Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Trendsetters, Hipsters and Regular Joes: value curves and cultural trends

Luis Bettencourt suggests that trend setting and following can be thought of as a game that offers maximal benefit for those who partake of a successful trend as early as possible, ride it to its height and then bail before it loses momentum and crashes. But different people are likely to engage trends (and cultural artifacts in general) at different points in the trend’s life cycle and for different reasons. Some people self-consciously seek out novelty; others monitor the culture for the most promising up and coming trends; and still others simply follow the majority’s lead. It’s as if “communities” are comprised of sub-populations that differ in the way they evaluate trends relative to their uptake by the larger population.

Of course there are a large number of cultural factors (consumption/cultural capital; salient norms; symbolic capital and esteem; etc.) other than their fellow agents' behavior that impact people's evaluation of a trend. But for this post we want to hold those things steady and look at how the general uptake of a trend within a population impacts the trend’s attractiveness to three distinct sub-populations: trendsetters, hipsters and regular joes.

All in all it’s a system characterized by mutual interdependence, with agent’s evaluations of whether or not to join a trend strongly influenced by others’ opinions and expectations as evidenced by their actions (this includes the so-called trendsetters). With trends, it’s generally believed that the more others partake, the more valuable it is – up to a point – for the average agent to partake. For example, most people wouldn’t want to be the first person to introduce a fashion, but are willing to rock it once a significant (but not overwhelming) number of relevant others have. We can illustrate this idea with the following graph.

As the population partaking increases from 0 to n the value of partaking moves from negative to positive at point a. This is the so-called tipping point. From there it climbs until point b where saturation devalues the trend. To keep things simple, we’ll pretend that the trend eventually collapses and disappears or else becomes part of the cultural fabric – a presupposition – like wearing clothes in public in most Western cultures. In both of these cases, we’ll just say that the valuation tends to 0 as uptake approaches n. (Actually, there are several distinct possibilities for a trend’s life after point b, but those will be investigated in another post.)

That’s fine for the average cultural consumer, the regular joe, but what about people we would consider trendsetters? These people self-consciously value things few others do. Does their value curve look like this? Well, if we expressly confine n to their reference group – the people from whom they directly seek esteem and acceptance – then, yes. However, if we say n is some largish portion of the people in the trendsetter’s wider community, then, no. Trendsetters – or at least the cultural connoisseur and contrarian varieties – tend to value certain trends (and cultural artifacts generally, like bands, fashions, etc.) because they aren’t widely appreciated within their community (though they must be at least understandable within their reference group). Though many other cultural variables (consumption capital, cultural capital, etc.) come into play, the snotty urban movie store employee likes that movie you’ve never heard of partly because you’ve never heard of it.

So, those are two extremes, the regular joes and the trendsetters. The regular joes tend to hold off on positive evaluation until the expectation of general participation is high. Trendsetters on the other hand evaluate trends by more reference-group focused cultural standards (which we’ll ignore here) along with the trend’s uptake among the general public. For the little cultural caricature we’re doodling, we can say they’re pretty much opposed. As trend uptake moves toward the tipping point – point a in the graph above – it decreases in value for the trendsetter, ultimately becoming negative.

But there’s a third group worth looking at. I call this group the hipsters, but they aren’t exactly the tight-jeaned crew we associate with that word today. Some elements of the contemporary version, however, are descended from the more general hipster I’m considering here.

Hipsters aren’t trendsetters because they’re interested in finding only the winning trends. But they’re not regular joes either because they want to join prior to general uptake; they highly value joining before the tipping point. They want some of the cultural novelty, or attendant symbolic capital, of partaking of something others don’t currently but may soon value. But they also want that symbolic capital to extend beyond the trendsetter’s tightly focused reference group into the more general population. That is, they want the esteem that can be gotten from truthfully saying “I was into that before it was cool.” However, they also value novelty enough to bail on trends prior to their peak and subsequent collapse. So they value trends highest around the tipping point, but devaluation sets in shortly thereafter.

Anyway, putting all three idealized types together gives us the following graph.

The trendsetter disvalues the new and under-represented trend much less than the hipster and the regular joe, thus he starts from a point much closer to neutrality (of course, he could start from neutral or even positive). It also takes a much smaller portion of the population partaking (a couple of fellow trendsetters) for the trendsetter to positively evaluate the trend.

