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Why is it that some ideas, trends or innovations take hold, while others start up but fade from existence? In other words, for every iPod and Facebook, why is there always a Zune or a Bebo?
Sociologist coined a theory to try and explain this called "diffusion" (or the theory of Diffusion of Innovations). Put simply, diffusion is the process where innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among members of a social system.
It is worth noting that this is very much different from adoption, which is very much an individual process detailing the series of stages one undergoes from first hearing about a product and finally taking it on (say a concept like the Zero Moment of Truth). The diffusion process instead encompasses the adoption process within larger social groups.
Atul Gawande sums this up nicely in his New Yorker article "How Do Good Ideas Spread?":
"In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.
But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process."
Gawande goes on to illustrate this simply in the history of two innovations - anesthesia and antiseptics, and how two life saving techniques had very different adoption rates leading to great loss of human life (with antiseptic techniques still causing problems in the developing world).
So, back to the Mental Model. A very simple way to visualiZe diffusion in a more contemporary setting was developed by Geoffrey A. Moore in his book "Crossing the Chasm", which used high tech products during the early startup period as examples. This follows a simple epidemic cycle.
As it shows, the real challenge to ensuring an innovation takes hold is crossing 'the chasm'. If the early adopters succeed in bridging this critical juncture to the more sceptical masses, we reach a tipping point, allowing the curve to rise as the masses accept the innovation, and sink again when only the stragglers remain.
The most interesting end note to this cycle is that while the masses are starting to take on the technology, the innovators or early adopters are often turning away as they search for the next big thing.
Apply this to an innovation you have adopted recently (say an iPhone). At what point on the curve did you purchase? Who influenced you to make this decision?
This post continues my series on Mental Models.