created credibility around the whole story was by using a technique where one can paste HTML code in a web browser and give it the illusion of being an actual live webpage, where in reality the “site” isn’t hosted at all. What’s more, the webpage he mimicked was none other than Yahoo7 news. @forumn00b even made reference to Barak Obama’s supposed, almost humorous eulogy “Even United States President Barack Obama laid down a personal tribute to the martial artist saying: “Jackie Chan is a man who can talk through talent, he is a constant reminder of the strength of humanity. He will forever be in our hearts, a true inspiration who inspired many generations. First it’s Nate Dogg then it’s Jackie Chan.”

The funny thing is, he’s done it before. From somewhere in Australia @forumn00b has tried to fake the deaths of Bill Cosby, Justin Bieber and Kate Miller-Heidke. So what was it that made this hoax more successful than any of the others? What caused this one to tip the scales?

If you haven’t yet read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell you should. The book is about How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The book seeks to explain and describe the “mysterious” sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” (Wikipedia). What does all this mean?

Well, in the 1980’s New York’s crime rates had risen to a violent level. Some of Brooklyn’s suburbs were so dangerous you couldn’t even walk outside at night. Amazingly with no warning, the crime rates just dropped. It had reached a critical mass, a tipping point. Something caused it to fall dramatically. By the end of the decade crimes committed on the subway had dropped by 75%. An unprecedented occurrence. New York didn’t have a “population transplant and no one went onto the streets to teach every would-be delinquent right from wrong.” How did it happen? Gladwell says, an epidemic is started by a tipping point. And for a tipping point to occur three things need to be in place.

1. The Power Of Context

According to Gladwell the reason for the dramatic drop in crime was not because of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s hardline policies but because of the “broken windows theory.” The Broken Windows Theory states that crime is an inevitable result of disorder. If a window is left broken & un-repaired, people start to think that no one cares, and that no one is in charge. Soon another window will be broken and the anarchy from the buildings will start to spread to the streets on which it faces.

In New York, Giuliani launched an attack on crime. He didn’t target heinous crimes of murder and assault. He targeted small quality of life crimes. The squeegee men who demanded money at traffic lights, graffiti artists, subway fare evaders and public disorder. It was said at the time “if you peed on the street, you would go to jail.” Minor, seemingly insignificant quality of life crimes were tipping points for violent crimes. They were, if not stamped out, invitations to more serious crimes.

In short, the environment in which an epidemic or sudden change occurs in, is pivotal to the creation of a tipping point. Now, let’s consider the context (environment) in which @forumn00b started the #ripjackiechan epidemic. Well, that’s pretty simple, TWITTER! Twitter is a contagiously informative tool, it can spread ideas like wildfire. The entire Twitter community is a sharing community. Tweeters are by default contributors. Five minor seemingly insignificant re-tweets ( before tweetmeme retweeted) were enough to get the tipping point moving.

2. The Law Of The Few

This law states, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Gladwell goes onto qualify those types of people.

Connectors – are those that “link us up with the world – people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” They are “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [… for] making friends and acquaintances.” These are those people who just know everybody. They make it their business to meet new people everyday, and often have an enormous social network (and address book).

Mavens – are those types of people who just know lots of things. They can tell you authoritatively anything concerning any topic. They are information specialists. A Maven is someone who can’t help himself from solving other peoples’ problems. As Gladwell states, “Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.”

Salesman – are “persuaders,” charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. We all know them and are often at the behest of their persuasion.

Returning to the Mr. Han AKA Jackie Chan epidemic, who were the connectors, mavens and salesmen? More so, how are they defined in the context of Social Media.

The Connector(s) – no prize for first guesses but @tweetmeme would be the connector. In a Social Media context connectors are those with “the most followers or friends.” @tweetmeme re-tweeted #ripjackiechan to over 62,000 people. There’s no denying them as the connector. By in large though, everybody on Twitter on some level is a connector.

The Maven – My guess would be @forumn00b. His tech savvy brain produced that “unhosted HTML” thingamabob. He created authority and expert opinion with his post by providing a bogus link to the Yahoo7 news website. Mavens are those who can provide a form of legitimacy to their posts with either a link, or simply by being an expert in their field in the real world – e.g. Derryn Hinch @humanheadline @3AW693 – and are ready and willing to spew information at the drop of a hat.

The Salesman – Funnily enough, the salesmen are those who re-tweeted @tweetmeme re-tweet (that’s a lot of tweet tweet tweet). That’s you and me. Anyone who tweeted (and perhaps believed) that Jackie Chan had in fact died. We effectively sold it to our friends and family and anyone else that was on our followers list.

3. The Stickiness Factor

The specific content of a message that renders its affect memorable. OMG Jackie Chan died. Well that’s memorable! Everybody’s ears open up when a celebrity “dies.”

As of this morning (Mar. 30th) @forumn00b was still up to his old tricks. Still trying to convince the world that Jackie Chan had died (I suspect to generate traffic to his/her blog). #ripjackiechan is a truly astonishing event. It highlights the power of social media and what it can achieve. On the flip side, it also underlines the dangerous power that social media possesses. Like all good things in life, there’s always a negative associated with it. (Hmmmm – Chocolate)

So next time you try to start a social media epidemic think about Gladwell, and tweet responsibly.

By Tzvi Balbin (c) 2011