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The Success of Novelty

Thoughts about how and when novelty is successful and why copycats succeed or fail.

A newcomer makes a new thing and people like the new thing. Then people copy the new thing. But they don’t generally get the same attention and acclaim.

There’s a tendency to ignore novelty, per se, in understanding successes. All these rambunctious Republican real estate criminals going out trying to have affairs with porn stars in preparation to run for the 2020 GOP nomination are evidence of that.

Other times, the copycats do succeed. They find a new angle or do the repeat with more skilled hands, and people enjoy it.

There are several factors at play. One is the tendency for novelty to be a good in itself. The first time you try a fizzy drink, and the carbon dioxide bubbles tickle your tongue.

Another is the opportunity that novelty has to fix attention. The brain works a little harder to understand the activity when it is novel, so the experience is heightened.

There are social factors at work, as well. Spreading novelty has social status. “Jones turned Smith on to these new-fangled talkies that everyone’s now talking about, so Jones is a cool cat.”

Part of that reaction is borne out of the fact that being the first people at a watering hole or hunting ground meant lots of the resource, where being late-comers meant crumbs at best. “Early bird gets the worm,” and the like.

Of course, the legal system has patents, which bestows special rights upon inventors, which can be lucrative. Firsts are celebrated. The first man on the moon, the first steps a baby takes, first spoken word, bronzed baby shoes, all that.


The success of novelty versus of immitators often comes down to the fertility of the ground in the public imagination. If the public sees the new thing as limited, it doesn’t want another. If it sees it as breaking new ground, it wants to see what else is around that area.