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The Rise of the Fidget Spinner and the Fall of the Well-Managed Fad (nytimes.com)
87 points by shalmanese 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

If you read between the lines this is the broken window fallacy: We need people to make useless junk in order to have jobs.

But now there is no one making sure the useless junk stays popular, so less jobs.

Except that's exactly the broken window fallacy: We could instead spend that money on other things.

Well I guess we just move on to different junk. Rather than one company (Ty, from the example) presiding over and managing the popularity of the product for years, the fads come and go.

Which is of course what's always happened. Remember Pokemon? There's a craze that's not a craze at all - it's been going on since the 90s. It doesn't seem to be getting killed by fidget spinners. In the meantime hundreds of smaller fads have come and gone. We've have the words "fad" and "craze" to describe this sort of thing since way before the rise of rapid-response Chinese manufacturing.


Furbies, tamogatchis, pogs.

There was that season where suburban moms were practically dueling to the death over Tickle Me Elmos.

Can't you see the difference here? Nobody is lining up outside stores to get a fidget spinner because you can't go two feet without seeing one for sale.

It was the same with pogs, and knockoff tamogatchis.

But having a knockoff wasn't the same. I mean, there's no such thing as a knockoff fidget spinner because there is no official one.

But honestly aren't all of these more complex than Fidget Spinners? I feel like we've reached a new low with these.

You can learn all sorts of tricks with them too. Maybe it's just you getting older and developing more of a 'get off my lawn'-mentality? :D

Not exactly. Economics is all about trading. Trading is all about wants, desires, and needs. If I make something that everyone wants, it is not useless junk, useless junk is something nobody wants. So it's actually very important to have feedback from middlemen who's livelihood is actually tied to successfully making available desirable things.

There's an economic study I remember seeing in the last couple of decades that studied the value of middlemen. The study started with the assumption that middlemen were parasitic entities, especially since so much economic value seems to come from "cutting out the middle man". But the study authors were most surprised about was that the countries they studied that had the most middlemen, also had the greatest number of economic health indicators. That is they found middlemen to be highly correlated with the economic output of an economy. Their conclusion was that it was probably more than correlated, but largely causative and that middle men probably provided a lot more value than they're generally given credit for.

This article seems to be providing some anecdotal data that supports the value of middle men. At the very least they are good at synthesizing back pressure data for factories so they don't end up overproducing, and have to fill landfills with stuff no one wants.

Yes, something people want is a valuable tradegood. However it doesn't mean it's not useless junk. Useless means it doesn't really have a purpose. that's independent from trade value.

Making something that everyone wants is a separate thing than making everyone want something. You can do both and make a lot of money, but if the former is fixing the windows the latter broke people still aren't better off.

For the "middle man" study, I don't know how they came to that conclusion. But the more obvious assumption seems to be that economic output can support more middlemen, so I'm curious what data they used to argue that it works the other way around.

I think your vision may be colored a bit because here on HN everyone seems to think that manufacturers can just sell direct to consumers easily by tossing up a Shopify page and letting nature take its course.

The true value of a middle man is connecting buyers and sellers who would otherwise have no idea the other existed, or otherwise facilitating the transaction.

Here's an example that I'm currently involved with. I was approached by someone to create a device that's needed on the market, but doesn't exist. I'm quite capable of building the thing and familiar with the domain, but never knew the thing was needed. Similarly, the company approaching me doesn't have the internal skills to build the device, but they can sell it. The market for this particular device isn't very large (it's only businesses who have machinery that was built using a particular older technology and need to have repairs done), and there are alternatives, so that explains why no one is building these.

In this case, the company that approached me -- the middle man -- has excellent knowledge of the market and its needs and how to best serve them. I, the producer, had no idea this product was needed, and even knowing that now, have no access to this segment of the market, and it's simply not large enough to make it worth my time to begin a marketing effort in that direction. Similarly, the end customers have never heard of me, and have no concept that such a device could even be built.

So there you are, a middleman has just added value by offering to buy something that I otherwise would not know to build, and by selling it (along with other products and services), to a very underserved market that otherwise would be forced to purchase newer equipment they otherwise don't need.

> the more obvious assumption seems to be that economic output can support more middlemen, so I'm curious what data they used to argue that it works the other way around.

