Technology, Adoption and Diffusion of

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Although not originally designed as such, diffusion of innovations has proven to be an important theory for explaining the dynamics of communication. Diffusion of innovations is a theory originally designed to explain how change agents influence social processes. It has become a theory used to address how a technology or technological artifact becomes adopted, what forces affect the adoption process, and how proponents of a given technology or artifact may better influence the adoption process. The theory addresses how new ideas and technologies are communicated, evaluated, adopted, and reevaluated.

Foundations of Diffusion Theory

Diffusion of innovations is important to the study of communication because of its focus on process and what factors influence the process of communication. Specifically, diffusion is conceptualized as the process by which an innovation is communicated through channels over time among the members of a particular audience. Innovations are ideas, practices, or objects perceived as new by members of that particular audience. Thus, the theory addresses how knowledge is strategically managed to create specific effects on particular audiences.

While not using the terms of the theory as they are known today, Gabriel de Tarde (a French sociologist and legal scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) has been credited with the initial conceptualization of diffusion of innovations. Tarde (1903) observed many of the key factors of the theory, including the influence of public-opinion leaders as change agents upon social systems, the role of socioeconomic status as a factor affecting interpersonal diffusion, and the basic S-shaped model of innovation adoption over time. Anthropologists recognized the significance of this model and began to use it in attempts to explain processes of social change.

The Iowa hybrid seed corn study conducted by Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross (1943), however, is considered to be the event that clarified the practicality of diffusion of innovations for explaining the process of large-scale social influence. The initial Ryan and Gross study was designed to explain why hybrid seed corn was readily adopted by some farmers while many others were much slower to adopt the product. The foundation of diffusion of innovations as it is presently known is a by-product of this study, and the theory retains the basic components of that foundation in modern, diverse applications.

Preindustrial society in the United States was very slow to change. As people moved to cities from rural America and as diverse international populations immigrated to the United States, pockets of innovative ideas began to emerge. Modern industrial society provided technological advantages in production that aided in the establishment of an infrastructure for further technological development. Technological advancements became very evident in agriculture, particularly in the United States, during the period preceding World War II. Technological growth coupled with the concerns of an economic depression encouraged the development of a hybrid of corn that was particularly resistant to the harsh agricultural climate of the 1930s. While resistant to drought and disease, however, the hybrid corn did have a drawback; it could not reproduce. Therefore, farmers would have to buy new seed for each planting season. Why, then, would farmers invest in what many perceived to be such a risky venture when the stakes were already so high during the Great Depression?

Why and how the innovative seed was adopted was the concern of agricultural researchers who were supported by the government and backed by land grants. Did farmers respond to the pitches of company salespeople, the brochures produced by early cooperative extension agents, information provided in print and radio broadcasts, or their neighbors? As it turns out, farmers responded to all of these channels. Although initial information tended to be provided by individual seed company salespeople, most influence tended to come from within the farming community. In other words, in the early stages of hybrid seed corn (innovation) adoption, many attempts to influence the adoption process affected only a few farmers. As a few farmers became successful and endorsed the use of the hybrid seed corn, they became opinion leaders who influenced even larger numbers of their neighbors in the adoption process (diffusion). Mass communicated messages proved effective in influencing the early stages of adoption, but interpersonally communicated messages proved more effective during the widest range of diffusion. Thus, what was learned from the Ryan and Gross study is that the mass media helped to draw attention to the innovation, create a deeper awareness of the potential of the seed corn, and define the product as important to particular opinion leaders who would act as change agents for their communities. Diffusion of the hybrid seed corn would not work, however, without an ordered structure of social and media contacts that work together in establishing clear patterns of interaction among salespersons and neighbors.

What has been learned as a result of the Iowa hybrid seed corn study and subsequent research into diffusion of innovations is that those innovations that are actually adopted tend to follow a very distinctive pattern as their use in society increases. That pattern of adoption develops as an S-shaped curve. The shape of the curve represents the tendency of a few individuals within society to adopt the innovation initially. These individuals have a low threshold of resistance to the potential innovation. In other words, those people who are involved in the earliest stages of the process require little persuasion to consider adoption of a potential innovation. The mass media and interpersonal contacts may make relevant important information concerning the potential innovation for these earliest adopters. Therefore, under the assumptions of diffusion of innovations, awareness of the product or idea does not occur incidentally. The innovation is intentionally brought before an audience for consideration. If the product or idea maintains the interest of these individuals, they then must evaluate it for its potential usefulness. Adoption increases rapidly as those who adopt early are successful in persuading others to do so. The rapid rise of adoption begins to decline as the adoption process reaches a "critical mass," or a point when the diffusion process becomes self-regulating.

A second basic curve consistently appears in the diffusion process. According to researcher Everett Rogers (1995), those who play a role in the adoption process fall relatively neatly into a normally distributed bell-shaped curve. True "innovators" are those who make up approximately 2.5 percent of the population of adopters, and they fall beyond the earliest second standard deviation of the curve. Those who may be considered "early adopters" comprise about 13.5 percent of the population, and they fall between the second and first standard deviation of the curve. The widest range of those who take part in the diffusion of an innovation fall within the first standard of deviation above and below the mean or average phase of adoption; these are the "early majority" and "late majority" of adopters. This segment is approximately 68 percent of the population of adopters. All remaining participants in the adoption process, about 16 percent of the population, are the "laggards."

