The science behind social revolutions

I’ll admit, I’m a geek when it comes to my approach to helping the liberty movement and libertarian-friendly issues. Some people have a knack for knowing what issues will erupt from mere sparks to massive firecanos, and which people, when they step up to fan these flames, will build the largest bonfires. And it’s not a matter of mere chance or luck, as some would suspect… but it has a lot more to do with the kind of people who are most active, and whether they fall into certain categories (I know, no one likes to think of themselves as a “type”).

Now, it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I am authority on the matter, instead I’m going to direct everyone to read a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s esteemed book The Tipping Point (please purchase from anywhere but Amazon) on the difference between the man we’ve all heard of — Paul Revere — and some rather unknown guy — William Dawes — who had the exact same mission, with remarkably different results:

Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. A piece of extraordinary news traveled a long distance in a very short time, mobilizing an entire region to arms …

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 over just as many miles as Paul Revere. But Dawes’s ride didn’t set the countryside afire. The local militia leaders weren’t altered. 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 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.

[Revere] was gregarious and intensely social. He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theatre-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed — as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his brilliant book Paul Revere’s Ride — with “an uncanny genius for being at the center of events.”

It is not surprising, then, that when the British army began its secret campaign in 1774 to root out and destroy the stores of arms and ammunition held by the fledgling revolutionary movement, Revere became a kind of unofficial clearing house for the anti-British forces. He knew everybody. He was the logical one to go to if you were a stable boy on the afternoon of April 18th, 1775, and overheard two British officers talking about how there would be hell to pay on the following afternoon. Nor is it surprising that when Revere set out for Lexington that night, he would have known just how to spread the news as far and wide as possible. When he saw people on the roads, he was so naturally and irrepressibly social he would have stopped and told them. When he came upon a town, he would have known exactly whose door to knock on, who the local militia leader was, who the key players in town were. He had met most of them before. And they knew and respected him as well.

But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night. “Along Paul Revere’s northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm,” Fischer writes. “On the southerly circuit of William Dawes, this did not happen until later. In at least one town it did not happen at all. Dawes did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders in the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown or Waltham.”

Why? Because Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham were not Boston. And Dawes was in all likelihood a man with a normal social circle, which means that — like most of us — once he left his hometown he probably wouldn’t have known whose door to knock on. Only one small community along Dawes’s ride appeared to get the message, a few farmers in a neighborhood called Waltham Farms. But alerting just those few houses wasn’t enough to “tip” the alarm.

Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors. William Dawes was just an ordinary man.

I can guarantee that our statist overlords have learned the scientific lessons in Gladwell’s rather famous book, I highly suggest my brothers and sisters in the liberty movement who can see the tyranny approaching and understand the need to rally our allies to give his book some proper attention… and fully digest those lessons presented.

I also like to point out the truism of Gladwell’s hard and fast 80/20 rule: supposedly 20% of people end up doing 80% of the work. I’d say that it’s rather accurate and have noticed the same phenomenon here on Hammer of Truth. No amount of goading can seem to acheive results better than 20% active participation.

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