It’s all around us, from TV to energy and medicine.
But the question remains…
Should we believe the Hype?
Maria Mikova was one of the millions of viewers who sat down in front of their televisions on May 19, 2019. That day marked the final episode of the hit television series Game of Thrones.
It had been building up to that point for almost eight years, when the first episode aired in April 2011. The final episode was the most-watched in the show’s history, with 13.6 million viewers. It marked the end of a series that had brought big-budget fantasy television shows into popular culture.
But for Mikova, what should have been a bittersweet night celebrating a beloved series turned out to be mostly bitter. Mikova is a student attending Mount Royal University and is an executive for Club N3rd, the university’s video game, card game, and media club. For her, that disappointed resignation for the show’s ending had settled in long before the final episode.
“Even before the season was done, most people were angry and disappointed with the show. These weren’t the same characters people had grown to love. We all maybe felt a little foolish, thinking ‘this is what I had been excited for?’” Mikova said.
It was a monumental event, with some viewers being diehard fans, others wanted to see the end of this television giant, and others wanted to witness the series crash and burn in a final, blistering ending. But the root reason for the titanic viewership numbers was hype.
Hype is generally defined as excessive or misleading publicity that is used as a deception. But it also extends to the collective feeling of larger groups of people who gather around an event. It is about capturing the feeling of community. Whether someone wants to feel like they are part of the current zeitgeist, or they are scared of being left out of cultural moments. Hype is a great motivator. It implores people to buy, consume, and participate even if they are not particularly interested in whatever is being hyped.
Hype is often thought of as a media construct, confined to the world of gaming, glamorous movie ads, and frantic online forums, gushing over the next big thing that hasn’t been released yet. But how does hype exist and affect other industries and parts of our lives? Is hype with us when discussing science or medicine? And what role does it play in related industries?
Here in Alberta, one of the latest instances of hype outside of entertainment is the increasing interest surrounding clean hydrogen energy. With our quickly warming climate and the outcry for more viable fuel sources, some in the energy industry have turned to clean hydrogen as a possible alternative to traditional fuel sources, partly because of its abundance in the oil and gas extraction process. But what role does hype play in this situation? Some would say the new push for clean hydrogen isn’t hype, while others remain skeptical. Environmental action groups believe that hydrogen could be a path forward, but issues regarding its production from carbon centric extraction methods and intense interest from fossil fuel giants could damage its ability to be green going forward.
To understand how hype works it’s helpful to start by looking at media, since that is the lens most people view hype through.
Hype in entertainment
Looking back at the previous two or three seasons, it was no secret that Game of Thrones had been declining in quality. For the fandom, the ending was an expected conclusion to a lacklustre back half of the series. Many critics and reviewers panned the final episode, with a rating of 55 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and a viewer score of 30 per cent, with over 14,000 audience ratings.
If a turning point could be identified, it was around season five or six when the showrunners ran out of material to adapt from the book series the show was based on, A Song of Ice and Fire, written by George R.R. Martin.
Despite the souring fanbase, the climactic end to the show was a worldwide event. It would finally provide some form of conclusion for fans of the series who had possibly been waiting for an ending since 1996 when the first Song of Ice and Fire novel was published.
The final episode did not save the show. Instead, its reputation tanked further. This might be an understatement for fans of the show like Mikova, who had been hyped for the final season.
“I really enjoyed the show on its own without anyone else’s influence. But knowing that everyone else was interested in the final season got me excited, and I thought, ‘this is going to be monumental.’ The intense disappointment I felt was so bad that I feel my ability to get hyped may be muted in the future,” Mikova said.
Despite the shaky record of the show up to that point, the final episode attracted the largest audience in the show’s history.
The descending quality of the show and subsequent disappointment of fans could be equated to a phenomenon in businesses models related to hype called the trough of disillusionment, which was coined by Gartner Inc. a research and advisory firm based out of Stamford Connecticut. The term is associated with their hype cycle model.