That was my conclusion as well - when times are good you don't mind someone who contributes little hanging around. When times are tough, they're out and what little value they offered is replicated by someone desperate to stick around. When a business has a lot of administrative staff times are good and those watching the market can conclude, due to the number of administrative hires, that times are good for a particular market sector. But concluding that it means middlemen are undervalued seems like whoever authored the study had some odd motive.

Yeah there's a strong "jobs for jobs sake" vibe in this article.

Did you get to the part about essentially all travel agencies being disintermediated?

Fidget junk is just an allegory for a much more pervasive trend.

I don't buy it. The disintermediation of travel agencies has made it easier and cheaper for me to travel. I don't want to sit on the phone with someone while they read off options to me, while extracting a fee to do so; I can figure out the options and make the decisions myself. I don't need a travel agent to tell me about the exciting places I can go; I have well-traveled friends, and travel blogs.

I feel like the travel agency bit in there actually worked against their thesis.

Sounds like Silicon Valley (the actual place) and software dev.

Well, at least we can look forward to a new messaging app for teams. :D :(

The broken windows fallacy has an element of coercion or force that's not present in consumer fads. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy fidget spinners in order to live their lives/operate their business. The baker replaces his broken window because it's untenable not to. People buy fidget spinners because they _choose_ to value the spinner more than other goods that they could purchase.

That element of coercion is not necessary to maintain the fallacy. The broken window is merely an analogy for any waste, and the fallacy is trying to justify the creation of waste on the grounds that one can run an economy on dealing with it.

In the end, the fallacy is that "it allows us to run an economy" doesn't actually justify anything.

What is marketing if not coercion?

Not to be confused with Broken Window Theory

It's not 100% fallacy if there's slack in the labour market.

If you have 10 chaps hanging around, all of whom have broken windows, there's a gain in both wealth and employment if some of those chaps get organized and start fixing windows.

To the degree that the novelty is good, keeping otherwise unemployed people active producing novelties is neither a loss nor a waste of time. Of course it doesn't make sense to go around breaking windows to keep the dynamic up, unless breaking windows is enormous fun and gives people lots of utility (which it might!).

More generally, thinking about these things in terms of money rather than wealth, production and consumption (a stock and its positive and negative flows) leads people to faulty intuitions. They're familiar with household budgeting and other situations where money seems tangible. But money is just a way of accounting for the stock, and measuring and transporting the flows. It's the actual wealth, production and consumption that counts.

> there's a gain in both wealth and employment if some of those chaps get organized and start fixing windows.

This is the core of the fallacy. There'd be more net wealth without breaking the window in the first place, leaving the guy free to spend that money on someone else's goods/services, who would cause the exact same amount of growth but you'd still have a window.

Spending that money that would have been spent replacing broken windows elsewhere may even generate jobs for the guys who are slack.

You can never stimulate a growth of wealth by destroying wealth. If you're saying the window is already broken, that's not the broken window fallacy.

I already said that the windows were already broken. And I explicitly said people who would be otherwise unemployed. It's like you didn't read what I wrote.

And if breaking windows is a thing we value in society, then it wouldn't be a bad thing to go around breaking windows and continuously employ people to fix them up again.

The reason I'm stretching it like this is to make "broken windows fallacy" fit fidget spinners and other fads, because that's what's needed to make the analogy work. (You know, the actual topic.)

You can never stimulate a growth of wealth by destroying wealth

I never said you could. People can, however, increase their wellbeing by consuming wealth, and a cycle of consuming wealth and producing wealth is not a waste of time; if breaking windows was beneficial to wellbeing, then it wouldn't be a waste of time to continuously cycle between breaking and repairing windows.

Don't forget that wealth isn't a terminal value anyone is interested in; wellbeing (aka utility) is.

"What a genius idea" - Lord Keynes

It's hard to put my finger on what exactly unsettled me about the fidget spinner craze, but it seems related to this article. All the hype seemed ad hoc. For Beanie Babies, in retrospect, it felt like a coordinated center (the manufacturer/importer and its marketing arm) surrounded by a bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon. Fidget spinners just felt like every click-baiting view-monger jumping in with their hot take. There seemed to be, from the outside, no central brand or centralized messaging. The closest thing to the latter seemed to be the urban legend that these things were good for ADHD, somehow.

Even Baudrillard's hyper-reality seemed to be orchestrated from a center; his assertion that the Europe experience at Disney World was "more real" than Europe itself at least required Disney to have built it.