Application of Diffusion Theory

Rural sociologists maintained an interest in the application of the diffusion of innovations for explaining why and how agricultural innovations are adopted. Those interested in communication research, however, not only apply this theoretical framework to the adoption of the technology itself; they also are interested in the diffusion process as a form of communication independent of the types of innovations that may be adopted. The three general areas of interest include (1) the innovation-decision process, or first knowledge of and confirmation of the innovation, (2) innovativeness, or the degree to which an individual is relatively early as an adopter of a potential innovation, and (3) the actual rate of adoption by early adopters as compared with other members of a social system. The diffusion process is considered to be defined by communication among similar individuals because diffusion is conceptualized as depending on a social system. Thus, many are interested in the types of people who adopt at different times along the diffusion process. Furthermore, diffusion occurs at different rates due to the interests of different social systems in a potential innovation. Because different innovations are adopted at different rates, unique groups or families of S-curves representing the rate of adoption have emerged. For example, the rate at which the telephone initially was adopted was much slower than the rate at which present-day personal telecommunication devices are adopted.

Another key assumption of diffusion of innovations is that it is not the actual innovativeness of an idea, product, or process that is important, but it is the perception of innovativeness that matters for members of the social system. Even perceived innovativeness may be insufficient to encourage adoption and diffusion. The trial stage in which the potential innovation is actually used is very important to the diffusion process. The diffusion process will end at this stage if the benefits of the innovation do not outweigh the costs. As noted previously, the adoption process must reach the stage of critical mass for many technologies to prove successful for all adopters. If initial adopters do not perceive the utility of the innovation for both the self and for the wider social system, the practicality of the innovation may be called into question and the adoption process will be terminated. Beta personal video products were not as successfully marketed in the United States as were VHS products; thus, VHS established the critical mass necessary to encourage diffusion via the movie rental market. While Apple computers were marketed successfully to U.S. school systems, and thus began to establish a critical mass of individuals who would grow up using and buying Apple computers, Microsoft has been much more successful in establishing the critical mass of software users worldwide to control much of the computing innovations market. The potential for telecommunications via the personal computer has further justified the diffusion of computing innovations. The commercial utility of the Internet, a relatively old technological process in relation to present-day telecommunications, has created the need for the establishment of a critical mass for various new social systems for the diffusion of new communication products and processes. Just as with the initial adoption of the telephone, the practical utility of communication technologies is nonexistent without the acceptance of a wider audience of adopters. Thus, social systems are persuaded to accept social change and encouraged to adopt potential innovations for the benefit of those who have perceived that making the initial investments in a given technology are worth the risks.

The nature of merging technologies, and thus merging social systems, confounds simple assessment of the diffusion of innovations. Early research indicated that social systems concentrated in cities were more likely to rely on mass media in the diffusion process than those who lived in rural areas, who would rely more on interpersonally communicated information in deciding to accept an innovation. The capabilities of modern telecommunications have blurred the lines of geography, as well as the lines separating mass-mediated and interpersonally communicated information; therefore, identifying specific social systems becomes much more problematic. Furthermore, the layering of the utility of technologies within technologies confounds the ability to determine the rate of adoption for communication systems. Nevertheless, the diffusion of innovations has become an important and useful theoretical perspective for analyzing the effect of communication technologies.

Broad Scope and Appeal of Diffusion Theory

Diffusion of innovations research continues to be a diverse endeavor. Recognizing that diffusion theory is used primarily to explain what has already occurred, some researchers have attempted to create modifications of the theory that would allow its use as a tool for predicting the process of innovation adoption. Thus, diffusion of innovations may provide predictive as well as descriptive analyses of communication events.

Evidence of the effect of diffusion of innovations may be found in a variety of research contexts and disciplines. Diffusion of innovations is a theoretical perspective that has been widely accepted in marketing research. For example, some have noted that marketing research may be ignoring the difference in the adoption of "continuous" innovations versus the adoption of "discontinuous" products. Other contexts where diffusion of innovations theory is represented in research literature include the adoption of health and social services.

In general, the major effect of diffusion of innovations is due to its focus on process. Diffusion of innovations allows communication scholars to focus on the effect of specific channels of communication. The effect of channels influences the process of diffusion and subsequent degrees of adoption of an innovation.

Three important characteristics of the theory appear evident. First, diffusion of innovations truly is a multidisciplinary theory. Second, the theory is pragmatic by definition. In other words, the theory responds well to different research contexts. In fact, the theory, in addition to adapting well to context, depends on context—which is the third characteristic in the contextual nature of the theory. These characteristics may be at once benefits and deficiencies for communication scholars. Diffusion of innovations, as a theoretical perspective, does not belong to communication researchers. The identity of the theory necessarily is diffused into a myriad of specialties. Yet while diffusion of innovations enjoys great popularity beyond the realm of communication research, those interested in the study of communication should find the application of this theoretical perspective practical for the analysis of mass-mediated and interpersonally oriented social systems.

See also:Diffusion of Innovations and Communication; Internet and the World Wide Web; Marketing Research, Careers in; Public Health Campaigns; Social Change and the Media.


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Martin L. Hatton

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