This trough is the well in which hopes and dreams go to die. It’s when the potential of a product or idea goes to waste and is eventually forgotten about.
Mike Lohaus is the president of the Calgary Game Developers Association and an avid games enthusiast with both personal and professional experience with hype.
Lohaus has worked on several projects and has produced an understanding of the dangers and boons hype can present for media production. Video games and television are not the same media, and production methods won’t line up, but hype is still applicable in all forms of entertainment.
Cyberpunk 2077 is one of gaming’s most recent and high-profile examples of the hype phenomenon. Developed by CD Projekt Red, the game prior to release was touted as a huge innovative leap in the western RPG space with unparalleled customization, personalization, and in-depth interactivity within a dystopian high-tech world akin to Blade Runner.
“I don’t think hype in the general sense of the term, where you are talking about attention, is really a problem. But it is important to not overpromise and underdeliver. We’ve all seen some fairly recent debacles like Cyberpunk in the gaming industry,” Lohaus said.
“The developers knew most likely it wasn’t going to be as innovative or successful as promised. I think honesty and transparency in hype is important. You can’t make your product out to be something it’s not. Don’t promise something you know you might not deliver.”
Another unfortunate example of hype gone wrong that Lohaus points to is the video game No Man’s Sky. Released in 2016, the lead-up to the game saw an astronomical level of hype from its burgeoning fanbase.
Expectations were set to critical levels. There were outlandish promises of infinite procedurally generated worlds that would be fully explorable. Each would offer its own set of perfectly unique experiences.
The promise of unparalleled exploration set many fans into a frenzy, only to be massively let down by the game’s humorously lacklustre release.
Lohaus said it was a result of not managing expectations or the fanbase.
“Part of the balancing act a developer needs to figure out is, ‘how do I build hype around a product, and if I’m going overboard, where do I make sure the consumers get what they were expecting.’ It is a fine line. You want as much attention as possible, but you need to build the product to stand on its own and meet expectations,” Lohaus said.
The trough is one of the key factors of hype. It is sometimes the end result, and the outcome people gravitate to when thinking of hype. But the main point is that it builds communities, and entertainment researchers have dedicated their work to understand how it does so.
Jonathan Gray is a communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the media and cultural studies department. Gray studies audiences and how consumers interact with media products. He has written multiple books, including Show Sold Separately and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality.
Gray’s work is focused on media products as cultural entities and how they are perceived. Perceptions alter the narrative of cultural texts. This includes how hype plays a part in interactions with media.
Gray found in his early studies that the actual text of a movie or show isn’t as important as the narrative created around the product by promotion.
All that extra effort put into promotion means that the audience for a program widens dramatically, even if the person viewing it doesn’t care about the main program itself.
“We probably all know that person who has opinions on things that they haven’t watched. I used to find those people intensely annoying. Now I get it. All of us are getting information from hype. Some aren’t really interacting that much with the program itself. But they’re getting so much from the hype around it,” Gray said.
“You can’t assume that only the only people who interact with Game of Thrones, for instance, are people who have watched Game of Thrones. That is just ludicrous. We are all subjected to it. You know, sometimes you literally can’t do your shopping without seeing Star Wars themed products. It’s not just fans who have a relationship with the main text.”
Hype means that there is a constant presence of popular culture in our lives impossible to escape. And that will leave its mark on people.
Gray recalled times he was grocery shopping when the seventh Star Wars film and the start of the latest trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. He couldn’t escape the phenomenon even at the grocery store. BB8 would be watching him from the produce aisle, compelling him to pay attention to the one-of-a-kind phenomenon that was the new film.
That fear of missing out makes people want to engage in hyped events or buy hyped products, so they are not left out of an important cultural moment. A study from 2017 centred on the fear of missing out, or FOMO and its relation to social media shows the powerful effect the fear of being deprived of a once-in-a-lifetime event will have on an individual. Although the study was mostly concerning social media and group chats between friends, the feeling that permeates social interactions is the fear of being excluded and unable to participate in the latest social event.