Spinners just arose out of the background radiation, with no apparent proximal cause.

The reason I hate the fidget spinner is simply the fact that is a useless item consuming massive amounts of resources which will just end up in the trash - after it has consumed attention and money from people.

The amount of plastics and metal that are just going to be thrown away due to them - not to mention their packaging which gets thrown away....

I wish that we could come up with a reasonable way to require standardized non-polluting packaging for literally all the things...

Today's landfills will be tomorrows mines.

Except that the oceans have become our landfills.

> It's hard to put my finger on what exactly unsettled me about

I blame ...

Take a long hard look at many things you take for granted and realise just how barmey they really are, unless you consider how economics works. Planned obsolescence (washing machine falls apart within legislated years + 1 day) is an obvious consequence of wanting sales to be repeated and profit maximisation. Some firms will aim for a different solution to the formula - eg Miele in that space - by pricing high and generally lasting longer but they really dance to the same tune.

To take perceived value to one ridiculous extreme, a Bugatti Vayron costs in the region of £1M and a modern Ford Fiesta costs say £10K. Is a Veyron really "worth" 100 Fiestas? Reduce them to raw materials and compare value or look at the amount of research time that went into each (my money is on comparable or more on the Fiesta). Both can transport near enough the same number of people but the Fiesta (I think) has a bit more room. The Fiesta almost certainly has more boot (trunk) space.

This seeming nonsense with spinners isn't really incomprehensible and we are all complicit. It is the way of the world and always has been, it's just a bit more complicated these days.

... marketing (and lack of incredulity - I'm guilty too)

Someone, somewhere created the first fidget spinner, named it, and marketed it. The fact that you do t know their name maybe just means they did a better job of staying out of the limelight while still profiting from the craze.

There is also the (perhaps more likely) possibility that all three of Thise things were done by different people.

For example the creator makes it and shows it to a few friends, maybe posts pics/vids on the internet. Someone else sees the object and names it the fidget spinner. A third person markets it and begins selling them

She couldn't afford the patent. I don't think she made much money from it.


Her patent doesn't really look like what we think of as a fidget spinner though. It's more like a spinning top.

Even if she could have afforded to renew it back then, it still would have run out before they took off since the article you point to said she invented it 20 years ago.

Why do you assume the original inventor profited from it? It seems at least as likely that they got left in the dust when someone else noticed the potential in their idea and grabbed it -- especially if the main driver behind the craze were Chinese manufacturers, who are not exactly known for their scrupulous respect for intellectual property...

Actually if you look into it you'll find she didn't profit that much from it.

Marbles. Hula Hoops. Water bottle flipping. Yo yos. These fads have spontaneously manifested since at least the 80s with no central control or in some cases marketing campaign - you can't even sell a product with water bottle flipping.

> It's hard to put my finger on what exactly unsettled me about the fidget spinner craze, but it seems related to this article.

I'm 36, don't have a kid, and as such all the fidget spinner craze has passed me with no impact at all, i.e. I don't really care what a fidget spinner does, if it's popular or not. The same goes for the kendana/kendama thing (not sure of its exact name, too lazy to google). They're just kids' games, not sure why talking about them has become so important.

I don't even get how they're supposed to help with ADHD. They require too much attention to use (or I just suck at using them). I've always managed ADHD by doing things that require practically no attention - twirling a pen, doodling without looking, pacing the meeting room, etc.

How long have you used one? I bought one thinking it'd be a fun toy for the gyroscopic effects, but after using it for less than a day, I was able to spin/fidget with it completely absentmindedly using only my off-hand. Previously my method of fidgeting would be fairly destructive, like breaking pens or picking nails. The spinner has had a very beneficial aspect on that, allowing me to fidget in a way that wont cause my fingers to bleed.

"I don't even get how they're supposed to help with ADHD"

They can become habitual to play with but frankly they are no better than lots of other things that move and be twiddled with. If you find doodling without looking distracting or any other coping mechanism works then stick with that.

If you can't get on with something that is supposed to be a "fix" then I suggest that you avoid it and do things that work for you.

Have you used one? I'm not pushing fidget spinners but I've been a pen-twirler since junior high and the spinner is almost the exact same motion with the same amount of attention involved.

I don't know how you've been using them but I think you're making them far more complicated then they need to be.

The same motion? Really? I hold the middle and spin it. Usually it just hurts my nail lol. Guess I am doing it wrong.

