Theories and Thoughts on Trends

My recent post about beards got me thinking about trends, specifically cultural ones. Here are those thoughts.

1. Short-term trends are often aesthetic and relatively inconsequential, like the shape of eyeglasses or the cadence of hip-hop vocalists. Short-term trends can carry cultural meaning and are inherently tied to individualism, so it’s more likely that only a portion of the population actually participates in a short-term trend. If you are doing something to categorically differentiate yourself from everyone else, you’re not going to pick something that everyone else does.

2. A long-term trend is more likely to be utilitarian. It sticks around and evolves in a single direction because the trend serves some sort of purpose beyond aesthetics. For example, auto engineers have applied technological innovations to make headlights and taillights better by maximizing visibility (without blinding other drivers) while keeping an eye on energy consumption. This trend serves a purpose: making cars more safe and efficient. Contrast this to the shape of headlights and taillights, which is more likely to be governed by the rules of short-term trends. Perhaps the overall surface area of lights has been getting greater for the purposes of visibility, but whether they are rounded, edgy, or flared is an aesthetic matter. Sometimes a trend might fall in gray-area: automakers of the mid to late 2010s favor designs that include large, open grills in the front, which just so happen to offer utility by allowing superior engine ventilation.

3. Short-term trends can often be cyclical rather than evolving in a single direction. A style will inevitably go mainstream and lose its uniqueness and thus its charm, and at that point its aesthetic opposite, or a variation on its aesthetic opposite, will suddenly appear fresh and interesting. That flip-flop, if repeated, will result in a cycle. Jeans are a great example: the waist height, flare, color, and fit all fluctuate and cycle almost predictably.

4. Short-term trends, and possibly long-term trends too, follow the innovation adoption lifecycle. When a short-term trend first appears on the scene, it’s being exhibited by innovators: cool, rebellious, quirky, edgy types. At this point, the trend may seem aesthetically odd, perhaps because it’s so disruptively quaint or starkly different from the status quo. This reminds me of the mid 2000s when I first saw some male urbanites wearing skinny jeans with a tight taper around the ankle. My brain switched back and forth like the optical illusion where you see both a decorative vase and two faces simultaneously. Did they look boldly cool or bizarrely out of touch? Eventually early adopters, a bigger segment of the population, will take a liking to and pick up the rogue trend. Some early adopters will be very high-profile and charismatic, underlining the trend’s charm and identity. Eventually, an early majority takes notice and before the trend makes its way to the late majority, it has officially become “mainstream.” Finally, laggards latch onto a trend making it stale and eliminating its charm. By this point, innovators and early adopters were already onto something else if we’re talking about a short-term trend. If we’re talking about a long-term trend, the innovators are not disappointed that everyone copied them, because the behavior turned out to be useful. For long-term trends, innovators are pioneers.


5. Our sense of trends is probably evolutionary and an inherent feature of social animals. When a few people wander from the flock or start to exhibit divergent behavior, they might seem weird at first. This is society’s way of being wary in case the behavior turns out to be dangerous. If a few influential people (“early adopters”) start to copy them (“innovators”), the rest of the tribe will start to take notice and eventually, the majority of the tribe may exhibit the behavior. If the behavior has benefits, which in hunter/gatherer society could be a matter of life or death, the trend will become long-term. If it doesn’t have benefits, it will be short-term: just a phase.