Memes spread by leaping from brain to brain – a ‘virus of the mind’. They don’t spread linearly, they diffuse through a population, based on the network connections between individuals. Like their biological counterparts, who they manage to infect makes a big difference to their success. Viruses can’t spread if everyone around the host is taking precautions. Some people are open to new ideas, whereas others are extreme sceptics who avoid change. They rarely travel in the same circles. Bridging that gap are early adopters, who co-mingle with innovators, and spread infectious new ideas to the general population. They act as ‘patient zeros’, the initial user which many other users can trace their involvement back to. When a ‘tipping point’ is reached, an idea reaches critical mass, and rapid change can occur. Change happens slowly at first, then all at once.
When buying a new computer, most people read reviews or ask a friend who’s “good with that kind of thing”, or ‘market mavens’ as Malcolm Gladwell calls them. Most people don’t proactively contact start-ups to get access to their beta, scan the market to find the best prices or value, or hobnob with creators to see their work in progress, but those that do have outsized influence. The average customer would prefer to buy it off the shelf when all the bugs have been worked out, pay the average price for average functionality, and make the purchase when all the risk has been squeezed out. They don’t want to feel foolish for making the wrong decision. Not true of early adopters, who have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, and a short memory for their past failings.
It’s a remarkable statistic, but to this day in the U.S. only 3.8% of families don’t own a computer. Whether its on principle, economic circumstances, or simply a lack of need, there were always be holdouts in the market, no matter how revolutionary the product. Eventually a successful idea permeates society and even laggards can’t live without: for example you’d be hard pressed to find someone without a flushing toilet, refrigerator, or running water. If you trace the lines of a normal distribution it forms an ‘S-curve’ shape. When traveling along the left tail you see initial slow growth, which goes exponential as the idea gains mainstream adoption at the peak of the bell curve, then flattens out when the market reaches saturation and you travel down the right tail.
The difficult part of this journey is the leap from early adopters to the early majority. This is the ‘chasm’, so labelled by Clayton Christensen, and most products fail to make it across. Sometimes the idea is too early for mainstream consumption, or it could be that the job it does isn’t as common as was initially thought. Often though it’s just that the idea itself isn’t inherently spreadable enough to make the leap, much like a virus with a low transmission rate: it dies out. If the ‘chasm’ is crossed, a period of hyper growth occurs, which is where fortunes are made. Eventually the ‘hype cycle’ dies down, usefulness is all that’s left. Useful ideas get remembered and recorded, disadvantageous ideas are actively forgotten. It’s notoriously hard to forecast where S-Curves will end up. It turns out it’s only possible to predict the path of the curve after the exponential phase is over, and most of the gains from prediction have been spent.
Occasionally technology leaps forward and old ideas get reinvented, and this may be easier to predict. Disruptive innovation tends to come from below, with a product that looks like a toy. The rational move is the wrong one to make, as managers abandon the low ground to this new solution, focusing instead on their most valuable customers. When a threshold is crossed – and there are different thresholds for different network topologies – the new idea goes critical, and expands faster than incumbents can keep up. However new entrants almost never ‘beat’ incumbents in their own category: they make the category itself irrelevant. Ford didn’t make a ‘faster horse’, he made horses obsolete. Apple didn’t beat Microsoft on PCs, they dominated the more important mobile industry instead. TikTok didn’t take on Facebook with photo sharing, they captured everyone’s attention with the more engaging short form video format. The rapid growth phase begins again, on a new S-curve. Incumbents who evolved to fill the existing ecological niche, find it more profitable to avoid change, until it’s too late. The disrupters become the disrupted.
5 Trends Emerge in the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2018
Crossing the Chasm, 3rd Edition: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers (Collins Business Essentials)
Cultural change requires early adopters
Diffusion of Innovations Theory
DIGITAL DISRUPTION S-CURVE & CHEAT SHEET
Facebook viral marketing: When and why do apps “jump the shark?”
Forecasting s-curves is hard
Gartner hype cycle
Percentage of Households With At Least One Computer
Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme’
Slowly At First, And Then All At Once
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
What Does Disruptive Growth Look Like?