Our kids are told to play fair, and that everyone’s a winner, but sooner or later they figure out an irrevocable truth of the real world: being first is everything.
It’s not just about winning a hockey game or conquering an opponent at tennis or getting the highest marks in a test.
We also admire those who figure out how to do something before the rest of us, who figure things out and lead the way, and — in the tech or online worlds — create the things the rest of us might want.
If that person might be called an innovator, we might think of the person in the second position as the early adopter.
They’re essential to the food chain, too; they’re the ones who go in, look under the hood, pass along critiques, make an expert assessment, and then make those crucial decisions about whether the rest of the world needs to know about what they’ve seen.
We don’t have a phrase for the person who’s in third position, but we need to, and there’s a video that I bookmarked long ago that proves this lesson, and a tech expert who quickly identified how the third guy can be a hero.
Sasquatch dance video
In the spring of 2009, a viral video shot around the web that showed a goofy, lanky, shirtless dude having the time of his life while dancing at the Sasquatch music festival in Alberta. Eventually, the scene turned into a huge dance party. It’s how exactly that great group dance happens that fascinates me every time I look at the video.
At first, it’s just our hipster dude, grooving to the song “Unstoppable” by the singer Santigold. Seventeen seconds later (yep, I clocked it), another guy runs up, joins in and thrashes around.
And then … nothing much happens. Or so it seems. For the next 37 seconds, it’s just the two of them, amid what seems like indifference from the folks sitting nearby. You can even see some festival-goers walking by awkwardly.
But everything changes at the 54-second mark, when a boisterous young man leaps into the scene, with hilarious dance moves of his own. Two others eventually join in, then a few more, and within seconds, the crowd is going wild, and it looks like a science experiment, with the colony of dancers doubling in size every few moments.
I wish I could say my insight into what follows is original, but it’s not. Seth Godin, the technology commentator and author, put his finger on what had been bouncing around in my head when I first saw that video.
Seth Godin: Guy #3
“Initiators are rare indeed, but it's scary to be the leader,” Godin wrote in a June 2009 post. “Guy #3 is rare too, but it’s a lot less scary and just as important. Guy #49 is irrelevant. No bravery points for being part of the mob.”
He concluded, “We need more guy #3s.”
Godin’s brief post was one of those things where I felt annoyed, if only because I agreed with every word, and wish I had had the clarity to say it, well, first.
But, a year and a half later, I’ve become more sure than ever that the Third Guy is the unsung hero of the digital universe.
Indeed, it’s the kind of role I aspire to, and on better days think I have.
See, I don’t invent anything. I’m a creator with words, but I don’t see that as my primary purpose.
As a consumer, I’m not as much of an early adopter as some of my friends believe.
I read about new products all the time, but I’m wary about diving head-first into every pool I pass.
It’s not just the sheer expense of buying the untried; it’s just an ingrained part of who I am. I instantly knew the iPad would change everything, but I didn’t buy one for months, and even then, it was a birthday gift for my wife.
I am, however, proud to be an evangelist for things I like, pointing people in directions where I think they’ll enjoy the voyage and suggesting experiences I think they’ll find worthwhile.
The third guys (and gals) are also, when I step back and think about it, the types of people I like to follow on Twitter, whose blogs I read, and whose opinions I respect.
Sure, I keep up with the true innovators, but it’s often filtered through what I’ll call a “third” perspective.
But Seth Godin is right: we need more Number Threes.
We need people willing to turn a sideshow into an attraction, to bring connections to the unconnected, to transform the obscure into the understood.
John Gushue is an editor at CBC News in St. John’s. Find him at johngushue.tumblr.com or @johngushue on Twitter.