Easy come, easy go: fads versus the 'long tail'


I recently read an editorial on Physorg.com. It discussed the social phenomena of fads - how things very rapidly soar in popularity, then seemingly disappear just as quickly. I was ready to file it under "Well, duh", but to my surprise, there is actually much more to the story than this.

Researchers from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and Stanford/UPenn put numbers to the test. They took trendy baby names versus the ones that stick around perpetually and found out that the faster a name becomes popular, the faster it goes back out of style. Subsequently, they found that the more slowly a name gains traction in popularity, the longer it takes to die out as a trend. That's why you have a harder time guessing the age of someone named "William" than you do someone named "Britney."

Oddly enough, the 2006 book by former Wired and Economist writer Chris Anderson titled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More itself experienced a spike in popularity, followed by some backlash, followed by a string of blogs and books saying that the "long tail" theory is bunk. To perhaps oversimplify, imagine a graph with time on the x-axis and popularity on the y-axis. The "long tail" theory says that the area under the curve for fads that become popular overnight and then quickly evaporate is about the same as the area under the curve for ideas or trends that are slow to catch on, because they tend to wane in popularity more slowly.

The baby name research appears to bear this out, and there are other examples too, like Uggs boots and Mohawk hairdos. But there are plenty of other things that contradict the "easy come, easy go"  theory. The iPhone is one example of a product that shot to success and held onto it, though what happens when Android phones are added to the mix is uncertain.

There's clearly more teasing out of social phenomenon data to be done. Perhaps things that do not change your lifestyle or habits (like a baby name) are more prone to fads, while things that do change the way you live your life (an iPhone or netbook) have the potential to burst onto the scene and remain popular.

Suggestions for the latest pop fad that's destined to die a quick death include Facebook and Twitter. What do you think? Do you have any examples of flash in the pan phenomena, "long tail" phenomena, or things that run totally counter to those concepts, especially with consumer products and services? Let's hear your thoughts.


  • Joff
    This reads too much like a real article to me. What was the question again?
  • Mark M.
    Nice sneaky iPhone mentions too
  • jah
    Did the iPhone really 'shoot to success and hold on to it'? The iPod would have been a much better analogy. For starters, I can't recall another phone in the history of mobile comms. which has had a fraction of the amount of advertising as the iPhone - and for all that its sold maybe 25 million handsets - I wonder how that figure compares to the likes of the Nokia 5110, 3210 etc. Neither did netbooks really burst onto the scene (in anything but name) - small form factor notebooks have existed for many years - the low price of LCD panels and the release of ULV, rapid fall in cost of flash and low cost cpus like the Atom are what have made their popularity rise.

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