I use Twitter. I tweet randomly, whatever is on my mind. Most of my tweets get zero responses, but I like to imagine my ‘followers’, a sophisticated bunch, appreciate them in silence. Occasionally, much to my delight, I get a few – we are talking single digits – retweets and likes. Once, however, one of my tweets trended. Within minutes it had been retweeted hundreds of times. The liking and retweeting went on for days until my original tweet had been shared thousands of times and clocked up over half a million views.
My tweet was simple; it was an image depicting how a UK tabloid newspaper had divisively altered an innocent image to support a hateful narrative. I included a caption that read: ‘A picture paints 1000 words, and every one of them can be a vicious lie.’
At the time, I couldn’t understand why this tweet received a relative tsunami of attention when most of my others barely caused a ripple. The Germans have a term, zeitgeist, which roughly translates to ‘spirit of the age.’ It seems my tweet gave voice to the zeitgeist; it reflected the spirit of the moment. My tweet was a rant against fake news, and I sent it just at the moment when thousands of us were thinking: ‘Please, enough media manipulation already!’ If you can connect with the spirit of the age, you are going to trend.
Trends, be it in clothing, Internet memes, or music, are popular because they somehow resonate with the spirit of the age. If we could capture the zeitgeist and put it to work for us, we could create trends at will. But the spirit is invisible, typically only recognised in retrospect, making it difficult if not impossible to reliably harness.
Innovative business minds, however, have found a workaround to the zeitgeist problem, and the most skilful can create trends on demand. The formula is simple: find someone who appears to represent the zeitgeist (cool kids, pop stars, social media influencers) and get them to be associated with your products and services. Fashionologists (sociologists interested in fashion) call this the trickle-down system.
In its simplest form, the trickle down system operates on the idea that imitation and sometimes veneration drive trends. Such a system might involve representatives of the zeitgeist (let’s call them elites). The elites lead the way, while the rest of us follow. If enough of us get on-board, we call it a trend. If the numbers are enormous, we might call it a craze. If you can get the elites to endorse your product, it won’t hurt sales. Gift the Queen and sell the court.
This system works well with clothing trends. The idea that the fashion industry can generate trends on demand is reflected in the seemingly unending creation of ‘must have’ items. The whole system seems slightly dictatorial at times. To quote the great godmother of fashion, Coco Channel, ‘These women, I’m bloody well going to dress them in black…I imposed black; it’s still going strong today…’
The world of popular music is not so different either. The idea that clever producers can manufacture bands and songs guaranteed to trend is no secret. This activity even became the subject of a book by British music producers, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. The book, simply titled, The Manual: How to have a number one the easy way, is a guide to having a No.1 single without having any musical skills. The implication is clear; trends can be engineered.
My brush with the social media zeitgeist was very short-lived; a one-off accidental encounter. However, imagine if every tweet I sent gained thousands of retweets and millions of impressions. If that were the case, I’m sure there would be legions of mercantile marketing-types trying to get me involved in product promotion.
The birth of the Internet has accelerated the democratisation of the media. One implication of this is that it has never been easier for hitherto anonymous individuals to start global trends. We are still at the dawn of this brave new era, but I envisage that zeitgeist analysts and trend engineers – jobs that don’t exist yet – will be among the most sought-after professionals of the coming decade.
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.