You already know this man. He was the one who decided, right around six months ago, not to renew his iPhone contract because the apps simply weren't worth all the dropped calls. He started watching 30 Rock with Season 3 (while catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 on Hulu) but cleared out the DVR the instant Salma Hayek's character squealed in Spanglish. He sported a lumberjack beard for a while—just like countless woodsmen roaming the hamlets of Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn still do—but by the time Joaquin Phoenix did his pantomime of disillusionment on Letterman, he'd already reached for his razor. And then one recent evening, having discovered somewhat late—but not embarrassingly so—the pleasures of nursing a small-batch bourbon in the dimly lit confines of a neo-speakeasy, he recognized the hollowness at the core of the conversation going on between the mustached mixologist behind the bar and the vest-clad patron sitting at the end of it. So without any undue ceremony, he closed his tab and walked out the unmarked door, never to return to that bar—or any other neo-speakeasy.
You know this man, right? It's just that you've never been properly introduced. He's a lone cowboy by the name of First Dropper, and while we tire climbing the hilly switchbacks of compulsive trend hunting, his straight and level trail is the one we'd all do well to follow. Unlike most consumers, the First Dropper seems to be immune to peer pressure and the sway of marketing gurus; he's propelled instead by an instinctual feel for when a trend has become overvalued. Think of him as a slyly influential arbiter of taste—one who operates as a covert counterweight to his better-known cousin, the Early Adopter.
As the first to cuff his skinny jeans, the first to tout the glories of grass-fed beef, and the first to deem Grizzly Bear the new Arcade Fire, the Early Adopter has long been considered the driveshaft powering the cultural marketplace. But in this era of the Long Tail, when the enormous profusion of ever-nichier trends has brought diminishing returns on each new act of adoption, that perpetually with-it friend of yours is starting to seem less like a maverick than a cool-hunting technocrat—a guy who's willing to do the yeoman's work of keeping track of all the tips being fed through his RSS reader and patient (or is it self-regarding?) enough to select which ones merit tweeting to his "followers." Sure, we're interested in hearing about a new special-edition pair of Wayfarers, but what we really need—at a time when we're beset by a veritable plague of trend spotters—is the guy who can tell us when to let our popped collars lie flat. And our weariness has not gone unnoticed. For marketers, advertisers, Internet-start-up heads, and fashion designers have recently begun the difficult work of identifying and targeting the First Dropper—with the hope of placating him before it's too late or at least knowing if their time is running out.
"The First Dropper is sexy because he's a rugged individualist and scary because he's always upending what others consider hip," says Greg Behr, who coined the term with Billy Warden, his partner at GBW Strategies, a marketing firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. "When the First Dropper finds that things he's been sold don't fully work," adds Warden, "he has the guts to go against the tide and stand up and make a decision on his own. Jesus is the ultimate First Dropper, Ben Franklin and the founders of America were First Droppers, Martin Scorsese and all those rebels in the seventies who pushed the boundaries of film were First Droppers. These are the guys you want to emulate, not the dude who's simply willing to wait in line for two days to be the first to own an iPad."
Now, it bears noting that the Dropper should not be mistaken for that other naysaying social archetype, the Hater. The Hater simply hates. And the reasons why he hates—by never throwing his chips on the table, he guarantees he'll never lose—are so clearly understood that the Hater fails to intimidate. He hates hybrids because everyone in Hollywood is driving them. He hates the new Franzen novel because he hates Franzen the man, not the novel. And he hates the latest hot organic restaurant because it has the gall to serve its incredibly tasty food on small plates. The Hater, in short, has no credibility, whereas the First Dropper, for all his willingness to join a trend before he drops it, is so impervious to influence that he becomes the most credible person you know.
"The person who decides that something is no longer relevant can be just as impactful, even more impactful, than the one who anointed it," says Noah Kerner, the author, along with Gene Pressman, of Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace. "The guy who says no is compelling and mysterious, and he kind of makes you wonder why you're still saying yes. Actually, the guy who says no is always cooler—that is, unless you're talking about sex."
One such guy is Cory Doctorow, the blogger, novelist, and co-editor of the highly influential website Boing Boing, who posted a withering missive in April titled "Why I Won't Buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)." "It was simply about making a discriminating choice," Doctorow says. While his screed didn't exactly put Apple out of business, it did reveal deep fissures in the company's famously loyal fan base: Within days, hundreds of consumers had rallied to Doctorow's side. "The First Dropper," he says, "is like a gourmet who hears everyone talking about this new hot dog: 'Yeah, it's made out of lips and assholes like every other hot dog—but this one's really good!' Then the gourmet tries the hot dog and he realizes, nope, it's just lips and assholes."
As yesterday's Early Adopters (of whom Doctorow was once the ne plus ultra) become today's Droppers, companies are beginning to realize that the people who already use their products and services can determine the fate of their business just as much as, if not more than, those on whom they once spent their entire marketing budgets trying to court. Despite the cyber-riot that greets Facebook every time it alters its privacy settings, the world's largest social network "is probably the best example right now of a company that goes to incredible lengths to make sure none of its users are inclined to go somewhere else," says Caterina Fake, the cofounder of Flickr, whose newest venture, Hunch, is a website that helps people build their own "taste profile." "MySpace basically failed to keep up. But Facebook keeps becoming something new. Twitter gets popular, so Facebook becomes more like Twitter. People get obsessed with checking in on Foursquare, so Facebook adds Places"—a new feature allowing users to share their location in real time—"to essentially keep Foursquare at bay." Just think: If Friendster had paid such close attention to its early deserters, you'd probably still be there writing testimonials about your sad-sack single friend right now.
And yet maybe you, and your sad-sack friend, and all the girls he hopes—with your help—to one day date, have seen others join MySpace, then Facebook, and thought, 'You know what? Friendster's just fine for me.' In which case, you should own it. Because the very thing that separates the First Dropper from the Hater—his indomitable confidence in his own (positive) taste—is something each man must develop for himself. Sure, the First Dropper might have an unerring sense for when a trend is in its 14th minute, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't stick with it through the 16th and beyond. Simply take heed of the First Dropper as you would a weather vane, an unobtrusive guide, for he is, as Doctorow notes, one of those "people with a grasp of something that is not always visible... If the Dropper is the most knowledgeable person in the room, why not listen to him?" If, that is, you haven't already left.
1) THE EARLY ADOPTER Has his ear to the ground and knows what's coming before anyone else.
2) THE TRENDSETTER A sucker for the buzz.
3) THE LATE ADOPTER Doesn't jump on the bandwagon until it's all but finished its run.
4) THE RE-ADOPTER Always first in line to start the comeback.