How Do We Create Trends?
As someone who has been fascinated with fashion and design for most of my life, the topic of “trends” is something I frequently think about. Understanding whether or not an idea is going to stick significantly affects my purchasing behavior and, consequently, my general livelihood. And I, like a lot of people, can’t possibly afford to purchase or emulate everything that appears to be relevant or popular through the various social and mass media channels I interact with — designer or otherwise. What I can do, however, and what I've always enjoyed doing, is try and understand the drivers behind the “why” in why we buy and share what I discover along the way.
Trends have always been, and likely will continue to be, an integral component in how we interact with one another. By definition, what begins as a new (or seemingly new) idea introduced into a social system ultimately becomes a “trend” when the social majority of that system comes to adopt and emulate the proposed idea. It sounds a bit loaded, I know, but making and passing trends is something that most of us do every single day – regardless of whether or not we are conscious of it. We’re social creatures, we enjoy connecting and building communities, and so the trends we follow can reveal a great deal about our dynamic cultural history.
More so than that, however, trends can also dramatically alter the landscape in which we exist and communicate with one another. Take technological innovation like the iPhone, for example, and how that continuously changes the way we share information. In our modern day environment, we are more digitally interconnected and visually oriented than ever before. We live through our screens, and we readily share photographic snippets of our day-to-day lives with one another through all of our social media channels.
We’re able to connect with people from all over the globe through the palm of our hand, yes, but we also grow increasingly dependent on our relationship with our phones (which we know isn’t always the healthiest). Smartphones and social media platforms are trends and, as such, they create and cater to our new forms of social behavior. We care more about the immediacy of information now, on the efficiency of communication, and on the constant creation, presentation, and distribution of content. And while I don’t necessarily believe that technology changes our social values, per se, I do believe that this digital landscape allows for greater social mobility and swifter diffusion of trends. So, I did quite a bit of digging….
“The Diffusion of Innovations” (& Trends)
In 1962, eminent sociologist and communication theorist, E.M. Rogers, developed a theory of communication known as the Diffusion of Innovations (DoI) Theory. “Diffusion” is the process of spreading (specifically) a new idea or product across a social system; “Innovation” is a new idea or product itself. Thus, with DOI, Rogers aims to explain how, in a five-stage cycle, a new idea can gain popularity and spread across society, ultimately becoming adopted and implemented.
As more and more people in a community learn about a “new idea,” and assuming they like it, they will spread word of this idea to their peers and will likely encourage them to adopt it as well. Eventually, as this process diffuses the society on an individual level and, assuming the majority likes the new idea, the innovation is considered “adopted” by the community (and new technology, or a new social behavior, etc. is implemented). Kind of sounds like how trends work, doesn’t it? Well, I thought so at least.
For the sake of this conversation, it’s important to highlight that diffusion occurs on an individual level and requires communication networks. This focus implies that not only does each person adopt an innovation at his or her own pace, but that this tiered process necessitates time and effective communication to happen. According to Rogers, in fact, people can be segmented into five categories : (1) Innovators, (2) Early Adopters, (3) Early Majority, (4) Late Majority and (5) Laggards. How willing or early a person is to adopt an innovation relative to his or her peers determines which category he or she falls under.
Innovators are a rare breed, comprising only 2.5% of our population, again according to Rogers. They are the primary introducers of change in a social system because they enjoy the cutting-edge, and indulge in the power of one’s imagination. They see the potential in an innovation before the rest of the population does and are the earliest to adopt and implement change… before spreading the news, of course.
The Early Adopters
So, who do the innovators spread their news to? Why the Early Adopters of course. Like the innovators, this group traditionally make up a smaller portion of the population as well, clocking in at only 13.5%. Early Adopters, however, are those that are either in direct contact with the innovators or that fall within the innovator’s sphere of influence. Mostly, these individuals take what they learn from the innovator, test it out for themselves, and decide if they want to adopt it or not. Assuming they see the effectiveness of the innovation, Early Adopters will embrace it and encourage others to do the same.
