EXCERPT: 'Viral Loop'

In the years leading up to and following World War II, there was a gra-dual shift toward modernity. Technology had been screaming forward for more than fifty years—the invention of electricity, the automobile, the air-plane, the light bulb, the telegraph and telephone—there was even talk of flying to the moon, and the United States was ready to reap the benefits. Colonizing space was a theme of comic books and radio shows like Flash Gordon. In 1938 Orson Welles's radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, based on H. G. Wells's sci-fi novel, set off panic as rumors of a Martian invasion swept through some communities, multiplied by the sheer force of word-of-mouth distortions. The theme of the 1939 World's Fair was "The World of Tomorrow." It featured a special exhibit called Futurama, which envisioned Earth twenty years ahead. In the span of two decades—from the 1930s to the 1950s—airplanes like the Lockheed Vega, which Amelia Earhart crashed into a watery grave, went from being constructed of little more than wood, glue, and baling wire to sleek steel jets; television was replacing radio as America's favorite entertainment choice; the acoustic big band swing era gave way to electric rock 'n' roll; medical advancements yielded a cure for polio; and psychologist B. F. Skinner postulated that people could be conditioned into creating social utopia. Earl S. Tupper's "Poly-T: Material of the Future" fit in perfectly.

By 1949, Wise dispensed with other products in the Stanley line and es-tablished "Poly-T parties." Many of her dealers grossed $100 a gathering and Wise distributed $1,500 of Tupperware a week (worth almost $14,000 today). Within a decade, Wise and her army of Tupperware ladies would move tens of millions of dollars' worth of merchandise every year via the Tupperware home party, the greatest viral network of its day. It worked like this: a new dealer relied on her social network of sympathetic friends, neighbors, and relatives to schedule a gathering. The party hostess invited women from her social circle to attend—a form of word-of-mouth virality. Meanwhile, the dealer hit up other friends to host parties, with each hostess tapping her particular social network, and the pool of buyers grew with each additional social circle. What's more, the dealer identified hostesses with the right attributes to join in selling Tupperware.

In Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's PBS documentary Tupperware, Lavon Weber, who hailed from a small rural community, recalled that a neighbor living half a mile away offered to get her started in Hugoton, Kansas, "and we dated two or three parties there that day. And then my mother said she'd have a party, and some of my sister-in-laws [too]. I'd go to church and people would say, 'I hear you're selling something,' and I said yes. 'Well, I'll have a party for you.'?" Multiply this by thousands of women, and that offers a glimpse of its rabbit-like growth.

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