Trendfear: Do you ever feel you're being left behind?

Students in lecture hall, one with exercise book, the other with a laptop

January is a cornucopia of technological tipping and frantic futurology, but do you ever get a nagging fear that trends are passing you by?

What is Pinterest? And is it important what it is?

And will Summly have a big year in 2012? And does that matter?

There are plenty of people who would answer these questions with a stock "I don't care".

These people might refuse to even look at social media, and choose to eschew the smartphone and the tablet. But there are plenty of jobs where you might have to take notice.

There are areas of advertising, marketing, public relations, journalism, academia, design, and finance where workers might find themselves looking a bit silly if they reveal they have no idea of the technological lie of the land.

And the narrowly defined technology sector itself is ever-more important.

Start Quote

Some are terrified as they don't know where it will end”

End Quote John McGurk Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development

But imagine the job of a policeman. A detective in 2005 would, more than likely, not have heard of Facebook. A detective in 2012 would know that a murder victim's social media activity would have to be investigated as a matter of course.

If you're a school headteacher and you don't understand the implications of the rise of location-based websites and apps like Foursquare, you might one day regret it.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote more than a decade ago about the "tipping point", the moment when a particular phenomenon suddenly became "big".

There is a point when, arguably, you should know about something. There's a point when not knowing is a bit like a judge asking who Bruce Springsteen is. And the earlier you know, the better.

Say what?

  • Pinterest: image-based website where users create virtual pinboards based on specific interests, such as baking
  • Summly: iPhone app which summarises and simplifies the content of web pages and search results
  • Flipboard: designed for use on iPads, allows users to pick websites they want to create a personalised magazine
  • Foursquare: location-based social network
  • Zeebox: app that links user's TV viewing and social networking

The nagging anxiety at the back of the mind that you are missing out might be called "trendfear".

In an interview about the internet with the Sunday Times in 1999, Douglas Adams memorably satirised a common attitude towards new technology and trends.

Everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal, suggested Adams. Anything created between birth and the age of 30 is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it.

But whatever is invented after you've turned 30 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it - until it's been around for about 10 years, when it gradually turns out to be all right really.

Just the language of the predictions can leave many people stumped.

Man on laptop, boy on typewriter One day's bit of hype is the next day's phenomenon

Food writer Marina O'Loughlin recently predicted: "Even more exciting is the rock'n'roll-isation of eating: follow food swarm artists such as London's @Tweat_up (tagline: 'So far no deaths or arrests')."

You might also have found yourself baffled by the rise of "dual screening" - watching television and posting instant reactions on Twitter.

At the other end of the technological spectrum is playwright Tom Stoppard, who recently revealed he had no computer or "twitter machine".

Much is made by the government about those people, often elderly or poor, who miss out on things because they have no internet access.

People who aren't successful playwrights will struggle to get a job without at least knowing how to use email, Google, Word, Excel or Powerpoint, says Dr John McGurk, learning adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.

And there are plenty of jobs where more than this is required.

Universities are bringing in social networked learning, and some academics are struggling to cope, McGurk believes. "They're being encouraged to engage with students on social media. But some are terrified as they don't know where it will end."

Start Quote

There's no cure for it. The sense of nagging anxiety about trends will always be there”

End Quote James Gleick Author, The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood

Of course, those feeling anxious that they are missing new trends that could affect them professionally are also aware that trends can fail to live up to the hype.

If you only keep up with new gizmos and gadgets out of duty, you don't want to waste your time on the technological dead ends and the cultural cul-de-sacs.

With hindsight, did anybody really need to follow the rise of flashmobbing?

And there is just so much to follow. The explosion of websites, apps and social networking, all apparently feeding off each other in "real time", has made keeping up harder than ever.

It's unnerving because we are no longer all equal in the information stakes, says digital strategist Nic Newman. "In the era of mass media everyone found everything out at the same time.

"The difference now is that with all these different information channels some people know things almost as soon as they happen. But people outside those networks are not hearing it."

As one Twitter user puts it, "you feel almost behind when you read a story in the news rather than watching it unfold through digital media".

Once upon a time, a major innovation would be recorded in the Times. Now the word could come from anywhere.

In the 17th Century, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz felt there were already too many books to keep track of. But today the scale of the overload is of a different magnitude.

Nick D'Aloisio, inventor of Summly Summly, invented by a British teenager, could be the next big thing, or not

The coming together of GPS and mobile phones has allowed a raft of location-based apps to take hold.

Discount websites like Groupon can now target people shopping in a certain shopping centre with specific offers. And the Waze app interrogates drivers' sat-navs to share traffic information and cut delays.

Many new websites and apps are there to tackle the fear of information overload. Zite an app for the iPhone, identifies what information a user is interested in, and teaches the device to download relevant articles.