> As Osborne learned when she started selling Beanie Babies, middlemen like Joyce are often the ones who turn a fad into a sustainable business that creates jobs.

So the NYT is saying that beanie babies were a sustainable business that creates the ever elusive "jobs". It was sustainable in that it lasted longer, but beanie babies are not still a sustainable business. If the metric of success is ~7 years of business then Maddoff was running a sustainable business.

"Well managed" meaning artificially restricting the supply to create scarcity and inflate prices?

As for disintermediation, there's still plenty of room for travel agents and the like to add value. Sure travelocity, tripadvisor etc exist, but for higher end clients who don't want/can't afford to waste time sifting through pages and pages of data/reviews from anonymous internet people, they can hire someone with experience to do all that, or perhaps someone who has built a reputation of recommending excellent itineraries all around the world. Otherwise, it's nice to have the option to do it yourself much more cheaply and efficiently. That money saved by not hiring an agent can now be put into the vacation package for better airfare, lodging, restaurants, etc.

The money and jobs don't just disappear, they go elsewhere.

Yup, and as usual, a few folks were winners in the beanie baby craze, and the same goes for the travel industry. I can't see a single thing these "middlemen" create in the travel industry that's desirable for the consumer. I'm sorry, I don't need a travel agent to tell me how to find a cool, hip destination overrun with everyone else the travel industry is sending there. They probably sell fidget spinners at the arrivals area, anyway.

It's rise in India is so fast and deep that it's been sold in local trains for 40-50 Indian rupees (~70 cents). Almost everyone from kids to adults in office and park started spinning it for no reason because they saw someone else spinning and it was just cool.

PS: I bought two while in the local train. For me and my wife. A day before that a kid in my flat was showing off his skills and a week after that my 40ish manager was spinning it while walking around. And now I hardly see someone spinning.

This reminds me of the great (I think) star trek TNG episode The Game (I had to look up the name, then felt silly). I imagine you and your wife picking them up just to be able to make it home without being accosted.

Is that the one where Wesley gets addicted and they basically have to do an intervention on him?

Actually Wesley is the only one who doesn't get addicted and [spoilers follow]

they try to force it upon him but Data saves the day at the end.

> 40-50 Indian rupees (~70 cents)

Ha! They sold for CAD$15 around here...

They were selling for $10 AU here and somehow 3 weeks later I got one for free because the craze was dead and somebody has excess stock.

Being patient pays off so often.

I just saw one, with built-in LED lights and a bluetooth speaker(!) on banggood for $1 with free international shipping.

I bet they were also selling for CAD$2 if you go to the right place.

Not all fads are the same. Some are genuinely interesting product lines that just happen to start as a fad, but stick around (Beanie Babies, video games, and Magic: The Gathering). Others are just fads with no legs (Fidget Spinners, Slap Bracelets, and Cabbage Patch Dolls).

Why does Beanie Babies stay around vs Cabbage Patch Dolls? I imagine that's because the marketing and other mechanisms for popularity they mention in the article.

They had to ban slap bracelets because the cheap knock offs weren't sanded down and ended up being sharp pieces of tape measures tape.

The first prototype was built using measuring tape: https://gimletmedia.com/episode/you-have-to-invent-something...

I'm confused... she sold tens of thousands of dollars of fidget spinners, getting on that craze immediately that she heard about it (she had product within 5 days) and knowing that it was a fad that was destined to die out (hardly the first... I remember Tamagotchi's pretty well, and the apparently New Zealand-only Chatter Ring).

I don't think the comparison to TripAdvisor and travel agents is particularly strong, and I think you'd be hard pushed to make the case that thousands of travel agents who'd maybe heard something about the place you wanted to go is better than thousands of reviews and photos from people who've actually been there. TipAdvisor has lots of problems, to be sure, but it's still better than travel agents.

Unrelated to the above, I'm actually excited for the craze to die out. I think I might be one of the people fidget spinners were originally made for. I don't have any problems focusing, but I habitually spin things in my fingers - my iPhone, my wallet (I've worn marks into the leather), pens... It's usually completely unconscious. So I'll be looking forward to trying a fidget spinner once the fad has gone away.

> I'll be looking forward to trying a fidget spinner once the fad has gone away.

If you feel it would be beneficial to try it, why wait until the fad dies before trying one? This seems like it might be an optimal time to have the maximum breadth of choices to find the one(s) you find most helpful.