As the new thing catches on among the trendsetters, it approaches point a. At this point the hipsters, who have been monitoring the culture for up and coming trends, take note and the trend moves from negative to positive for them. This is a tipping point for the hipsters and it marks the beginning of devaluation for the trendsetter.

Absolute devaluation for the trendsetter occurs at point b, the tipping point for the regular joes and the point of highest value for the hipsters. The trend has nothing to offer the trendsetters anymore as it has now been officially accepted by the mainstream. The hipsters act as a bridge between the miniscule number of trendsetters and bulk of the population. Indeed, they are probably the ones that bring trends at the cultural periphery into the mainstream, giving them enough exposure to decrease their disvalue to the regular joes.

Moving from b to c, the trendsetter’s value curve declines while the regular joe’s peaks. The hipster, however, has had steadily diminishing value since the peak at b. Around c, it goes negative and only returns to neutrality as the trend is in absolute decline/disappearance on approach to n. In future posts I’ll look at a more complete model of the possibilities after c.

The most interesting thing about this model is that it paints a relatively intuitive picture of how three groups of cultural consumers/producers value trends relative to each other’s valuations. And if we squint a little, it meshes relatively well with Duncan Watts’s [pdf] contention that the most important element in a viral model isn’t necessarily the Influentials (here, the trendsetters, who are looked to by others as harbingers of hot new trends), but rather the connected subgroup of folks with low switching and adoption costs (here, the hipsters, who pick up and amplify trends that become highly valued among the trendsetters). Hipsters are seeking a broader display of cultural capital and the accumulation of symbolic capital or esteem in general and thus seek out potentially successful trends, joining early and switching often. To that end, they bring trends into the mainstream and give them enough exposure to potentially tip the regular joe’s. Without them, the trend might be noticed but not generally valued.


John R said...

Alas - The elusive Hipster Curve!

This is really well articulated. I can't wait until you start exploring all of the subtle variations and varying possible outcomes.

Of course, this is crying out for some real-life examples.

John R said...

Oh, also - will there be new chart with the brand's optimum "sweet spot"? I was going to repost and trackback to this, but maybe I'll wait for that rather than trying to describe it myself.

Shannon Bain said...

Thanks for the comments! Yeah, examples would help... the "rediscovery" of Nick Drake 10 years ago springs to mind, as does the adoption profile of things like blogging and social functionality. The slang cycle is also really obvious. But, of course, fashion and music provide the best examples... consider the growing prevalence (and thus decreasing marginality) of everything from Boris to tight jeans among the hipsters. The latter are even moving into mainstream, but whether they will actually "tip" among the regular joes remains to be seen. More specific examples forthcoming!

The optimum "sweet spot" for brands graph will have to wait for a separate post that mihgt be awhile in coming, so you can re-post if you want... still working out the arguments for the recommendations post.

John R said...

Well, you might as well just delete this entire blog. This guy has articulated your ideas far better than you will ever be able to:


Seriously, I have no idea what to make of this.

Shannon Bain said...

funny stuff... i loves it. i actually really like the hipsterrunoff radio show on xm/sirius (get it in rental cars). it's on the station right above the XTREME metal (grrrrr) station so i hear it now and again.

and animal collective is a really good example...

andrew said...

this is amazing. the sweet spot is key. what happens after c is also crucial, so as to be ironic. the irony curve is the obvious next step.

John R said...

My buddy Scott Morris says:

I wonder if the trend approaches this same model over long periods of time. That is to say, that which is old becomes new again. Garage rock, for example, has enjoyed several trips in and out of the spotlight, and early hip hop fashion flashed back into popularity. As regular joe tires of a trend, does (perhaps younger) trendsetter find it valuable again, if not merely due to its dismasal? I mean I’m not excusing my ex-girlfriend for listening to Cat Stevens, ever, but I feel like over long periods of time, the wave (at least for trendsetters) continues. In other news, this has inspired a Von Dutch Halloween costume that I think might just knock ‘em dead!!

Shannon Bain said...

Andrew, thanks for the comment. Indeed, the irony curve is the next step... there are actually a bunch of possibilities for the point past c... I even have graphs!

andrew said...

actually, as i think about it more, irony would be more of a negative threshold that would have to be crossed before it could be recycled.

John R said...

Andrew sent me this: http://blog.khymos.org/2009/01/26/has-molecular-gastronomy-reached-the-plateau-of-productivity/