When Rihanna made her grand entrance at the Paralympics closing ceremony earlier this month, social media lit up with a mix of speculation and excitement.
Folks around the world wanted to know about the contraption the singer rode to the stage – sort of a sailing ship on wheels, adorned with gears, lanterns, and ornate railings. Some viewers turned to Twitter and Facebook in an effort to find out, while others used these tools to celebrate the mainstream birth of a trend.
Fans were actually witnessing a watershed moment in the evolution of a long-simmering pop-culture phenomenon called steampunk: a fashion, literature, and art movement that weaves together elements of science fiction and fantasy – with a twist. Like traditional science fiction, steampunk often looks at the future, but relies on 19th century technology. For example, a steampunk spaceship might be powered by steam and clockwork.
Steampunk has been around since the mid 1980s – usually bubbling underneath the surface, but not always. The 1999 Will Smith movie “Wild Wild West” was pure steampunk style.
In recent years, the trend has been building, with interesting artworks (such as Paul St. George’s Telectroscope installation), stories (Nick Gevers’ “Extraordinary Engines” anthology), and fashions appearing regularly.
And then came Rihanna. Her short trip aboard that faux sailing ship sparked a tremendous wave of online chatter. Many identified the ship’s steampunk motif while others were extremely curious but didn’t know exactly what they were witnessing.
The massive social media reaction symbolized steampunk’s full emergence into the pop-culture mainstream. Take a look around and check for yourself. If you’ve done any shopping for Halloween costumes, perhaps you’ve noticed a certain “steampunk vampire” outfit that seems to be very popular this year. And – especially if you live in an urban area – you may have seen steampunk-influenced fashions on the street – think sunglasses based on goggles and tweed detailing (check out the Moschino Spring/Summer Collection).
I believe that steampunk is poised for a real mainstream breakout. I follow consumer trends on social media and between 2008 and 2012 “steampunk” chatter has increased ninefold. On Twitter, I am now frequently seeing over 100 tweets per minute about steampunk (for comparison, Rihanna tracks at around the same level) and over 300 new blog posts per day in English alone.
Indeed, steampunk isn’t the only trend one can follow online. The advent of social media and sophisticated analytics software enables marketers to identify trends that develop online, and chart how fast they develop and spread via social media from city to city around the world, creating adherents and – potentially – new customers. This burgeoning discipline allows marketers to correlate online trends with related developments in the offline, brick-and-mortar world – for example, new product introductions and new companies being formed.
Of course, CMOs already rely on a wide range of valuable, if imperfect, tools to gain insight – surveys, focus groups, consumer panels, instinct. But social sentiment analysis is immediate, opens up a huge pool of data for study, and provides the pulse and feel of a trend. It’s much more predictive of where a trend is headed than any focus group of 30 people chosen at random.
It’s a powerful tool for CMOs who don’t want to be blindsided by a lucrative new consumer trend, or be “all in” at the moment a powerful trend loses – uh – steam.
Steampunk image on home page via Shutterstock.