How to spot the next big (digital) thing

Technologies fall in and out of fashion like trendy neighborhoods

People change. Their tastes evolve. New things become fashionable, and others pass out of use.

Digital stuff is not immune to this process. In fact, digital stuff is probably more susceptible to shifts in usage because so little of it is contained in a physical object.

How do we figure out what the next interesting website or digital social tool will be used? I suspect that real estate professionals already have a good sense for figuring some of this out, if they can apply what they know about patterns of human behavior in the real world to the way people do things in the digital world.

Most of the real estate professionals I know have a keen sense of what neighborhood is currently desirable in their market. But knowing what the trendy neighborhood is not the same as knowing why it’s trendy.

Maybe a neighborhood is desirable because of the quality of its schools. Maybe it has to do with proximity to some other useful services. Or maybe it’s simply economics or some other factor.

But for some reason, there’s always a neighborhood that has a certain resonance in any given market. Real estate professionals are tuned in to the existence of that neighborhood. Some are truly students of why that neighborhood is desirable and, more importantly for this column, how it came to be desirable.

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I have friends who have lived in New York City for many many years. They’ve lived in Tribeca when it was a thriving and unique neighborhood with character. Today Tribeca is more or less a corporate fortresses with much of the life that made the neighborhood desirable sucked out of it.


'Cool' is a non-meaningful term which betrays marketers who don't really know much about what productively creative is.

I have artist friends who once loved Chelsea, but have since retreated to promising new neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Chelsea became too gentrified for them. The veneer of the art world is still intact, but the creative atmosphere that made Chelsea spacial has ossified. Park Slope and Williamsburg have similar stories in progress.

Normal people — who don’t study how people move or make decisions about where to live and spend their time — simply see passing trends and think little more of it. Make money while the money’s good and so on. Others look for patterns.

In many of the neighborhoods discussed above a process took place. It wasn’t like some neighborhood was suddenly deemed the "it" neighborhood by a kingmaker of sorts. Sure media coverage occurred and people talked up each neighborhood at different times. But all of that occurs after a neighborhood has achieved something or possesses something.

The process seems to go a little like this: First there’s a normal neighborhood that isn’t so precious that new styles, behaviors and activities can occur there. Next, the barriers to entry for that neighborhood — including cost, and the degree of neighborhood hostility (including crime) — are low. Finally, a beachhead of creative people inhabit the neighborhood and establish an esprit de corps. It is in this last step that the character of the neighborhood is initially defined.

From there, the process of gentrification takes place. The result is either a fast or slow change that turns what was previously a functionally creative neighborhood into something more structured. The creativity gets dialed back a bit and a little more mainstreamed. Then the rest of the world starts to move in, seeking some of whatever it was that was established by the first beachhead of creative inhabitants.

I think it works like this in a digital realm as well.

If you want to know what the next big digital thing is, look for the productively creative. As marketers, it’s necessary to know where the mainstream is today. But where the productively creative are doing their thing is where the mainstream is likely to migrate later.

This is especially true of anything combining digital stuff and social activity. There’s a misguided thought that people don’t switch social networks or try new things; that once someone commits to Facebook or Twitter they don’t ever do anything else. This isn’t true.

Sure people may be reluctant to change or move to a different digital tool. My friends who left Chelsea were reluctant as well. It’s a hassle to move a studio and living space. But their old neighborhood no longer had the right esprit de corps. And a new one did. They waited awhile, but they did move.

Facebook, for a time, was a site where a variety of innovations were occurring around Facebook apps. There were a number of interesting (and let’s face it — sometimes very very annoying) games, quizzes and other tools that encouraged people to explore the nature of their friendships.

It’s not like this activity has disappeared, but it’s no longer the prominent driver of change or innovation on Facebook. The creative activity on Facebook now comes from Facebook itself more than from the app ecosystem. Where once there was a variety of interesting and novel activity, there is now one primary source of novelty.

This isn’t to suggest Facebook will be abandoned. It won’t be any emptier than Chelsea is today. But the esprit de corps has waned or changed in a way. It starts with the baby strollers and ends with the zoning board.

To figure out where the "next big thing" is, learn to follow the esprit de corps of the productively creative. It’s important to note that "cool" is not part of esprit de corps. "Cool" is a non-meaningful term which betrays marketers who don’t really know much about what productively creative is.

The people who make things that are interesting, daring, beautiful, stunning, thought provoking or meaningful will build the next thing first. Maybe it’s Tumblr, that has the most natural features for building meaning of any of the tools out there right now. Maybe it’s Pinterest (though the marketers may have already bled it of its esprit de corps). Maybe it’s something that hasn’t been launched yet.

Simply observe the patterns of people using digital social tools the same way you might observe the rising and falling trendiness of neighborhoods in a large city where anything’s possible.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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