The Diffusion of Innovations Con (and Apple)

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

I learned about Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory when I fist started studying Education formally in 2003. I found it curious that I had never heard of it in all my years in Computer Science, but that’s a topic for a different rant.

The first time around, I thought it was a really interesting theory. Like many who read about this, I secretly congratulated myself for being one of the “innovators”.

Who doesn’t want to be an “innovator”?

I had occasion to look at it again in some detail as part of my coursework for a  Graduate Certificate in Serious Game Design and Research at Michigan State.

This time around I saw it a little differently. I’m older. I’ve read more widely. I am more comfortable with what I know about educational technology in particular as well as technology in general. I will freely admit I am also, in many ways, more jaded than I was ten years ago. I’ve had more experience working with bullies and pretenders.

What struck me this time around is the particular choice of terms for this theory.

Diffusion of Innovation – fine. I still see it as a pretty straight-forward label for the theory. BUT… it is important to remember that this is NOT really a theory about innovation. Rather, it is a theory about diffusion of products to consumers. Ergo, it is a theory about marketing and consumerism.

With that perspective, the rest of the theory starts to bother me. It is itself a very clever marketing ploy. It distorts things by the very words it uses.


The labels themselves have the effect of pushing people to identify themselves with certain categories. These terms are NOT neutral. In fact they are really quite manipulative.

According to this theory, “Innovators” are the first ones to adopt a particular technology.

Problem is, they are not innovators. Innovation is about inventing things. They invented NOTHING. They are merely the first to BUY something invented by someone else. They’re the ones who swallow the hype. The term is a very clever choice though, because it tricks people into believing they are leaders, when in fact they are nothing more than the first followers. In other circles we call them guinea pigs, and it is considered a foolish thing to be.

Rogers’ “Innovators” are not creators, though the term suggests they are. Unlike the real innovators who actually make new things and have new ideas, Rogers’  “Innovators” are the ones who stand in lines waiting for their next ithing like fabricants heading to “ascension”. I won’t spoil the film for you if you haven’t yet seen it, but I think a very similar thing happens to these “innovators” as happens to the fabricants.

“Innovators” jump in without thinking about much of anything. They are converts and disciples, who buy whatever they think will make them look cool. These are P.T.Barnum’s favorite people, and there’s one born every minute.

That’s where Apple comes in – they are very good at manipulating this group. In case you’re wondering, the Apple guys are the ones in the red robes.

Let’s go on.

“Early Adopters” is actually a good term. If I were to take a truly cynical view, I would say that it was chosen this way on purpose because these are the people who actually have market influence. They are people who take a bit of time to think about things before jumping in. They are the ones upon whom you can rely to give you fair, multifaceted reviews of products. They’re the ones who influence the success of a product after the first 48-hour hype dies down. It would be a bad move to insult these people by using the wrong label.

The next two categories are again contrived to make people feel good – who doesn’t want to be in the majority?

The last one, of course is derisive. Who wants to be a laggard? It does however, attract some who choose to be out of step on purpose. If we only look at those with the economic means to choose and excuse those who don’t have the money buy stuff willy-nilly, this category mainly traps two kinds of people:

  1. Those who are proud of their disconnect with modern society. Many of these are people who can also be described as willfully ignorant. These are also people who see themselves as being cool by being anti-heroes.
  2. Those who have lives not tied to technology. There aren’t many of these left in western society.

One day, it would be nice to see what a “pure” theory of diffusion of actual innovation looks like. I mean, one that looks at how truly innovative ideas are spread throughout society as opposed to one that looks at how people buy stuff.

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