The Early Adopters are incredibly important for the livelihood of innovation. Concerning social standing, individuals that fall under this segment are known to be shrewd and well-informed in their decision making. And since most of the population can’t necessarily stay up-to-date regarding new information from the innovators, the Early Adopters become the trusted source for the masses. That is why one can also refer to Earl Adopters as “Opinion Leaders.” And appropriately so, since the judgment of this group can directly influence the likelihood of the remaining population adopting an idea.
The Early & Late Majority
The Early Majority and Late Majority fall directly under the influence of the Early Adopters and, together, comprise apr 68% of the population of a social system. How well an innovation does with this group of individuals is critical for its adoption. Thus, the elusive “tipping point,” where the rate of adoption increases rapidly, exists within this subset of the population. And while the early majority is different than the late majority in some aspects, they are both a more cautious group of individuals, which means they won’t adopt a new trend as readily or may be skeptical to do so.
Thus, it is crucial for the Early Adopters to effectively communicate and encourage the 68% to do so. Ultimately, though, as more and more individuals within this majority group adopt an idea, the more likely their peers will naturally do the same, primarily because it may become counterproductive to their own social or economic status not to do so (Hello, peer pressure!)
Laggards make up about 16% of the social system, and they are typically either traditionalist or are more or less isolated from the rest of their community. The traditionalists tend to be highly skeptical of innovations and try to resist change by holding on to the status quo of the time. On the other hand, if they are “isolates,” the lack of social interaction decreases their knowledge or awareness of an innovation and its benefits. Without sufficient information, isolates are very unlikely to adopt anything new. Overall, this group simply takes much longer than average to adopt an innovation so, once they do, it’s pretty safe to assume that something even newer is already making waves with everyone else.
When Rogers first proposed DoI, he was certainly not working or theorizing in the same world that we find ourselves in today. As previously mentioned, technological revolution(s) dramatically changes the environment in which we interact. Thus, while it may be safe to assume that today’s trends follow a trajectory quite similar to Rogers’ proposition, I do want to conclude our conversation today by touching upon how this new environment may change diffusion and those involved.
Trends & Time
So, let’s talk time. Every single process necessitates some passage of time, and trend adoption (or DoI) is no different. As our culture becomes increasingly digital, however, we are not only able to reach a broader audience than ever before, but in a much shorter timeframe. We no longer rely on face-to-face interaction to communicate and share ideas. Instead, one can send out a tweet (or Facebook post, or Instagram photo, etc.) and, depending on how many followers he or she has, reach a larger group of people without having to exert any additional effort or time. It’s essentially like killing two (or 200,000+ for some) birds with one stone.
This onslaught of social media platforms that came with the tech revolution of course also facilitates the diffusion process. We now have a variety of channels through which to share and communicate with one another. Be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or Pinterest (to name a few), our options often feel endless; and which platform one chooses to use on any given day can easily come down to what type of content one wants to share, or what target audience one hopes to reach. In short, we’ve got options now, and that makes diffusion a lot easier and faster!
Trends & Social Mobility
So if there’s anything our society has shown us, it’s that with increased options come greater opportunities for those who see them! Since the physical world no longer binds or limits us, we create new worlds online. Even with this technological landscape, though, the social dynamics of our physically-bound life still translate over to our online world. Each one of us still falls under one of Rogers’ five adopter categories; where we fall, though, well that’s now something we can more readily change (with something like our follower count).
Without the physical constraints, we, as individuals (and brands), are now able to climb the social ladder and gain newfound clout (at least online). Just look at the rise of the “Influencer,” for example, in our fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle industries. As their social media follower count rises, so does their relative position with the rest of the population; they climb the ranks of influence, from “Early Majority” to “Early Adopter,” by building communities that value their opinions. And once there, their exposure to innovation grows exponentially, allowing them to funnel even more new trends to the rest of society.
Let’s just hope that what they choose to funnel through is for the greater good of society as a whole and not just for a select few ;).