Hype is about that desire for a community and Gray said that while it has negative connotations, the thrill of hype is an emotion that keeps people coming back for more and creates bonds between people.
“I remember doing a study of the Lord of the Rings movies fans a year before the first movie came out. The movie had fans before it was even out. And those people were already getting that community aspect. There was this excitement and affective experience of thinking, ‘this thing is continuing,’” Gray said.
“So much of media culture these days is around established franchises and continuing narratives like the Lord of the Rings. Hype isn’t just anticipatory; it allows people a chance to interact and reengage with entities that they perhaps had long been interested in.”
Hype happens in other parts of our economy too. In Alberta, homegrown enthusiasm and hype are growing around the potential of taking advantage of our natural resources and making clean energy from hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a waste by-product of oil and gas extraction and production. Presently it is often used as a feedstock for producing industrial supplies like fertilizer. The gas is plentiful throughout the province’s fossil fuel industry, with two-thirds of Canada’s hydrogen production coming from Alberta.
David Layzell is the director of the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research at the University of Calgary. He is focused on determining how that excess hydrogen can be used in the push to clean and diversify the energy sector. He is also heavily involved in the Edmonton Region Hydrogen HUB.
Layzell said that he wouldn’t categorize hydrogen energy as being hyped right now, but there is a significant push for its recognition in the province.
Hydrogen captured in the oil and gas extraction process could be used in one of two ways. Blue hydrogen energy is the most common use. Here hydrogen is used to produce different industrial products like gasoline. The other use is through green hydrogen energy, where hydrogen becomes the fuel itself.
Hydrogen as a fuel source is attractive because it lacks carbon emissions when burnt.
Numerous companies and organizations in the province have begun the process of drumming up support for clean hydrogen. One of the most notable is the Edmonton Hydrogen HUB. The HUB is made up of 13 partners from all across Canada, including Indigenous and rural community groups.
While the plenitude of hydrogen in our current natural resource output and its potential applications are promising, Layzell said that there are some barriers.
One notable example is that there are virtually no hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road in North America. It would be a tremendous process to make that transition. In Alberta, it would take over 10 years for hydrogen to become widespread as a fuel source for heating homes and other public applications.
While the process will take time, many believe that this isn’t a fad that will die off in a few years.
“If anything, I would say that by looking at the last 20 years since climate change issues started raising their heads, with forest fires and drought, I look forward, I don’t see that getting better and most of the world does as well. The impact of our current energy system is severe. The pressure of finding alternative energy solutions will be greater, not less. So, the opportunity for change will ensure advancements like this are not forgotten,” Layzell said.
Alanna Hnatiw, the mayor of Sturgeon County in central Alberta, also supports this sentiment. Although there is significant economic capital being brought to bear on this investment, the conversation around hydrogen is more about the need for change.
“People are thinking differently about power sources, and there is a general concern around emissions and the environment, air quality, and water quality. Most people agree the future needs to look different from the past,” Hnatiw said.
The newfound interest in a green hydrogen solution has caused wariness among some environmental groups.
Organizations like the National Resource Defence Council, which is an American charity dedicated to safeguarding human environmental rights, have expressed concern over the new push from the fossil fuel industry to try and play a part in this new potential revenue stream.
Blogs and reports from the NRDC have said that the hydrogen push is an attempt from the fossil fuel industry to try and find a lifeline in a green future.
Groups expressing concern say that hydrogen energy and the discourse around it might undermine efforts to decarbonize the worlds economy. Groups like the NRDC have expressed in their reports that there is a path forward for green hydrogen energy, but that it can’t distract from larger environmental goals at stake.
In the process of capturing hydrogen greenhouse emissions are still emitted. This is where concerns among environmental groups lie, not to mention the enormous lobbying efforts from fossil fuel companies, to push hydrogen as an option.
