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Science Finally Explained How Cool Things Become Lame

It's the same thing you figured out in high school.
February 12, 2014, 5:20pm
Sundar with some cool and some uncool tech products. His expert handling of so many tech things at once makes him cool. Image: PSU

You probably realized your iPhone wasn’t cool anymore sometime around the time your grandma got one, but a new Penn State study is here to tell us anyway: “Tech products can turn uncool when they become too popular.”

It’s one of those studies that confirms things you suspected after going to school or work or having any sort of human interaction whatsoever. According to the researchers—and every cool kid in high school—people in subcultures start using a device and it eventually becomes popular. But once something becomes popular and is adopted by the mainstream, its cool-factor plummets.


“Any change to the product’s subculture appeal, attractiveness, or originality will affect the product’s overall coolness,” a super-important measure for those wanting to get laid because of their gadgets.

“It appears to be a process,” said Shyam Sundar, lead author of the study. “Once the product loses its subculture appeal, for example, it becomes less cool, and therein lies the challenge.”

This is just me talking, but it’s probably a similar process to what happened to your former favorite band before your little sister started listening to them and that speakeasy that used to require a password to get in but now has a Yelp page.

To come to this conclusion, Sundar and his colleagues at Purdue University surveyed 315 college students about the “cool” factors of 14 different products, including USB drives and GPS units (super popular, not cool), Instagram and MacBooks (popular but still kind of cool!) and several others that are hidden behind a $36 paywall at the fairly obscure International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (that makes it cool, or maybe just a little sketchy, which, in turn, is kind of cool).

That first study led to a larger one with participants in the US and South Korea, who were able to define the four elements of cool: subculture appeal, attractiveness, usefulness, and originality. Shockingly, the “usefulness” of a given product does not correlate well with its cool factor, which makes sense when you consider something such as high heels, which are cool but not necessarily useful.

Sundar says that, whenever a tech company demos a new product, “the compliment that [it] craves for is ‘This is Cool!,’” which is the same thing I craved to hear when I bleached my hair in middle school.

Anyways, if you want to learn more about the science of cool, shell out for the full study and let me know what’s what.