Geeks as tastemakers

A "tastemaker" is someone who has influence over, or can decide, what becomes popular

Imagine a partnership between Willy Wonka and IBM. A geeky technology company and a candy-maker join forces; that sounds ridiculous. But that's what just happened:

KitKat and Google's Android, together, at last. The launch included a complete revamp of; turning it into one big long, insider, nerd joke.

For people like me, who grew up as bespectacled geeky kid, it feels like I'm in a parallel universe. (Yes, that's me with the ninth-grade nerd mullet). When I tried explaining a UNIX joke I'd found on rec.humor to my junior high friends I was met with blank stares. And now, in 2013, KitKat is wisecracking about "its world-renowned, tri-core, wafer thin CPU with full chocolate coverage". What happened?

I had a journalist take my course on how content gets distributed on the internet. She noticed I spent a lot of time discussing tech networks like Hacker News.

My interest in Hacker News, Slashdot, Designer News, and Reddit is partly personal: my audience is in the tech industry, and (as we've established) I'm rather geeky myself.

But networks like these have become interesting in another regard: they're increasingly influential in setting global trends (outside of the geek culture). Hence, KitKat now finds itself on the Hacker News homepage for the first time ever. The results of the launch are good: Google Trends shows global interest in KitKat just went through the roof.

Why geeks are becoming more influential

The geek community has a few unique characteristics.

First, the participants in these communities are almost always online. Programmers, designers, and other technologists are continuously connected via the internet. I have friends in San Francisco who I can reach instantly on five different messaging platforms. I've never met them in real life. It’s way easier to reach a hacker online than, let’s say, a plumber.

Second, these communities are highly concentrated. While there are a lot of plumbers using the internet, they don’t congregate in a centralized way. We shouldn’t be surprised: this is the internet after all, and it’s natural that geeks would be building the best online networks.

This has produced an interesting side-effect: because geeks rule the highest value networks, they have a huge influence on what gets popular.

The best example of this is on Google, where certain keywords have been hijacked by nerds. A search for "java" should reveal results for the Indonesian island, and its popular variety of coffee. Instead, you get pages and pages of links to a programming language by Oracle. The same is true when searching for "ruby": Yukihiro Matsumoto's language handily wins the popularity game. Ironically, the icon used for both languages is represented by the physical incarnation of their namesake (a steaming cup of coffee, and the gem, respectively).

This is how winners are created on the internet. Most of the web’s directories (Google included) are based on ranking algorithms where the content with the most votes becomes the most popular.

Patrick McKenzie, who's well known on Hacker News as Patio11, explains this phenomenon on his blog:

There is going to be one far-and-away winner and then there is going to be a massive cliff separating them from second place.  Content creation on the Internet typically fits the bill pretty well — winners win, because why would you go to the second best place when the first best is, well, better? This is the basis for the Filthy Linking Rich phenomenon — the page which achieves authoritative status for a particular concept, query, or idea will typically tend to achieve self-reinforcing authority for it.

On the web, reaching "first place" creates a powerful feedback loop. The #1 spot gets the most traffic, gets shared the most, and gets the most inbound links. It then has a higher chance of being cross-posted on other high-value networks. This multiplies the effect even further, as people in those networks start sharing the content.

This is useful to keep-in-mind, as it applies to almost every directory on the web: Google search, the iTunes store, Quora, Reddit, and even an email inbox.

And who has the most votes on the internet? It’s geeks. They’re always online, and they’re the members of the highest value networks.

This is what I mean when I say geeks are the new tastemakers. Television, newspaper, and radio used to be the central conduits for getting your message out. Now information consumption has switched to online channels, and it’s increasingly geeks who control those channels.

What does this mean for content creators, marketers and businesses?

My theory is that no matter what niche you’re targeting, you’re going to need initial traction from hackers, technologists, developers, and designers. I'm wondering if this is a part of KitKat's strategy with Android.

This might have less to do with geeks being granted tastemaker status, and more to do with geeks being the de facto influencers because of the ranking authority we have on the internet.

One of my readers, Raymond Duke, wrote a post about flossing his teeth. It ended up being highly influential in the dentistry space. But its early popularity didn’t come from dental professionals, it came from geeks up-voting it and sharing it online.

I’ve seen a similar pattern with other niches as well. The New York Times’ Snow Fall - The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek became a sensation before they even published it on their homepage. It received more than 3.5 million page views. What’s surprising is that most of that traffic came from outside their platform. On Hacker News it amassed 512 points, and stayed on the homepage for most of the day. Hacker News alone could have easily driven hundreds of thousands of those page views.

If I’m right, and geeks truly are today’s tastemakers, what changes might we see in our society?

  1. We're going to see more data. People like Nate Silver are going to become more valuable.

  2. More talk about innovation. The default question will become: "what’s groundbreaking in your field?" We'll see different companies and industry sectors trumpeting their ingenuity. Examples I’ve seen: creative HR practices, nutrition, and politics.

  3. More diverse geek related hires. You’re not just going to hire geeky developers. To compete in this economy you’re going to need a sales geek , an operations geek, and a management geek; their defining characteristic will be how they collect and interpret data.

We're also going to see more companies trying to be a part of the community. I had this funny thought the other day: "I wonder if Red Bull would sponsor a hacker?" It turns out they already have.

Justin Jackson

This essay originally appeared in my course, Amplification. It's been modified.

Published on September 5th, 2013
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