How to Spark an Epidemic

Ever heard of William Dawes?  Chances are you haven’t.

Dawes attempted the same feat as Paul Revere on that fateful April night in 1775: He tried to warn his fellow colonists in the Massachusetts villages of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham of an impending British attack.

He failed miserably.  Why?  Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point, contends that Dawes, unlike Paul Revere, was not a connector.  A committed patriot?  Yes, undoubtedly so.  But a connector?  Not by a long shot.  Dawes may have been a decent enough man and a committed patriot, but as a sentinel of liberty — well, he appears to have failed miserably.  And he failed because he apparently lacked the social connections that Revere enjoyed in abundance.

Paul Revere:  The Connector’s Connector

Revere was the ultimate connector, someone who wore many hats and who, borrowing David Hackett Fischer’s apt phrase, possessed “an uncanny ability for being at the center of events.”

Just how central was Revere to the events of the day? Among his many public responsibilities, he served as an official in the city’s public market, as the municipal health officer and as a coroner for Suffolk County. In response to a ravaging fire that destroyed parts of Boston, he also organized the Massachusetts Fire Insurance Company.   

Revere was also one of only two men who served on five of the seven pro-revolutionary Whig organizations in Boston.  He acted as a vital conduit among all those revolutionary groups scattered along the seaboard between New Hampshire and Philadelphia.

Revere was a classic connector because he knew how to bring people together.

Using extraordinary ability, he sparked a social epidemic that changed the course of human history.  Poor Dawes, by contrast, remains only a curious historical footnote.

Another Critical Element: Mavens

Not surprising, Gladwell believes that connectors such as Revere typically play critical roles in the making of social epidemics. But they are only one factor.  Equally important are the mavens. 

Maven is a Yiddish word for someone who possesses vast knowledge.  Gladwell characterizes them as people who are “interested and curious about everything.”  Mavens don’t just enjoy accumulating information: they also strive to help others by passing on this information.   They are the kind of people who not only read Consumer Reports but also write back to correct erroneous information.

People look to mavens as clearing houses of useful, critical information.  Like connectors, they help spark word-of-mouth epidemics, Gladwell says.

Equally essential are persuaders. They are the ones who typically provide the compelling arguments to convince us that the message or the product is worth the cost. In a manner of speaking, they help seal the deal, often providing the final impetus that tips the balance. 

Gladwell makes some strong arguments about the synergistic effects behind social epidemics.

We Cooperative Extension professionals and educators would do well to heed them.

For my perspective, this raises several questions.

First, aren’t all longstanding and successful Cooperative Extension educational programs essentially social epidemics that, for whatever reason, have been sustained for years, if not decades?  Granted, we seldom think of them this way, but aren’t they?

Likewise, don’t all of these programs reflect in some way the underlying effects of connectors, mavens and persuaders?

A Shining Example

Master Gardeners a prime example. I suspect the program has succeeded so spectacularly within the last couple of decades because it appeals to so many connectors, mavens and persuaders.  To put it another way, it simultaneously offers connector-, maven- and persuader-rich opportunities.

It is a people-oriented program tailored to connectors —people like Revere who possess an extraordinary ability to forge bonds with others.  Likewise, its subject matter is specialized enough to appeal to mavens.

Finally, enough influential people — persuaders — apparently have completed Master Gardeners with a strong enough impression to share their positive experiences with other people.

And that raises a final question: If what Gladwell contends is true — if all successful Extension programs begin as social epidemics sparked by connectors and spread by mavens and persuaders — shouldn’t all Cooperative Extension programs in the future be designed with these critical players in mind?

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5 responses to “How to Spark an Epidemic

  1. Jim,
    Another thoughtful and well-written article. Good work! Reminds me that I need to modify my checklist for Extension planning.

    Shannon

  2. An excellent article. Thanks for sharing it with us. We have never met. I thought about Master gardeners for many years and finally got around to going through the program in Jackson County in 2008. My wife’s got tired of listening to me to brag about it and she went through it in 2009. We both thought the program was excellent and wish we had done it many years ago. I moved into a new house in late 2007 and had the worst gardener site in the world for 2008. However, solely due to what I learned in Master Gardener, I had the best garden I’ve ever had in my life. I am retired now spend more time in the garden than anything else.

    I spent five years at Alabama earning degrees in both chemistry and biology. I learned more in Master gardeners than in any college course. I also attended the advanced Master Gardener program at Auburn and let me tell you this Alabama graduate’s opinion of Auburn and particularly the extension service has gone way way up! I think they do an excellent job!

    • missionextension

      My pleasure, Mr. Hodges. I wholeheartedly concur. I’ve tended to describe Master Gardeners as the ultimate Extension program.

  3. Dear Jim,

    As a small business owner in Brazil (private English school), I am curious about social network marketing and how it can help me. I found your blog through a search of the words “connector” and “maven” as I am looking for ways to appeal to these groups to expand my network of students and grow my school.

    Could you be more specific about what exactly the “connector and maven-rich opportunities” are for Master Gardener? How might I move forward in a similar fashion in my school?

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