Trend watching: 10 rules

Binoncular_iiiTrend watching is a pressing business.  And we now have an increasingly crowded marketplace of suppliers.

In these early days, there are many models and extravagantly different standards.  Here are some of the rules with which we can separate the sheep from the goats.

1.  the Oracle is dead.

Unless you are Malcolm Gladwell or Tom Wolfe, you can’t do good trend watching by yourself.   Trends once ran through our culture and economy like big, slow breakers off the coast of Hawaii but now they tend to come at us more like a perfect storm.  Almost certainly, a single individual is insufficiently multiple to capture the sheer range and contradiction of our present creativity.  As Hillary might put it, it takes a village.

2.  The trend team must be quick about it.

The first value ad here is picking things up early.  The more notice we have the more thoroughly and intelligently we can prepare ourselves.  Early notice is the difference between responding with tactics and responding with strategy.  And we want to be strategic.

3.  The trend team may not "name it and claim it."

Everyone dreams of being the intellectual equivalent of the European explorer, the first one to see  a new continent, the first one to plant the flag.  But this is a temptation that we must learn to resist. 

As I have complained before on this blog, the people at trendwatching.com are inclined to come up with their own lingo for trends: inspirence, gravanity, maturialism.  This does not help bring order a problem set that now howls with complexity and uncertainty. 

Indeed, it prevents comparison and appears to be an attempt to persuade the client that trendwatching.com must be relied upon as a sole source.  This is a kind of "winner take all" strategy and very high risk.  If you win, you do sweep the marketplace.  If you lose, the penalty is obscurity.

4.  No cool hunting!

There is a terrible inclination only to report the things that are really, like, cool.  But lots and lots of trends are not cool at all (a  new building material, say).  In my opinion, cool hunters are quilty of a fatal confusion between what they know about the world and what they wish to be true about themselves.  They study novelty in order to make themselves more cool.

But frankly when you are acting as my trend watcher, I don’t care how cool you are.  I just want you to be right.  And the moment I suspect you are ignoring parts of the future because knowledge thereof does not augment your claims to cool, that’s when I ask for my money back. 

This brings us to one of the problems with the business model.  Some trendwatch enterprises depend upon free labor supplied by people who watch the world chiefly (and sometimes only) to augment their claims to cool.  This builds the bias in.   See if you can spot one here.

Join a Community of Trend Hunters – Do you crave cool? Do you live on the edge? Is your curiosity insatiable? If so, TREND HUNTER™ should become your new home on the web. There is no place more dedicated to the comprehensive discovery of cool. You can start Trend Hunting today. Engage your intellect with most dynamic individuals on the web.

There are lots and lots of edges in contemporary culture.  When we pay attention only to the "edge" of music, and we do so because it makes us look cool, we have probably disqualified ourselves from supplying edge knowledge of many kinds.  (Oh, here we go.  Iif I were a real cool hunter, I would have by this time copyrighted KNOWL(EDGE).) 

I have a cool hunter detection device.  I ask the trend watcher if he or she can tell me anything about the "great room."  Almost all of them stare at me blankly.  This trend has transformed the middle and upper middle class American home.  It is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditure.  And most cool hunters just missed it.  (And this is because homes, suburbs, and families are, from the cool hunter’s point of view, not cool.)

5.  The trend team must have an archeological instinct.

The team must be thinking about showing the trajectories of the new.  It is not enough merely to trumpet the new.  Any idiot can do that.  In order to grasp the new, and especially to grasp its trajectory, we need to know where it comes from.  As I was arguing in Atlanta this week (thank you, John Horton), the new symmetries in the relationships between doctors and patients have been in the works since deTocqueville.

6. The trend team must be interactive. 

As it is, everyone doing trend watch appears to pitching what they have at the website, and rarely is there any evidence that they are interacting with one another.  This team should be dividing the labor and then working with one another in order to spot the trends across trends.  This is an enormous value ad.  If we have the same trend at work in different sectors, we have the possibility of a systematic and more lasting shift.

7.  The trend team should offer "big picture" observations.

As it is, we are getting a land slide of possibilities each day, which I have to say merely increases my conviction that the very possibility of pattern recognition has been elipsed.  This is not helping!  This is hurting!  So we need something more than first order observations.  We need something more thoughtful and aggregating.  We need trend watchers talking to one another, and then we need a "meta-trend" team (sorry) aggegrating and a meta-meta-team agggregating still further.  We need to give "observations" an opportunity to scale up to "insight" and insight an opportunity to scale up to "conclusion."   

8.  The trend team should be generative.

Piers Fawkes recently had a revelation at PSFK here.  A piece of the future came winging its way out of all that trend watching, and he served it up.  Now pattern recognition becomes idea generation.  This turns out to be a really good idea, using the phone as a wand to direct media content to the nearest medium.  Trend watchers should be trend generators.

9.  The trend team should be making predictions.

The people in the capital markets routinely go back and try to determine where they went wrong.  They scrutinize their assumptions.  They ferret out the error.  Unless we wish trend watching to be one big cocktail party in which everyone merely shouts opinions at one another, something more substantial is called for.

10.  The trend team must be fully and soberingly disclosing of their talents.

As it is, the trend watching websites are shamelessly self promoting.   Let’s be a little more like a great big consulting company.  What I don’t want to read is something like this:

Michael Tchong’s father was born in Canton, China. His family name means “bell” in Chinese. No wonder Michael’s entire career has been focused on making things “clear as a bell.”

