Discovery is an elusive experience even for consumers armed with today’s tools like Instagram. More precisely, it is a highly quixotic and frustrating process for anyone searching for the new or novel such as entrepreneurs, explorers, inventors, artists, musicians, and craftspeople. For them, discovery means being contrarian in the face of accumulating mistakes and failures. Surviving the full lifecycle of discovery requires extraordinary persistence. Take the example of Thomas Edison. He and his team apparently tested some 3,000 different methods and/or materials before landing on the right combination needed for the world’s first commercial incandescent light bulb.
Today digital and brand strategists are keen to tell us that Instagram is the new consumer tool for discovering products, services and experiences. In the broadest sense of “discovery”, this seems obviously true. It is a quick and easy lens into what other people are experiencing, wearing, buying, eating, drinking and enjoying in life. In effect, the most popular posts become the most discoverable. But where Instagram fails is at the edge and the periphery, where the most interesting discoveries and innovations take place.
In the age of Instagram, Ana Andjelic observes that we are “constantly exposed to one another’s decisions when it comes to what to buy, wear and like”. Furthermore, “because we almost never make decisions independently of one another, reliable prediction of the next It thing…becomes essentially impossible.”
That may be so. But let me dwell on and extend her initial observation. Social platforms like Instagram are essentially feedback loops of mimetic reproduction. They are sites for the reproduction and affirmation of desire, aspiration and approval (both self and social).
What has this got to do with the discovery of truly new and insightful ideas, practices, places and things? Not much I would argue. Social discovery through platforms like Instagram may be fun and easy but it is no substitute for genuine discovery.
I have spent more than a decade researching, discovering and learning about menswear, bespoke tailoring and the craftsmanship behind tailored clothing. During that time I cannot think of a single insight on menswear that I learned from Instagram. Or from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc.* Nor have I ever been spurred to purchase anything based on a social media post.
Clearly, I am not the target user of such platforms but I do understand their allure. At their best, they provide an interesting window into the lens and lifestyle of a particular individual. Yet more often than not it’s the digital equivalent of empty calories – a brief, digital sugar rush that dissipates as quickly as it appeared.
What passes for consumer discovery on Instagram is actually something else. That cool beach cove in Sardinia you put up as a disappearing story? Or that hyper-locally sourced boite run by an ex-Nomo sous chef? Well, those are indeed cool finds in a relative, transient sense. Relative because by liking a post you are simply reinforcing a known experience others already have had or will likely have. Transient because they will be replaced by some other hotspot that will become the next on-trend hit.
This is not deep or insightful discovery. This is simply scaling up from “1 to n” to use Peter Thiel’s term (that is, scaling up what is simply given to us ex commodo). Real discovery means going from “0 to 1”. That is, from nothing (ex nihilo) to something truly distinctive.
Case in point: Sicilian tailoring. If I had simply followed what others are wearing or liking on social media or discussion forums, I would never have discovered the almost completely unknown world of Sicilian tailoring. Instead I would be wearing only Neapolitan tailoring (or Florentine if I felt daring) and a handful of influencer-approved brands.
This is not to say that Sicilian tailoring is the “best” or the “most interesting” option in bespoke. But it is the only truly new “discovery” in heritage bespoke tailoring made in the last 50 years. Moreover, I wrote about that discovery in a book rather than in a blog or Instagram post. I had to because the scope of the topic easily exceeded the narrow confines of a single image or blog post.
So what has Instagram wrought? It is now the de facto engine of consumer discovery (or more accurately, desire or mimetic reproduction). It is replacing or supplementing a host of mimetic/participatory platforms from live performances to print (think 18th century fashion plates) to the early days of motion picture cinema. These pre-digital forms were arguably richer and deeper because they encouraged a more meaningful path of discovery still connected to observation, reflection and ultimately creative risk-taking.
In first half of the 20th century, the writer Walter Benjamin was concerned that art in the industrial age was devolving into art made for an age of mechanical reproduction. Art was losing its “aura” or authenticity.
Fast forward more than half a century later, the context has changed. But his concern lingers on as our human experiences are now clickable, swipable assets in a game of virtual reproduction. Perhaps it is time to reconsider, challenge and revalue how we discover and experience in the age of Instagram.
* I exclude YouTube from this category since I regard it primarily as a content platform.