While there may be misgivings within the discourse around hydrogen, Alberta is seeing it go full steam ahead. In June earlier this year. The provincial and federal governments signed a $1.3 billion deal to build a hydrogen plant in Edmonton, stated as being one step in a long road for the province to shift towards clean fuel sources.
The Gartner hype cycle model and hype in business
Entertainment and business examples show that hype doesn’t just affect the consumer. Producers can also feel the effects of hype when it influences business decisions. The promise of profit means hype is a vital marketing and business tool that is utilized in almost every industry.
The Gartner hype cycle model demonstrates the importance hype has across commerce. Created in 1995, the model is a five-step model created by Gartner Inc. a research and advisory firm based out of Stamford, Conn.
Gartner’s hype cycle is a graphical representation of the process technologies goes through on their way to maturity. Its intention is to provide companies with a guideline and timeline for when certain technologies will reach their maturity, maximum productivity, and profitability.
The model is a close visual depiction of the path an individual follows when they are hyped. It starts with a trigger to set someone off on the path of hype, culminating in a peak of expectations that are often irrational or inflated, followed by a crash into the aptly named “trough of disillusionment.” What comes next is uncertain and not always guaranteed. According to the model, there will be a slope of enlightenment and then a plateau of productivity. This will be the product coming into its own and gaining profit after full adoption.
Looking back 10 years, multiple technologies have now gone through the entire process of the model. An example of the model working is e-readers. In 2011 Gartner listed e-readers as residing within the trough of disillusionment on the model, but now e-readers are immensely popular and widely utilized, often supplanting traditional physical books. This shows that the model works as described, sometimes.
Certain technologies never make it out of the trough of disillusionment. One example is gesture recognition technologies. Gesture recognition technology is the ability for an individual to control the inputs on screen by having sensors pick up their movement and have the on-screen interaction react appropriately. An example would be waving one’s hand to move a page on screen when reading something without ever physically touching the screen.
Entertainment applications would extend to the Wii, Xbox Kinect, and PlayStation Move. This technology was at the peak of the cycle in the mid to late 2000s when the Wii was a hot commodity. Microsoft and Sony both tried to capitalize on the success with their own iterations.
Both ended in failure, with Microsoft seeing the worst effects in 2013 when the Kinect was bundled with the new Xbox One model, inflating the price in comparison to the new PlayStation 4, which had already ditched the Move.
In 2011, Gartner listed gesture recognition technology as being in the trough of disillusionment. It could be argued that specific technology never made it out of the trough.
Although specific games and franchises aren’t necessarily applicable to the Gartner model as it specifically deals with innovative technologies, the terms used within that model could accurately define what people feel. Especially when experiencing hype in the sphere of gaming and other forms of entertainment as described with the gesture recognition phase of gaming.
Mike Lohuas’ professional experience makes him keenly aware of how hype may be steering his feelings. A recent example of gaming hype that Lohaus was caught up in was Cyberpunk 2077.
Upon release, the game left quite a bit to be desired. On less powerful platforms like the Xbox One, the game was virtually unplayable. Cyberpunk 2077 garnered widespread criticism for failing to deliver on its promises.
Lohaus was drawn into the hype, and while the game didn’t live up to expectations, it wasn’t necessarily wallowing in the trough of disillusionment for him.
“I bought Cyberpunk, and I enjoyed it, but I felt like the hype around the game was not what I got. Did I still enjoy the game? Yes, but it wasn’t what I expected. I also knew that might be the case. There were red flags along the way,” Lohaus said.
Gartner’s model isn’t perfect for technological measurements or personal ones. The model has seen criticism for its lack of empiricism in the examination of technology and its use of vague terms like disillusionment and enlightenment.
In 2010 a study performed by Martin Steinert and Larry Leifer took a close look at the model and the technologies that had passed through it. They concluded that the model had methodological and procedural inconsistencies.
The study measured 46 technologies over nine years, with only six technologies managing to stay in the model over that time.
