How Twitter Trends Are Killing Your Innovations

Cultural Anthropologist and CEO, MotivBase is a research technology company that decodes the implied meaning behind trends.

We have all had friends that we know are a bad influence because they turn us into less-than-ideal versions of ourselves. We tend to pick up terrible habits and find ourselves getting into trouble in their presence.

Twitter is one such friend, especially if you work in corporate research, marketing or innovation. Your job depends on your ability to identify trends and study them to determine their applicability and impact on your business. Your organization relies on you to keep your finger on the pulse of what is next in your category or market. It is a stressful job because others expect you to have all the answers. So naturally, when something comes along that offers the promise of a shortcut to identifying trends, you are lured into its sphere of influence.

Twitter has taught us some bad habits.

On Twitter, a trend is something that is talked about a lot within a set time frame. But is that really what a trend is? As an anthropologist, I have learned over the years that it does not matter how much an idea is talked about; rather, what matters is how well it is understood.

Imagine a scenario where you have made up a word and you are shouting this word from the rooftops. Imagine that others hear this word and start shouting it, too, just for fun. Is this made-up word now a trend? No. Because no one has any idea what this word means. All it represents is a fad: an idea that was fun for a short while.

It’s about meaning, not mentions.

Anthropologists are concerned with meaning. We want to know not what is talked about, but rather what meaning is being expressed and implied.

When we ask a community of people what an idea means to them, the diversity of responses we receive tells us how consistently or inconsistently that idea is understood by that community. The less diverse the meanings around an idea, the better understood it is.

When you marry this notion of understanding with a rise in mentions, you have the foundations of a true trend: something not just talked about a lot, but also consistently understood to mean the same thing by a community of people.

If your job depends on your ability to effectively identify and decode trends, then you must change the nature of your friendship with Twitter and perhaps the level of its influence on your thinking.

Meaning depends on context.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was one of the first to realize that words have no meaning in and of themselves. Their meaning depends on the social context in which they’re spoken. That is, the idea a word refers to depends on the contexts it is placed into. This notion has been developed by semioticians and anthropologists over the better part of the last century. Yet most modern tools and technologies do not apply this theory to identifying and communicating trends in culture.

A trend built on a rise in mentions may be enough for everyday Twitters users because it serves to engage them in different topics each day. But it is certainly not sufficient for the purpose of driving marketing or innovation in a high-stakes corporate setting.

Twitter-esque thinking is still widely adopted.

The notion of studying mentions may have been popularized by Twitter, but it is now applied in all sorts of analytics by companies trying to understand issues in culture and society. Like that toxic friend, the culture of mentions has a negative impact on an organization’s ability to create consistency and coherence in its innovation and marketing efforts. Instead, it pushes organizations to jump from one set of fads to the next, constantly in search of the illusive “next big thing.”

It’s no wonder then that companies struggle with innovation and marketing despite having access to more data than ever before. I believe much of this has to do with the fundamental bad habit we have all developed — assuming that an increase in mentions makes something a trend.

Break the mold of mentions and you will find yourself rethinking what truly makes a trend. You will find yourself so much more in tune with culture and its shifting tide. And you will regain confidence in your role as the foresight or trend thought leader within your company.

Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?


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