What increases the elusiveness of the trends is that a lot of new sites have "stealth launches". Google+ took things a stage further by sending out invitations only to those its algorithms had calculated were people of influence. This created a sense of "social cachet for those invited, and a feeling of anxiety for those left out," Newman says.

"Sharing" rises and rises. Pinterest, already in the top 10 social networks in the US, is an online noticeboard (pinboard) featuring photographs of enticing desserts, hairstyles and random signs and sayings, among other curiosities.

Flipboard creates a magazine out of someone's social networking content, while Zeebox allows people to combine watching television and commenting on it with their online friends.

"Frictionless sharing takes things further still, letting friends on Facebook see everything you're reading on newspaper websites for example," Newman.

Evening Standard columnist Sam Leith, describes social networks as a "fantastic nourisher of trend envy".

O'Loughlin agrees. "I had a moment of crippling anxiety when Google+ arrived and all the people I'd carefully curated on Twitter buggered off. It's that moment - 'Oh my God, I'm not relevant any more'."

Dr Bernie Hogan, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, says social media can reinforce the sense that one is missing out on the latest trends. "People are very selective of what they put online. But it's easy to forget about this selectivity and just think there's always a party somewhere and you're missing out on it."

It's hard to escape it all, says James Gleick, author of The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood. Mankind is not passing through the information age, it's here to stay. "There's no cure for it. The sense of nagging anxiety about trends will always be there."

But if all else fails, why not switch off all your devices and open that book from 1850 you've always been meaning to start.

Trend spotting

World wide web
Launched Early mention Commonplace

Released to public 1991

Nov 1993, Guardian:

Imagine a system that links all the text, data, digital sounds, graphics and video on all the world's computers into a single interlinked hypermedia "web". This is the potential of the Internet-based World Wide Web (WWW or W3) project which stems from CERN, the Centre Europeene pour la Recherche Nucleaire.

April 2000, Independent:

WORLD WIDE WEB: 10 BEST SITES OF THE WEEK - one of many weekly columns on web surfing - terms such as "site" no longer explained

Google

Launched

Early mention

Commonplace

1997

Sept 1999, New York Times

"Google.com - It's not officially out, but this is simply a great search engine. It's quick. It's fun to use. I want to check on a movie, read about an actor, find out who directed a particular film, this is where I look. It is very clever" - Diane von Furstenberg

Oct 2002, Daily Telegraph:

Google is one of the most frequently visited websites on the internet: in the UK it is the fourth most visited.

Facebook

Launched

Early mention

Commonplace

2004

June 2006, BBC News Magazine

What are the three most important things in the life of students in the United States? Beer, iPods and Facebook.

That's the finding of a lifestyle-tracking survey in US colleges this month. But what's that third one again?

Oct 2006, Observer:

Teen networking sites such as Facebook are a potential honeypot for advertisers, but no-one is prepared to pay dearly for an audience that could quickly evaporate.

Twitter

Launched

Early mention

Commonplace

2006

April 2007, The Times

"Twittering" began last year, when Jack Dorsey launched twitter.com, a website that allows its users to let each other know what they are doing, through text messages or the internet. Users are asked: "What are you doing?" The answer, or "tweet", is sent to other users.

April 2008, Daily Telegraph:

Is Twitter this year's Facebook? In the last couple of weeks, the 'microblogging' site is starting to appear on the radar of some rather important people. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain are "tweeting" away in the US presidential elections.

Below is a selection of your comments

I haven't watched TV since December 1999; as I'm severely visually impaired I don't read newspapers or magazines, and I've only recently added BBC News as an IE tab, to remind me to check out the rest of the world now and then. I don't have an i-anything - I have a desktop PC with a very large screen, a mobile phone that makes calls and texts, and that's about it. I'm so out of touch with the rest of the world and I don't care; I'm happy in my ignorance of what's "in". And I have a footer on my emails: "I'm not on Facebook or Twitter. Follow me and I'll have you arrested".

Fran, London

I am comforted by these comments. We don't have cable television, (the news programming is awful here and I can YouTube SNL anytime I like-the only programming worthy of watching), my 9 year old is the only kid in her class that uses a manual dictionary to look up definitions for her weekly spelling assignments; all her friends use the computer, as a result, I have noticed she is calmer and far more patient than most of her peers. The way I see it, we can still pick and choose technology that best fits our lifestyle; I am grateful for the options but am fully convinced that this world still thrives best through relationships which can only manifest through personal investment, and honestly, tweeting or fb'ing feels more like bar hopping: a gathering place for the flash-in-the-pans types who only want results, not process.

