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. Not all word-of-mouth epidemics are this sensational, of course. But it is safe to say that word of mouth is—even in this age of mass communications and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns—still the most important form of human communication.Think, for a moment, about the last expensive restaurant you went to, the last expensive piece of clothing you bought, and the last movie you saw. In how many of those cases was your decision about where to spend your money heavily influenced by the recommendation of a friend? There are plenty of advertising executives who think that precisely because of the sheer ubiquity of marketing efforts these days, word-of-mouth appeals have become the only kind of persuasion that most of us respond to anymore.

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. There is a small restaurant in my neighborhood that I love and that I've been telling my friends about for six months. But it's still half-empty. My endorsement clearly isn't enough to start a word-of-mouth epidemic, yet there are restaurants that to my mind aren't any better than the one in my neighborhood that open and within a matter of weeks are turning customers away. Why is it that some ideas and trends and messages "tip" and others don't?

In the case of Paul Revere's ride, the answer to this seems easy. Revere ...

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