By Brent Warwick, partner, ipsoCreative
In many ways, the web is one of the most paradoxical realms of business — and life. On the one hand, the web is remarkably accessible. It doesn’t require membership, certification, or a particular race, gender, or socioeconomic status. On the other hand, the web is remarkably inaccessible in that it is vast (and therefore overwhelming), cluttered (and therefore confusing), and ever-changing (and therefore bewildering). It’s easy and difficult. It’s fun and frustrating. It’s positive and negative. It represents the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. Its egalitarian nature simultaneously encourages innovation and stifles it. It allows for individuality but crushes it in a sea of imitators.
The web may allow for unparalleled access to information that allows you to determine how to set yourself apart. But increasingly it simply facilitates sameness. The bandwagon is a vortex on the web. The chaotic and overwhelming clutter of the web causes us to want to take a safe path. Rather than taking a risk on doing something new, we resort to the safety of what everyone else is already doing, whether that “something” has proved effective or not. We then find ourselves in a pattern of following, a pattern of imitating, and a pattern of mediocrity that deepens its ruts, making it more and more challenging to change course with each passing day.
This subtle tyranny of the bandwagon is an increasing challenge for businesses. On the surface, it might seem that the use of the word “tyranny” is a bit of an overstatement. And it would be if not for a singular deep underlying reason.
But first, let’s start with why the bandwagon has such a strong pull on us despite no one’s aspirations to be on it.
We may not like to think of ourselves in this way, but we crave a life of ease. And the pace of business is such that we can barely keep up. Combine those two things and we find that the most expedient path is one that is already worn.
We don’t necessarily set out to copy the look of our competitor’s website, but being intentional requires time and energy that conflicts with our desire for ease. We don’t necessarily aspire to create a product that pretty much already exists, but it’s faster to get to market if we do. And we don’t want to style a photo for a post just like everyone else’s, but when we see the number of followers that brand has, the temptation is too great.
We may aspire to be unique, but our internal desires and the external realities of a fast-paced world suck us into a pragmatism that leads to sameness.
And despite our protests to the contrary, we’re really OK with this sameness. We’re OK with the middle. We’re OK with moderate quality.
We’d like to think otherwise, but it creeps up on us. Every day we are faced with decisions about how we will spend our time and where we will exert our effort. The higher the volume of decision points, the higher the probability of choosing the most expedient option. We soothe our minds by thinking, “I did the best I could under the circumstances.” Or more insidiously, we justify our mediocrity by executing with a high degree of quality an idea that is low in quality. For instance, we may perfectly design a website. But the quality of the idea is low because we settled on merely imitating what everyone else has already designed. The execution was high, but the concept was low, and mediocrity was unintentionally embraced.
Like many things in life, underneath our “unwilling” willingness to embrace imitation and mediocrity is fear, the primal root that drives us.
Doing something new is easy when there isn’t much at stake. An Instagram image is low-risk, considering it doesn’t cause us much trepidation. But a $100,000 brand video carries with it great risk, and the fear of being reprimanded will drive us to choose the path of imitation in order to limit our exposure to potential failure.
On the scale of our decision-making with fear on one side and the bandwagon on the other, we most often choose the bandwagon. And once we make that choice, it’s easier to make it again and again and again. We eventually find ourselves so risk-adverse that the effort to change course becomes too great. The tyranny of the bandwagon is subtle and more irresistible than we care to admit.