One technology listed that never made it out of the trough was broadband internet over power lines or BPL for short. BPL was a method of power line communications that allowed relatively high-speed digital data transmission. Widespread use of the technology was eventually considered inadvisable due to many points for possible failure compared to other forms of internet services. Interference and signal degradation were common points of friction, with power lines having no inherent noise reduction systems. The study found that from 2003 to 2005 the technology was on the rise and then peaked, only to fall into the trough by 2006 and never recover three years later.
Jakki Mohr is a professor of marketing at the University of Montana. Mohr is an expert in high tech marketing and said that while the Gartner hype cycle is a relevant model that is used to steer the decision making for innovation within large corporations, there shouldn’t be an assumption it will always measure innovation accurately.
“This is not a prescriptive model that a company is supposed to follow. It is a descriptive model, and as a result, there will be evidence that is consistent with assumptions about how hype will work out, and there will be evidence that will be inconsistent,” Mohr said.
As for how this model affects the consumer Mohr said that it’s important to remember there are two types of consumers, ordinary people who buy on the market and investors that spend millions of dollars investing in technologies like artificial intelligence.
“Those companies investing in that technology are the primary driver for what is happening with these technologies. Yes, we consumers might buy them in the future. But really, it is companies resting their businesses’ interest in these investments that pay attention to the hype cycle,” Mohr said.
Venture capitalists will want to invest when products are at the peak of hype and popularity, while large-scale investors will look for technologies that are advancing up the slope of enlightenment.
The average person won’t have much involvement in the Gartner hype cycle until companies have determined a technology’s place on it, and whether they are comfortable with their investments. An example could be huge tech companies like Google or Apple heavily investing in AI technology.
The effects of hype on the consumer may change when moving into other industries, however.
Hype and the scientific community
Science and its regimented way of thinking and operation may seem to preclude it from the presence of hype as advancements are on a much longer time scale where the outcomes are not assured or immediately identifiable.
But the promise of miracle technologies and starry-eyed aspirations for the future means hype is more real than one might realize.
A study on conservation pilot projects published in 2018 demonstrates the damaging effects of hype on the psyche of an individual. These case studies focus on REDD plus, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, specifically focused in Tanzania.
In Tanzania, the REDD readiness phase was between 2009 and 2014, where $80 million was invested into the country’s program.
Trust built up between project coordinators and the local citizens were washed away by the project failing to deliver on its goals. The program was initially perceived as a win-win for all involved and would solve the Tanzanian government’s forestry issues. Several officials stated they believed the forests would be safe from deforestation because of REDD, and their economies could use the newly protected resources as major income sources.
Often the early stages of innovation set unreasonable expectations that lead the way for hype. In the case of REDD, villages involved set “communities of expectations” where it was believed their homes would be developed and they would receive payments for their participation. Ultimately, payments did not continue as expected, and there was a profound sense of disappointment among some residents.
Negative examples like this can be found across science, but it is not all destined to end in disappointment.
Tara Roberson is a researcher at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems. Roberson has examined hype and communication in science through her work on quantum engineering. While the perception is that hype is often negative, there are bright spots where hype brings awareness to new technologies and innovations, allowing it to grow.
Roberson points to NASA and space exploration as an example of hype gone right. It ties into the problem of keeping interested up over long-term time frames. Keeping people interested means it is within the media’s attention, and funding keeps coming in.
“I do really think that something like NASA is a good example of how you can use stories and science fiction to create these narratives that justify blue sky work that otherwise might not be funded or thought of as valuable,” Roberson said.
Despite success stories, Roberson recognizes the need to find a middle ground. Expectations should be kept reasonable without inflating them to the point backlash will happen.
“It’s a bridge-burning moment. When you ask people for financial or social capital. When you hype something, and you’re saying, ‘I’m going to deliver these outcomes.’ If you either fail to deliver the outcomes, or you fail to moderate your message, what you’re doing is damaging those relationships,” said Roberson.
