Eric von Hippel coined the term ‘lead user’ in 1986 while identifying sources of innovation. According to von Hippel, a lead user was a user that exhibited novel behaviors by being both an early adopter of technology and an early adapter of technology. These are people who are quick to join a new platform and adapt that platform and other existing technology in unforeseen ways. von Hippel asserts that these users are important to focus on because they may demonstrate adaptations that could spread to the wider population.
In Fanning the Audience’s Flame, (Ford, Jenkins, and others) the team writes that fans are often lead users for media properties and that “lead users are valuable to understand because their tastes anticipate untapped potentials within the marketplace.” (p 23) The team explains how fans and their efforts have helped science fiction programs like Lost which work on long and complex narrative threads sustain themselves when sci-fi was once entirely episodic:
“Today, writers such as Steven Johnson and C3 faculty advisor Jason Mittell argue that American television has reached an unprecedented level of narrative complexity and that some of the most successful shows on television – Lost (ABC, 2003-present), for example – are structured more like cult series than like mainstream hits of the past decade. The success of these series suggest that narrative complexity is no longer a niche interest, one which rewards fan mastery, but is now something all consumers demand of popular entertainment.”
Ford, Jenkins, and the team go on to recommend that fan communities should be studied closely to monitor for emerging trends, behaviors, and ways to treat media content that will quickly spread from niche culture into the mainstream.
As a witness to fans crafting fan fiction for the AMC drama Mad Men using Twitter, I’ve seen fans as lead users firsthand. Now Twitter is full of fictional characters for everything from media properties, famous novels, and even :30 spots. Fans from the Mad Men escapade have even started their own agency to provide similar efforts for other properties.
When I urge clients to look more closely at niche fan communities, I’m urging them to study the actions and social norms within these groups in order to identify any lead user behaviors that could go mainstream. Fans are creating unanticipated connections between technology, social groups, and media that will reward our attention. And the pace of the web demands we stay focused on centers of innovation, and more often, fan communities represent the undersea chimneys which give life to the next evolution of species.