The novelty trap; Amazon counterfeits; OpenAI calls foul: Newsletter 28 February 2024

Gartner Hype Cycle

Newsletter 33: How to be suspicious of shiny objects, self-publishing bestseller pirated, China skews the Hugos, plus three people to follow and three brand-new books to read.

The curse of the new

We live in a world where newness generates attention. I learned this emphatically and repeatedly in two decades as a technology analyst.

Every year — heck, every month — in the tech world, shiny new things emerge. The combination of enthusiastically creative innovators, eager venture capitalists, and legacy tech behemoths desperately trying to remain relevant ensures an unending supply of novelty.

Drafting just behind the innovators are the pundits, analysts, journalists, thought leaders, and authors ready to hitch their futures to the next big thing. If it isn’t new, it doesn’t get attention. A few years ago it was blockchain and crypto everywhere. Then it was the metaverse. Now it’s AI. Whether your current expertise is in financial services, the auto industry, media, management trends, marketing methods, or personal growth, you can just liberally douse it with whatever the current secret sauce is and voilà, you’re instantly at the forefront of innovation — and attention.

But being onto something new doesn’t make you right.

A wonderful and terrible quality of anything new and hot is that nobody has figured out how to do it right, to scale it, and to make money at it. So you get to speculate in an entertaining fashion about what might work, unencumbered by evidence. You might turn out to be right and be a visionary. Or, you might get it completely wrong and be a flash-in-the-pan and a laughing stock. (NFT millionaires, where are you?) The visibility you fight for means you’ll succeed, or most likely, fail, in the bright glare of a spotlight. (Ask Apple, which just cancelled its electric car project.)

The infatuation and disenchantment with the new is so common that there is an iconic diagram for it: The Gartner Hype Cycle. Disillusionment is as predictable as Thanksgiving traffic jams. But the Hype Cycle diagram implies that eventually, new things become successful (the “Plateau of Productivity”). Many of them just never climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment, entering what you might call the Junkyard of Forgotten Innovations.

Now that you know about novelty bias, here are three things you can do about it.

First, every time you read something about the new, new thing, take a step back and ask yourself, how much of this is real, and how much is just the writer’s obsession with newness? Novelty entertains, but rarely predicts the future. Stay intrigued, but skeptical.

Second, if you are a writer, work on your timing. The perfect time to write about a trend is just before it becomes clear that it’s a big deal. If examples of people succeeding with the innovation are extremely rare, it’s too soon. If there are a few, but they’re not very common, your timing is perfect: point out the successes, identify the pattern, and reveal the little-known best practices. But wait too long, and you’ll be swept up in the wake of all the other pundits and become no more than a follower. Figuring out when to publish is as important as figuring out what to publish.

And third, recognize that the quest for newness is exhausting. There is another path to success. Write the definitive piece on how best to do something that has just become commonplace, like digital marketing, managing in the hybrid workplace, or building a robust supply chain. The recognized expert will alway get work, if not so much attention. And you’re a lot less likely to be proven foolishly wrong.

News for authors and others who think

Author David Goggins is suing Amazon for allowing distribution of counterfeit copies of his book Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds. According to the suit, “The bootleg versions Amazon sold suffered from obvious defects, including smaller booksize, cut-off photos, poor paper quality, inferior binding, and thickness differences, among others.” This book is an unusual case: the publisher, Lioncrest, is the imprint of the infamous self-publishing operation Scribe Media that imploded late last year. I’d imagine these sort of knockoffs are less prevalent for books by traditional publishers; Amazon likely polices Harry Potter knockoffs more diligently.

Publishing is still pretty white. A recent survey found that 72.5% of publishing employees were white, slightly less than in past years. There’s apparently plenty of gender diversity in publishing, but not racial diversity. It’s pure speculation on my part, but perhaps in a shrinking industry, less tenured employees are the first to be squeezed out, which likely makes it harder for any recent diversity gains to stick.

The Hugo Awards — science fiction’s answer to the Oscars — are a venerable tradition and unlike other awards, the winners are voted on by the consumers (readers). In the most recent round of awards, which took place in China, several entries were ruled ineligible. (I’ve used the passive voice here, because it’s not so clear who made that ruling.) The politics of China clearly played a role, but the actual facts of what happened are still murky. Here’s an explainer.

As Shelly Palmer points out, OpenAI’s recent legal filing says the New York Times didn’t play fair when it poked ChatGPT in exactly the right way needed to get it to regurgitate Times content. I guess this is the “You made me do it” defense. It’s not particularly convincing.

Three people to follow

Rachel Happe, who understands more about how digital teams and leadership work than most of us will encounter in a lifetime.

Karen Orvis, chief statistician of the United States.

Melanie Notkin, icon for amazingly successful, happy, mature childless women everywhere.

Three books to read

Unleadership: Make Building Relationships Your Business by Scott Stratten and Alison Stratten (Wiley, 2024). The release of a new book by Scott and Alison Stratten is always a cause for celebration. Having dismantled and reimagined marketing, sales, and branding, they now take on the human side of leadership.

Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America by Barbara McQuade (Seven Stories Press, 2024). How to identify — and stop — disinformation, lies, and propaganda.

Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2024). How to get people to believe you, from the incredible storyteller behind The Power of Habit.

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