Maureen, US

Whilst I have no time for iPods, iPhones and iPads, since they are nothing more than the latest fashion and fail miserably to use the same standards that the rest of the computer industry is using. My entire music collection (about 4000 CDs) is now on one disk, my mobile phone has access to a massive collection of apps that seem to allow me to do much anything, including replacing the car's SatNav, watching BBC News for the latest headlines, and wondering what time sunset is today. No, I have no 'trendfear', because I wait for the technology to come to me, for what I want it to do. Until it does that, I'm not interested.

Steve, UK

I'm 49, have used facebook since 2007 and Twitter since 2009, I have owned an iPhone since '09 and would love an iPad. I'm the opposite of Fran, 25, as I feel that the contact I gain through modern techonologies, and the information I have access to is of great benefit to me.

Anne,

I'm 25 so should really be up-to-date with modern technology, especially social media aspects of the internet and gadgets. But I'm not au fait with it at all, I'm not on Twitter and I don't have an ipad. It doesn't bother me, because I will teach myself these things if and when the time comes, and rely on my brain, intelligence and common sense to bring me up to speed. I also take some comfort in the fact that quite frankly, there are more important and constructive things in life, such as finally teaching myself how to use my sewing machine...

Annie W, Falmouth

In the early nineties "ram-raiding" was a much-discussed trend; every night news reports showed more CCTV footage of Sierras smashing into Dixons branches, sending toasters flying. It seemed the British High Street was at threat of decimation from louts in stolen Range Rovers; there was even a terrible Sean Bean film called "Shopping" about a dystopian future Britain with a wholly ramraiding-based economy.Then councils installed more bollards and it all stopped. It seems quaint now we do all our shopping on the internet.

Spesh, London

Totally agree - reading this article reassured me that I am not the only one who is struggling to keep up! I am over 30 and I manage an online travel guide which does require me to interact with all popular social media, this actually takes up more time than doing the 'real' job. I admit that I sometimes wish we could go back in time to when life was less complicated.

Elaine Aldous, York

As with most things in life, technology needs to be used in moderation and not to excess. The people described and quoted in this article appear to be the technological equivalents of obese people or drug addicts; those who are unable to exercise restraint or self-control to keep their behaviour within healthy and reasonable norms. We need to be selective in our adoption of new trends; use what is beneficial and avoid that which is fruitless or potentially harmful. Time will show that those with the character, independence and willpower to control their use of technology will be those who lead rather than follow.

Martin, Twickenham

Pinterest - I've known that for years as an interest in beer...

Mike Wilson, London

I clicked on the links to Pinterest and Summly which I have never heard of before. I personally do not think I have missed much. I have explored the use of Facebook and Twitter and would not touch them with a bargepole. I have friends who have for one reason or another been unable to use their "smart " devices and haven't known what to do with their hands. I confess I am in my sixties but have been involved with computers since 1967. This new technology will not rule my life. I do not have hundreds of "so called friends" but a small number of "real friends" who I regularly meet up with. I'm so glad to have got this off my chest. The rant is over. I shall now go back to reading a book. A real one...

William Warren, London

Comments: As a 'traditionalist' graphic designer, I started using computers in 1995 or so since everything in design seemed to be going digital. Since then I've learned all sorts of tricks on a PC. However, in the past 2 years or so, I've rapidly felt like I'm drowning in a sea of ever-expanding technology. I don't own a Blackberry, and iPad, a 3D TV, or any of the next-gen consoles. We don't even have Sky! I try my best to find out what's out there, but trying to keep up to date would surely bankrupt me.

Bob, Oxford

I feel I didn't wholly take in the importance of this article. As soon as I read it, I was searching for the +1 button to share with my friends.

Camille Taylor, Newcastle

I guess since I thought "Pinterest" must refer to Harold of that ilk, I must be on the same side of the digital divide as Tom Stoppard (having ironically enough made my pile from software). And what a wonderful place to be... one has to pity all those Zite users who, bugs aside, will never have their attention caught by a serendipitous book or article about something they never thought could be interesting. Will the future be an information-overload-proof place where by the age of 16 you will already know everything you are ever going to know?

Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

Having taken up Facebook at 17 and deleted my account at 20, I can't say I miss it. Life's too short to be constantly rifling through 400 pictures of parties. Digital media make it all too easy to archive endless nonsense edited by no-one. I just went on "Pinterest" and thought it frantically dull. Do I care that 199 people 'like' a particular hairstyle? No! Ought I? No!

Josh, UK

I was using the web for genetic mapping modelling in 1995. You had to finish by about 2pm (9am US time) as the Americans logged on & the web slowed to telegraph speed (and that was using a decent university server), My current students don't believe me when I tell them this.

Peter, Notts

This 'wheel' thing... i don't get it.

Guy Evans, Derby

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