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

By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine


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.

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.

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.

image captionOne 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."

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.

image captionSummly, 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.