An example of people who seek moderation in hype or look to monitor its outcomes is a Twitter group called Bullshit Quantum. The group regularly keeps track of advancements and posts on their social media channels stating whether a new claim is “bullshit” or not. It is a community of watchdogs forming around hype to keep the field honest.
Hype in medicinal technologies
Medicine and medicinal technology might not be a place where one would think hype is present, but it can mirror scientific hype quite closely because of advancements being on a much longer time scale. Fiona Clement, the director of the Health Technology Assessment Unit at the University of Calgary, she said hype has a real presence within the world of medicine.
The Health Technology Assessment Unit is operated by researchers and scientists who examine newly introduced medical technologies and determine whether they should be adopted into the healthcare system.
They determine the safety of the technology, its cost, viability, and most importantly, how it will improve patient health.
Clement said that she sees hype constantly through her work. Oftentimes it doesn’t play out how it was originally imagined.
“Often, there is a lot of excitement about new technologies and treatments. And as we study them more over longer periods, it doesn’t turn out to be as beneficial or as big of a breakthrough as we hoped,” Clement said.
Medicinal technologies and breakthroughs undergo rigorous testing as they deal with the possible life or death of patients. For that reason, hype and its flighty nature do not often mesh with the industry.
Some of the technologies the Health Technology Assessment Unit has examined are surgical meshes for stress urinary incontinence and offloading devices for diabetic neuropathic foot ulcers.
Because of the lengthy process for approval, initial trials of medicine or technology are often met with the fervour that this may be the next big thing or breakthrough. In reality, once more tests are performed, the results are less striking. Medicine is not entertainment, and it exists on a much longer timeline than the minute attention spans of the average fandom or entertainment enthusiast.
“In some of my circles, we often joke about the game-changing drug, a truly revolutionary step forward, in the way that we understand the disease and thus can treat it. Those really big steps forward are rare. Really rare. So, I would say most of the time, we’re talking about quite incremental changes, not game-changing,” Clement said.
Promises of a breakthrough for suffering patients can have a real negative effect on their mental wellbeing.
“You can imagine it is probably a bit of a roller coaster for a patient. There’s this drug that’s put out there. And there’s a lot of excitement. People think, ‘oh my god, this could change my life,’ and then it just doesn’t happen. It’s quite emotionally taxing,” Clement said.
In Canada, there are positive steps to prevent patients and consumers from being drawn into hype. Direct to consumer advertising is not allowed here in Canada under advertising under Canada’s food and drug regulations. This stops so-called “miracle drugs” from being directly advertised to consumers.
But Clement also said that marketing to physicians, which Clement called academic detailing, should have tighter rules than are already in place. This is when industry partners will go to physicians and discuss new drugs or technology. This could be tied back to compensation models between tech companies and physicians that could create awkward situations. It has already changed a lot since Clement first entered the field.
“Back when I was doing my PhD, which was about 15 years ago, you would get trained on technologies in Hawaii for a week at the expense of the technology maker. That isn’t allowed anymore, which is good.”
While there are stricter rules in place for that kind of practice today, hype and the relationship between the physicians, the producers, and the patients aren’t completely devoid of possible heartache.
The hype train rolls on
Back in more humble and quaint entertainment matters, Maria Mikova sat down to watch the video game company Nintendo released one of their latest “directs.” They are designed to provide bite-sized news for upcoming releases and annual updates.
Mikova said that she’ll still eagerly await whatever comes next in the hype train, despite the disappointment of Game of Thrones.
“I now think in the back of my mind, these products are being designed to make a profit, so my enjoyment isn’t guaranteed. If I enjoy myself, that’s great. If it’s bad, it’s bad. Some games made by Nintendo are coming out soon, and I believe they will be good, but they may still be underwhelming,” Mikova said. From FOMO to disillusionment, Game of Thrones to hydrogen, hype will have its impact on Calgarians for years to come. It’s only a matter of what comes next in the hype cycle.