References

Trend Hunter here.

Michael Tchong here

PSFK.com here.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Saminather, Nichola.  Moving Online: The New Trend in Trend Spotting.  Columbia News Services  and to PFSK for spotting and posting the article here.

Conflicts of interest

PSFK cross links to this blog.

12 thoughts on “Trend watching: 10 rules

  1. Grant

    Tom, thanks, I realize that I left out the most striking indicator that someone is doing cool hunting instead of trend watching. They never admit to not knowing about a new trend. (They just nod nonchalantly and scurry away to google it.) I prefer the way the capital markets people do it. When someone makes a claim, everyone is entitled to quiz them closely, and the claimer is obliged to offer compelling evidence and argument. Thanks, Grant

  2. Auto

    trendmongering in the capital markets requires evidence because it is often something a zero-sum game for the players — if we accept your idea — we invest in it — we can’t accept mine.

    trendspotting, as i understand it, has less of an either-or quality. they might all be correct or none might be correct. but rarely does one hot new trend being correct imply that another hot new trend is wrong (or at least require it be rejected).

  3. Grant

    Auto, great point, but I think there really is a share-of-mind competition going on, at least between the big trends (or trends vs., say, fads). Furthermore, for intellectual purposes, trend watching is now practiced with a kind of sprezzatura rule in place. You want to let slip that x is the new thing. The more casually you do this, the better. The less information you supply the better. This has a withering effect on challenging questions. If you have just named the next new band, when I ask you to substantiate the claim, I effectively declare myself out of the loop and someone who suffers a cool deficit. In effect, I demote myself in the larger scheme of things by asking for clarification or substantiation. Let’s make room in every cool conversation for a little question: “Oh, that’s interesting, why do you say that?” Thanks, Grant

  4. Auto

    excellent point, grant. you’re right, of course, that for many trends, asking someone to substantiate their asserts as to hotness makes you look like the last word in uncool.

    in my line of work, hot ideas are zero-sum because our investable funds are at any time a given sum. so if we invest in my can’t-lose schemes, yours may unfunded. hence, lots of brawling as to just why i think my scheme is a money-maker.

    but isn’t that the case every time a firm decides to commit capital to an investable idea?

    don’t the clients of trend-hustlers expect more than someone with a golden gut saying “trust me, this will be hot”?

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  9. Faust

    Grant, you’ve made some really good points.

    …but, you knew that was coming, there are some things I might add or counter or whatever you’d like to call it today.

    When it comes to “cool” if you have to ask you’ll never know.

    Gladwell is a fantastic example but he isn’t unique, just smart and famous. The oracle isn’t dead. Just lost in a sea of false prophets. Try Bruce Mau, Gore Vidal, Douglas Coupland, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rem Koolhaas, these are visionaries and far from a complete list. Ask your trend watcher how many of them they have heard of. Not what they know about them just if the names are familiar.

    Tom Wolfe is a boomer relic and journalists make lousy trend watchers anyway.

    The best answer your “cool hunter” could give you when you ask “why” is “I don’t know.”

    Cool is an existential “is”. It’s like talent, you either get it or you don’t. If you suspect they are ignoring part of the equation you probably don’t need them anyway. You are seeing more of the big picture than they are.

    Trends can not be predicted. They can only be observed, created and guessed at. Someone who is worth the money is someone sensitive enough to the trends that they get there without thinking about it.

    That’s Tipping Point and Blink 101. It’s also not Gladwell’s creation it’s his articulation of a societal bell curve. Harness the 2%, influence the early adopters and the rest will follow… probably. Innovator, early adopter, laggard, they all flow in and out and the titles are not universal or static.

    In short, there are no rules and defining them is asking for someone “cool” to come along and break them.

  10. Richard Rowan

    Grant, thanks for the post. I believe that most of us couldn’t care less about how others define or predict trends. We are not fashion designers or brand managers. Increasingly, we cringe from trendsetters.

    I think the concept of a “trend” as something that can be predicted, created, harnessed, or exploited is dying. So to me, setting out rules on watching trends is like setting out rules for tracking the stars’ “orbits” around the Earth. Interesting, but flawed.

    One pattern that I do see merits an open conversation is just that: open conversations. We are entering an era of cheap, global communications for everyone: the Internet, citizen journalism and blogging, micro markets, self-publishing, WiFi and VOIP. We now have the tools and access to talk about what is important (or trivial), and what it means to be alive, with billions of strangers. No one knows what will come of that.

    I think the flow is reversing. The old trend watchers should consider giving up on guessing and predicting, prepare to be on the receiving end of things for a bit, and see if and how their skills at pattern recognition and aggregation are relevant in the “big talk.”

    Oh yea, and ditch the rules.
    Richard

  11. Dave Babbitt

    With your permission, Grant: a tip/trick and a question:
    1) To Faust: I can add to your list of oracles by using Google Sets, i.e. http://labs.google.com/sets?hl=en&q1=Bruce+Mau&q2=Gore+Vidal&q3=Douglas+Coupland&q4=Bruce+Sterling&q5=William+Gibson&btn=Large+Set because your list is so long and so well known.
    2) To everybody: What’s the flaw in having cool hunters/trend watcher wannabes link their blog posts to carefully worded predictions they have made to accountable prediction markets like Long Bets? Wouldn’t we (and they) have to put our money “where our mouth is”?

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