Learnings from Five Years of Analyzing Hundreds of Trend Reports
Each year, for the last five years, I’ve read every single available trend report to arrive at the Meta Trends. What were the trending trends for the year? Now after half a decade of this exercise, I’ve partnered with Sarah DaVanzo of Curious Futures to identify patterns within these Meta Reports and applicable lessons from this exercise.
What can we learn about culture from analyzing thousands of trends from hundreds of reports?
3 Meta Meta Findings:
From the highest altitude we noticed...
1st World Problems: All of the trends over the past five years reflect a first-world “developed market” outlook. The trends reflect a rich, saturated culture of abundant choice and leisure time. This raises the question: What would the trends (and Meta Trends) look like if we analyzed what was on the minds of an overlooked demographic: low-income, third-world, unhealthy, or unschooled? What we have today are not cultural trends, but one culture’s trends.
Tech Dominance: Nearly all of the trends from the past five years are rooted in technology. They’re affected by, or informing tech. Tech is at the core of the majority of the trends. This begs the question: Is technology the single most important driver of change... and is it ought it be? Technology is so ingrained in every vertical and cultural concept, that a “tech” distinction may not even be required.
Fear: The core emotion which dominates the trends over the past five years is fear (e.g., fear of illness, fear of surveillance, fear of obsolescence, fear of death, fear of exclusion, etc.) The trends reflect an on edge, fearful culture prompting one to wonder: How would cultural forces and trends shift if society pivoted from fearful to fearless? Or has culture always been driven by fear?
5 Pathway Findings:
Over the last five years of Meta Trends, pathways have emerged. These trend trajectories illustrate the convergence and divergence of Meta Trends over the years and can be traced back to the first Meta Trend analysis in 2018.
When one looks at the past five years of trends, there are 18 trend pathways which surface: States of Mind, Sentimentality, Nourishment, The Psyche, Immersive Media, Augmented Humans, Identity, Human Differences, Actualization, Audio, Humanity, Earth, New Commerce, Alt. Employment, Nesting, Education Reinvention, Surveillance and Scale.
By tracking these pathways, we can discover additional cultural insight...
Compromise: Sacrifice is not in the cards, despite our need. Whether it’s mental health, sustainability or privacy concerns, emergent trends settle in the middle ground: therapy via TikTok, jetting off to eco-hotels, or divulging personal data for precision. There’s a pattern of bargaining.
Ownership: The pandemic-driven, 2021 Meta Trend “Dirty-Hand DIY” is perhaps the most influential force as of late. What started with puzzles, bread and crafts—a desire for creation and progress—is now fueling employment, home and education trends. Seeking to become masters of our own domains, DIY is an invitation to question institutions and build it better ourselves, bottom up.
Re-routed Commerce: Pre-pandemic Meta Trends related to commerce focused on the hyper-physicality of packages and in-store experiences. I.e. Making the physical as immersive as our online experiences. However, with a shift online, commerce trends now illustrate a focus on convenience, delivery and logistics. This doesn’t minimize the importance of hyper-physicality in commerce, it just makes what was emerging all that more valuable.
IRL → URL: 2018’s Meta Trend “Cyborg Penetration” alluded to a physical blending of man and machine. A bet on augmentations. However, with a pandemic-driven shift to online spaces, this “penetration” didn’t occur beneath our skin, but rather online. This blend is now manifesting via avatars and emoji. Software, not hardware. Further, those previously forecasted robotic tendencies have actually been less physical, and perhaps more emotional: inabilities to hold conflicting messages or difficulties with humor.
No COVID: All things considered, COVID-19 has had minimal impact on the Meta Trends. Cliché, the pandemic only accelerated our trends (ex. Nostalgia was already trending back in 2018 and COVID-19 only intensified it.) Rises in energy around employment, homes and education reveals a larger shift towards essentialism. Back to basics and a re-prioritization. This makes an argument for seeing Meta Trends and their pathways as foundations of culture. Sturdy pillars of society. Drivers of trends, rather than trends themselves.
10 Lessons for Trend Analysts:
The Meta exercise prompted a lot of thinking around the practices of cultural analysis and trend identification...
Insights in the Meta Data: Stepping back to examine the big picture, and leverage the collective hive mind, through a meta-data analysis is valuable. The Meta view highlights alignment and discord in thought. New vantage points ferment new insights.
Network Effects: All cultural trends are interconnected and form a trend ecosystem. Trends inform one another, so creating clear, definitive lines between them are absolutely impossible. Overlap and influence in culture is inevitable. Don’t fight, but embrace this complexity.
6-Degrees of Evolution: The Meta Trends morph slightly over time while their DNA remains unchanged. Deeper, this “morph” is in fact so minor that it can be argued to be completely subjective. Again, Meta Trends are really systemic drivers of change rather than the change itself.
Backcast: Looking backwards (i.e. trend forensics) is critical to understanding the present and future. The present is the legacy of the past. History (near and far) allows us—and is required—to conduct pattern matching. A futurist’s best friend is history.
Do Data Viz: A bird’s eye perspective to visualize trend data is incredibly beneficial. Spreadsheets, graphics and color-coordination allows one to see everything all at once. Without zooming out to organize, it’s just too messy to make sense of anything.
Words Matter: Naming conventions are critical shorthand to telegraph ideas. Conveying complex concepts in just 2-3 words is very difficult, and any shortcoming will muddy the idea, causing confusion or misinterpretation. Get too clever, and the same happens.
Trend Types Also Matter: Reports vary in trend altitude (micro- vs. macro-), drivers (forces of change), things, concepts, and human mindsets. These are different shapes of trends. And as a result, non-apple-to-apple comparisons are an Achilles heel to cultural pattern matching. Careful. If you stretch an observation to match another, you may lose fidelity of the original.
Beware Positivity Bias: Summaries of individual trends rarely cast doubt on what they cover, nor consider dark trends. Optimism and hype prevails in the trend reports. After all, why dedicate time to a concept you’re not bullish on? This all skews reality.
Beware Author Bias: Organizations produce trend reports as marketing collateral for their services. Trend reports are fundamentally PR, before they’re rigorous, accurate forecasts of culture. It’s critical to account for the lens in which an organization sees culture through and what their incentives may be.
Trend or Trope: Organizations employ varying methodologies (if they’re even used) to report their trends... however they all somehow still align. There’s a collective consciousness. Telepathy or unoriginality, there’s always consensus. So, are these trends or tropes? How much does public discourse and hype influence reporting? And what are the incentives to deviate from this script?