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The Word-of-Mouth Epidemic

http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/tp_excerpt2.html

The Tipping Point explores how ideas, trends, or social behavior can spread like wildfire.  One major component in starting a “social epidemic”, such as a fashion trend, or the popularity of a new product, is by word-of-mouth. No matter how expensive a marketing or advertising campaign, word of mouth is the most important form of human communication. Sure, I can read good reviews on Yelp to find an expensive restaurant to take someone on a date, but none of these reviews will trump a good friend’s recommendation. Especially with today’s ubiquity of mass media and communication through television, film, and the web, “word-of-mouth appeals have become the only kind of persuasion that most of us respond to anymore”. But to cause an epidemic and cause a rapid spread of information to people across an entire network requires a certain type of person, one the book classifies as a “Connector”.

The book uses the example of Paul Revere’s midnight to demonstrate what attributes make up a Connector. For those of you unfamiliar with US history, in 1775 the British were planning to march to Concord, Massachusetts to seize the guns and ammunition of the colonial militia. The night before this march, Paul Revere, a patriot of the American Revolution, found out about this plan and set off on his “midnight ride” north of Boston to alert colonial militia of the pending attack with a simple message: “the British are coming!” “The news spread like a virus as those informed by Paul Revere sent out riders of their own, until alarms were going off throughout the entire region…When the British finally began their march toward Lexington on the morning of the nineteenth, their foray into the countryside was met — to their utter astonishment — with organized and fierce resistance.” Paul Revere is a legend in US history for his midnight ride, but what many people don’t know is that a fellow revolutionary by the name of William Dawes set out on the same errand but on a different route to the towns south of Boston. But his ride didn’t set the countryside afire — few men from the towns he rode through fought the next day because Dawes word-of-mouth was ineffective. Why?

Connectors need to know a lot of people. But what’s more important, are the kinds of people they know and the different networks and social circles that they tap into. This relates to the Kevin Bacon Effect, a concept we learned in class where every actor can be linked back to Kevin Bacon on average in 3 steps. There are many actors who have made lots of movies but aren’t well connected. Kevin Bacon is so connected because he has acted “among all the different worlds and subcultures and niches and levels that the acting profession has to offer.” This quality is what Connectors possess – like Kevin Bacon, Paul Revere managed to “occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches”. “He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman…He was a member of several select social clubs…with an ‘uncanny genius for being at the center of events’”.  If we were to map out a network of Massachusetts, Paul Revere would have most likely been a source of multiple local bridges, connecting different components/social circles together. So when Paul Revere rode through towns, “he would have known exactly whose door to knock on, who the local militia leader was, who the key players in town were.” Dawes on the other hand, “did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders…Dawes was in all likelihood a man with a normal social circle, which means that…once he left his hometown he probably wouldn’t have known whose door to knock on.”

In summary, Paul Revere is a Connector because he had many acquaintances that connected him to different social circles that are to a certain extent isolated from each other. Just like in class when we discussed how most people find out about new jobs through “weak ties”, we rely on such connections to give us access to opportunities, and tap into information that we otherwise, would never have found out about. Having many acquaintances and being a master of the weak tie results in a lot of social power — powerful enough to start word-of-mouth epidemics.

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