If history has taught us anything, it’s that when we make fun of early adopters, they tend to be right.
In 1897, the first automobile was sold. No one believed that cars would replace the horse—so much so that the speed of a car was called “horsepower” for comparison’s sake. Today there are over 1 billion cars in circulation.
Likewise, when bluetooth headsets hit the prototype market in the late 1900s, they were met with speculation. Talking to yourself on a street corner with a finger in your ear? It made you look like a member of the secret service—or just straight-up crazy. Yet four years after inception, it was named Time Inc’s best invention of 2002. Fast forward another 15 years, and AirPods, which were originally mocked as larger-than-life Q-tips, are now the top-selling truly wireless headphone.
And when Amazon released its Echo device four years ago, the idea of ordering toilet paper through an assistant called “Alexa” would have been viewed as something that would put you in a mental institute. Now roughly 50 million of the voice-enabled devices have been sold.
What makes technology reach mass adoption? Why did Google Glass fail, but consumers were eager to buy over 1 million virtual-reality headsets? What makes you go from sitting on the sidelines to being an ardent advocate of motorized scooters?
Every mainstream technological advancement and product you use was once viewed as the clunky version of something you’d never use. There was a time when people would never get into someone else’s car (hi, Uber), nonetheless sleep in their house (thanks, Airbnb). Likewise, trusting payments on mobile devices (I see you, Venmo) was once thought to be just as doom-and-gloom as the end of the Mayan calendar.
What changed? Social acceptance.
The psychology of tech acceptance
Psychological studies have shown the power that group dynamics can have on how we perceive the world. In 1935, Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif ran an experiment to test his hypothesis that social factors would influence perception. To test his theory, individuals in a dark room were shown a small dot of light that appeared to move, but actually remained still. When participants were asked how far the dot moved, the groups converged on their findings based on the “social norm” of their peers. In other words, he proved that when faced with the influence and pressure of in-group decision making, individuals aligned their answers with each other—even though the dot never moved. Commonplace lead to common sense.
Many marketers make use of this sociological phenomenon. For example, Apple made a conscious effort to get AirPods into the hands (and ears) of influencers. That way, when you watched your favorite YouTuber’s new video, AirPods in their ears, it presented a lifestyle you aspired to emulate. In turn, it was common sense for you to want to purchase them, too.
The ability to turn passive customers—or critics—into fanatics dates back to a study by Henri Tajfel 50 years ago. His theory was that he could create artificial loyalties for one group, enough so that they would discriminate against another. This was called “the Seminal Experiment.” In it, Tajfel put individuals into groups based on answers they had given to trivial assignments (like the amount of dots shown on a wall). When grouped together, individuals suddenly became bound together by this new-found loyalty, simply based on the banal answers they gave.
This experiment was used to reference Apple fandom in the years of Steve Jobs. How could people be so loyal to each other and to Apple, and so hostile to everyone else?
The subject of social identity ties back to how our brains are wired, which is wanting to be a part of a group. Buoyed by the decisions of early adopters, society can quickly feel like it’s missing out, no matter how odd the technology or advancement. From the Pebble Watch to bitcoin, early adopters are predicting the next thing that will become big. The next hundred years of innovation will walk us down a path of things that feel weird initially, like getting your blood drawn at home to getting 3D-printed corneas for eye surgery.
And if you think motorized scooters are big, wait until we bring Heelys back and add rollerblade-like features to our shoes.
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.