A Call To Arms

Posted on May 25, 2017 by Cape Rebel

From The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
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On the afternoon of 18 April 1775, a young boy who worked at a livery stable in Boston overheard one British army officer say to another something about ‘hell to pay tomorrow’. The stable boy ran with the news to Boston’s North End, to the home of a silversmith named Paul Revere. Revere listened gravely; this was not the first rumour to come his way that day. Earlier, he had been told of an unusual number of British officers gathered on Boston’s Long Wharf, talking in low tones. British crewmen had been spotted scurrying about in the boats tethered beneath the HMS Somerset and the HMS Boyne in Boston Harbour. Several other sailors were seen on shore that morning, running what appeared to be last-minute errands. As the afternoon wore on, Revere and his close friend, Joseph Warren, became more and more convinced that the British were about to make the major move that had long been rumoured – to march to the town of Lexington, northwest of Boston, to arrest the colonial leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and then on to the town of Concord, to seize the stores of guns and ammunition that some of the local militia had stored there.

What happened next has become part of historical legend, a tale told to every American schoolchild. At ten o’clock that night, Warren and Revere met. They decided they had to warn the communities surrounding Boston that the British were on their way, so that local militia could be roused to meet them. Revere was spirited across Boston Harbour to the ferry landing at Charlestown. He jumped on a horse and began his ‘midnight ride’ to Lexington. In two hours, he covered thirteen miles. In every town he passed through along the way – Charlestown, Medford, North Cambridge, Menotomy – he knocked on doors and spread the word, telling local colonial leaders of the oncoming British, and telling them to spread the word to others. Church bells started ringing. Drums started beating. 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. The word was in Lincoln, Massachusetts by one am, in Sudbury by three, in Andover, forty miles northwest of Boston, by five am, and by nine in the morning had reached as far west as Ashby, near Worcester.

When the British finally began their march towards Lexington on the morning of the 19th, their foray into the countryside was met – to their utter astonishment – with organised and fierce resistance. In Concord that day, the British were confronted and soundly beaten by the colonial militia, and from that exchange came the war known as the American Revolution.

Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. A piece of extraordinary news travelled a long distance in a very short time, mobilising an entire region to arms. Not all word-of-mouth epidemics are this sensational, of course. But it is safe to say that word of mouth is still the most important form of human communication.

But for all that, word of mouth remains very mysterious. People pass on all kinds of information to each other all the time. But it’s only in the rare instance that such an exchange ignites a word-of-mouth epidemic.


In the case of Paul Revere’s ride, the answer to this question – why some ideas and trends and messages ‘tip’, and others don’t – seems easy. Revere was carrying a sensational piece of news: the British were coming.

But if you look closely at the events of that evening, that explanation doesn’t solve the riddle. At the same time that Revere began his ride north and west of Boston, a fellow revolutionary – a tanner by the name of William Dawes – set out on the same urgent errand, working his way to Lexington via the towns west of Boston. He was carrying the identical message, through just as many towns and over just as many miles as Paul Revere. But Dawes’s ride didn’t set the countryside on fire. The local militia leaders weren’t alerted. In fact, so few men from one of the main towns he rode through – Waltham – fought the following day that some subsequent historians concluded that it must have been a strongly pro-British community. It wasn’t. The people of Waltham just didn’t find out that the British were coming until it was too late. If it were only the news itself that mattered in a word-of-mouth epidemic, Dawes would now be as famous as Paul Revere. He isn’t. So why did Revere succeed where Dawes failed?

The answer is that 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. Revere’s news ‘tipped’, and Dawes’s didn’t, because of the differences between the two men. This is the Law of the Few – the people critical to social epidemics, and what makes someone like Paul Revere different from someone like William Dawes. These kinds of people are all around us. Yet we often fail to give them proper credit for the role they play in our lives. I call them Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.