And the prices have been dropping. My girlfriend got me one recently and I do find it good for keeping me focused if I'm reading or watching something.

> I don't think the comparison to TripAdvisor and travel agents is particularly strong, and I think you'd be hard pushed to make the case that thousands of travel agents who'd maybe heard something about the place you wanted to go is better than thousands of reviews and photos from people who've actually been there. TipAdvisor has lots of problems, to be sure, but it's still better than travel agents.

Do you remember what it was like using a travel agent? That's not what travel agents did. They didn't "maybe hear about a place", they actually went there. Resorts & cruises spent a ton of their marketing dollars to bring travel agents to the resort and get them to experience it first hand.

But most of them hadn't spend 3 months traveling in South East Asia, for example. They knew about the resorts and travel companies that could afford to bring them over and show them a good time. For everything else you had to trust Lonely Planet or something, which was a guaranteed meal-ticket for anyone who could get their business mentioned in there, without the benefit of feedback from the people who've visited recently.

I travel a ton, but I've never stayed at a resort or gone on a cruise, and neither of those things interest me. Travel agents might be useful for getting people to resorts and cruise ships, but that's a tiny fraction of what "travel" means to me (and I suspect/hope to most people).

My stepson went through the fidget spinner phase in about a month, I think he has a dozen of the damn things I keep finding them.

The longest he's stayed interested in anything is a cheap kite I bought him, so I think next year remote control plane.

(off topic sorry) but how about a better kite? A Revolution 4 line is an amazing kite, and stupidly fun to play with and brilliant to watch. And can be launched alone. Highly recommend them, example video - https://youtu.be/sPSyuvCJF4M

So much can (and will) go wrong with an rc plane - another alternative would be a quad?

The reason I thought RC Plane is because of the cool factor and you can get the polystyrene starter kits that can survive a hefty crash plus it's a change to teach him about electronics and we can attack a camera to it.

He also wants to build a robot so I'm thinking something tracked with camera's and sensors.

Nice - planes are great if you have the space - just remember how much time I spent repairing them ;)

Love my quads now - even a hubsan x4 is a great starter - can fly inside and outside - though not big enough to carry weight - anyway, sure you'll get him something cool - lucky kid ;)

> ‘‘Now, in less than half a year, spinners are done,’’ Osborne says. ‘‘I’m moving on to squishies’’ — squishable toys that are also (questionably) marketed as attention aids. ‘‘I think they’ll last at least a few months.’’

As a side note, squishies have been around for a while too, at least since last year. My son is a big fan of them. I'm pretty sure he learned about them from YouTube kids, which sometimes seems like trove of toy commercials. Unlike what Ms. Osborne seems to think, I don't think fads in the future will be any shorter, I think they'll just be created in different ways.

In the late 80s or early 90s there was a stress reliever squishy thing that was pink and had some odd shape.. I want to say like a brain or something. And of course stress balls have been trade show junk for decades.

I think it started on Reddit, someone posted some gif, others asked what it was, and after several months we had craze going on our hands.

I remember specifically how I checked if any Chinese manufacturers where producing it by that time - none. In fact, item in post on reddit was done on some CNC machine.

then all the small-scale importers got on it. These days, it's really easy to move and market your own product small-scale.

I think all other fads will follow this fate - lot's of suppliers, rarely any brandname.

I mean we saw the same thing with "hoverboards" right? There was never a "branded" one, just a bunch of Chinese manufacturer brands.

This week on Hackernews: criticizing big companies for turning toy crazes into huge profits.

Last week on Hackernews: a paean to Wham-O, manufacturers of the hula hoop.

I'm not sure a simple fad like the fidget spinner that explodes out of nowhere is the same as a meticulously marketed toy line.


It may be. It might also be the term that economists use when they talk to each other, to avoid having to go to "Cut Out the Middle Man Conference 2017." Just because someone isn't using a colloquialism doesn't mean they're pretending to be an intellectual.

Is there really a conference about transitioning to direct sales?

What does "IYI" mean?

Google tells me "Intellectual Yet Idiot." The #iamverysmart police seem to need new cover, IMO.

Thanks! For some reason that didn't come up, all I got was an urban dictionary reference that didn't seem in context.

Wonder of this article is the source? https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e...

I think the term was coined by Nassim Taleb https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e...

Same thing happens with twitter lynch mobs. Another day, another victim.

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