Surfing the Zeitgeist
A methodology for predicting trends in popular culture
By Tom Barnes
There are systematic ways to predict short- and long-term trends in popular culture. There’s nothing arcane or esoteric about becoming a pop culture forecaster: It just involves careful observation of events over time and a basic understanding about the behavior of individuals and the membership groups to which they belong.
Why is this important? First, because the pace of change in our culture is growing exponentially, and it’s necessary to figure out where society’s going—and how it’s getting there—to make sense of the world we live in. That’s true for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a C-level executive developing a strategic plan, a marketer trying to identify and sell to a demand, or a parent trying to figure out his kids and share some part of their experiences. We need to know which way the wind’s blowing: better to ride the flow than get swept away by it.
Second, the ongoing sophistication of communication technologies has made the passive culture consumer obsolete. No longer do people have to accept a limited number of product and service options—especially in entertainment—from content providers who determine the time, place and method in which that content is transmitted. While this isn’t a linear process, individuals are gaining the power to customize what they want, when they want it, how to arrange it and how to receive it. Businesses that ignore this fact do so at their peril. Businesses that recognize it, and have the wisdom to enlist their customer in developing and distributing their goods and services, will own the future.
Finally, it matters to know the difference between fads — which are just derivative, short-lived variations on tired themes—and trends, whose truly innovative character influences culture in enduring ways that can be refreshed and reinvented for generations. It’s the difference between the flash-in-the-pan and the genuine article with staying power.
This predictive methodology isn’t an exact science to the nth degree. How it’s used actually is more art than science. No musicologist can say precisely how digitized instruments will affect symphonic compositions. No meteorologist could pinpoint exactly where Katrina would make land along the Gulf Coast in 2005. But they have the tools to be essentially correct in their estimates. The art happens when they bring a discerning eye to the evidence and draw conclusions that follow its trail—even f it leads away from their own bias. That gives them power, credibility and, most important, the ability to effectively respond to their world. The forecasting methodology is a tool for creating that possibility.