What do Internet links and Dilbert cartoons have to do with fashion?

Just ask Judith Donath, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. She contends that the spread of links, symbols, and objects that people display online and in the real world shed light on how and why fashion trends emerge, spread and fade away.

“I’m working on an underlying theory of why this happens,” explained Donath, who joined the MIT faculty in 1998, after taking a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences at the institute a year earlier. More broadly, Donath has harnessed the power of the Internet to trace and analyze the popularization of trends such as fashion, music and language by following the flow of information that underpins them.

“The work I’ve done shows the word ‘fashion’ is used in a lot of different ways,” Donath said. “What I have been interested in is fashion as the signal of an underlying quality. For instance, if what you’re signaling is, ‘I am very stylish,’ the way you signal that is different every year.”

WWD: What does the Web tell us about the way fashion trends spread in a knowledge-driven society?

Donath: Well, for one thing, it spreads extremely rapidly. With clothing, there are a certain number of brakes put on how quickly trends spread, because it takes time to manufacture and it doesn’t wear out instantly. What we’re first starting to see is an increasing demand for rapidly changing styles as well as [apparel marketers’] increasing ability to keep up with [it].

You can look at the links on blogs as being a style of fashion, where you have trendsetters who might first start to write about a story. Then you can start tracing through the community the people who are essentially the fashion followers — in terms of links and topics — [who] start to write their own version of the story. And then the leaders have to come up with a new story of the day.

So, today you see at a very rapid rate the same kind of imitation and [subsequent] differentiation that [economist and social commentator] Thorstein Veblen was writing about at the turn of the 20th century.

This story first appeared in the September 1, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD: What was Veblen’s thesis based on? What was changing then?

Donath: Both Veblen and sociologist George Simel discussed styles in beards, clothing; that there would be people who would do something to display they had high [socioeconomic] status. And as the middle class started to imitate whatever that display was, [the style leaders] were driven to differentiate themselves.

WWD: How do the spread of icons and links online and the spread of apparel trends dovetail?

Donath: Certainly there’s a conversation [about fashion] online. I think they see it on the street, in videos and in movies a little bit more than on the Web per se. But the Web is…another place where this type of information gets played out. And if we look at society as a whole, on the Web we can see how fast these [information] trends are changing.

The dynamics of the fashion industry are different from something like links and blogs, where it’s not purely about what people see and who they imitate.

WWD: You’ve noted the dynamics of links and blogs are different in the way they spread — how so?

Donath: With blogs, information is spread directly from person to person. It’s a closed world [in which information spreads] because of particular technologies — how search engines and linking systems work.

In the fashion world, there are multiple dynamics that underlie how someone ends up in a particular outfit. It’s not strictly person to person. There’s the mass media, the manufacturer.

WWD: You’ve written that an action such as posting a Dilbert cartoon in one’s office could be viewed as fashion. Is it an expression of personal style? What is it about that that makes it fashion?

Donath: What I’m talking about is less about an expression of personal style. Something might resonate within a society at a given time, but then people also see someone who they think is interesting do a certain thing, or that that person likes [certain] things. And that will make them [think] ‘I like the way this person presents themselves. So I can take this part of their presentation and do that.’”

WWD: Isn’t how a person presents herself personal style?

Donath: Yes. But what I’m saying is the [social dynamic of] fashion is the imitation. So, if I find a strange and intriguing object and display it, that’s not really fashion. But if I display it and…there are people around me who want to appear like me — and then they put up similar objects — then that’s getting into fashion. Then, if I start thinking this object I thought was so cool is mundane, everyone’s got it, I’m going to put this away, that’s differentiation. And I’ll put something else up.

WWD: Does this mean almost anything could spread in a fashion-driven dynamic — any kind of activity or form of expression, as long as there’s an element of imitation involved?

Donath: Yes.

WWD: How would you distinguish those forces from Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point principle?

Donath: He’s interested in the explosion [of a trend]: A couple of things have happened [a small share of people with a passion for knowledge have shared it] and now everyone is doing this. I’m interested in how people are using [trends] to structure a social hierarchy. There are many hierarchies.

One of the things that is different in contemporary social research than in Veblen’s time is Veblen was talking more about a single hierarchy, where you could look at a very regimented class structure. Today, we realize [there’s] a multiscaled structure, [within] a huge overlying class structure. Even within a high school, there are going to be different groups, and they might have their own fashion hierarchies that are about how you prove your authenticity as someone who’s very cool or very alternative or very smart.

You could look at this as individual groups; it could be countrywide. They can be at very different scales. So the notion of explosive growth is not as important.

WWD: What is the distinction you’re drawing between a hierarchy that has different levels and a multilevel class structure?

Donath: Much of fashion can be looked at as a way of establishing position within a hierarchy. You can step back and look at what women are wearing in America over this decade and you can see some big trends. You can also see it at the level of an individual group of Goth girls in a high school who might have their own very intense fashion cycles and systems for someone saying: “I’m the most authentic of us.” That might change what she does, what she wears and how she looks month by month, but it’s a very small universe.

WWD: How do you harness the power of the Web and the knowledge it brings to you to help track these types of patterns you’re talking about?

Donath: What I can do with the Web is observe how a piece of information moves through a group of people and when it starts moving outside of that.

WWD: How has the Web changed the nature of how trends are tracked?

Donath: If I want to look at links as fashion, I can trace enormous numbers of them. I can time-stamp them. The [rapid] rate at which we can look at this type of diffusion is unprecedented. It gives us enormous power to observe that dynamic.

WWD: Do you find the use of icons and links varies quite a bit within different communities online? For example, you’ve found at the GeoCities sites there is more fashion representation and symbolism in one community, Heartland, than others.

Donath: I think that is quite typical. I’m interested in to what extent we can say that’s because it is a more dynamic social structure, in which information plays a more important role. If you have a group where people are continuously jousting to be the highest-status person, you will find a lot more of that type of [fashion] symbol or sign. Whereas, in one where there’s a fairly static system, it is not going to be as important.

You can look at places like high schools, where there’s a very active social structure and a lot of energy goes into people finding a particular niche and trying to establish their status within it — and there’s an enormous amount of attention paid to changing fashions and the right thing to do. It might seem like a minute difference to an outsider’s eye, but it’s going to be very important to the people participating in it.