Inside the hype

Do you remember Joost, Pownce, Friendfeed, diaspora, Oink, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Color, Hashable, Poken, App.net, Gowalla, Quote.fm, Empire Avenue, Highlight, Secret, Frontback, Ello, Meerkat or Peach? All these are names of online services that at one point in the past enjoyed a short moment or fame within parts of the tech and startup community (some of them only locally). Most of them don’t exist anymore today, because the sudden adoption and attention by tech geeks was not followed by sustained user growth past the fickle group of early adopters.

I had to think of this reoccurring phenomenon when I this morning stumbled upon a video showing the Silicon Valley-based blogger and evangelist Robert Scoble raving over an upcoming Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality technology by a company called Meta, which he called “the most important product since the Apple II”. He compared the technology to Magic Leap, a secretive startup from Florida that managed to score about $1.4 billlion (!) for its yet to be released Augmented Reality product. According to Scoble, Magic Leap might be undervalued.

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I have no idea how much I should buy into the hype about Magic Leap and similar technologies. But hype is the keyword. Hearing this enthusiasm about a new tech product got me thinking about hypes in general and why the representatives of the Internet industry so many times before have gotten so lyrical about services and products which later flopped. Google Glass or even the Apple Watch (which did not totally flop but the excitement is gone) are recent examples from the gadget world, and I started this article with a list of online services which experienced hype before returning to irrelevance.

In not too few of the given examples I myself was part of the hype machine, having had big expectations which subsequently looked overblown.

What is it that makes early adopters and geeks over and over again get so euphoric about new products, and why is there seemingly no or only a very slow learning process? Here are a few reasons that came to my mind, based on 9 years of watching the tech & Internet business and writing about it:

  1. Lack of understanding for the needs of the average consumer
    Technology geeks frequently fail to accurately evaluate what the mainstream consumer actually wants.
  2. Enjoyment of being seen as an opinion leader and visionary
    Every time someone is jumping onto a fresh hype, it is a new chance to create a reputation as a person who is a trendsetter and visionary.
  3. Wanting the hyped product to become a success
    When you participate in a hype you feel that the fate and public reception of the product or service also depend on your own activity surrounding it. If enough people go around telling everyone that a new service or product might become the next big thing, it increases the attention, at least temporarily. It’s the principle of the classical self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. Common belief fallacy
    People jump onto the hype train because many other people that they admire or respect have done so, too.
  5. Financial or other business incentives to participate in the hype
    Directly or indirectly, there are a lot of possibilities for vested interests or for a favorable attitude due to personal connections.
  6. Hype as a happening
    Some people (maybe all) love the excitement of the hype and the uncertainty about whether this time will be different than all the other times when expectations were not met.

Often, a mix of these reasons is the motivator for a person joining in on a hype. Whatever it is that drives geeks to hype a tech product – when they are inside a hype, it’s hard to see the outside world the way the average consumer does. That maybe explains why history repeats itself so often when it comes to hypes about new digital technology.

That being said, I don’t deny the real possibility that the likes of Magic Leap, Meta and others can be ground-breaking.

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