Forty-nine. That's the number of times the word "disruptor" appears in my current Condé Nast inbox, referring to, in no particular order: a furniture catalog, a service for hiring contractors, a beauty supplement, and a wide-spanning array of direct-to-consumer home product brands. It's enough to raise the question: If everyone is a disruptor, is anyone really a disruptor?
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Up until recently, the systematic overuse of the word did little more than leave me slightly bemused. I fear, though, that we have now crossed into a true epidemic of disruption.
The final straw, for me, was an email last week touting a new business that promises to "disrupt the candle industry." Yes, amongst that cluster of seemingly harmless, pleasantly scented wax pots adorning your coffee table there just might lie…a disruptor. Watch out, Big Candle.
So just what does this newly ubiquitous term mean, exactly? Well, a search in Merriam-Webster will leave you guessing. That reputable dictionary has an entry for "disrupt" and "disrupter" but, alas, none for the startup founder's preferred form.
Dictionary.com yields similar results, until you scroll down to its "Examples from the Web" section, which cites this hilariously appropriate, if not entirely informative, tidbit quoted from the Daily Beast: "'Most Facebook gaming takes place during the workday,' said Hank Halley, chief operating officer of disruptor Beam."
A disruptor, put simply, is a person or company that threatens to cause significant change or turmoil in an industry that has long gone without it. In today's post-Uber world, though the descriptor is, seemingly, a must-use for any and every company claiming to create a better product, usually sold over the internet and always aimed at those prized millennials (whatever that other vague and wide-spanning term really means).
It's applied in equal measure to products and founders, services and technological innovations, to groundbreaking ideas, certainly, but also to quite a few very mundane ones.
Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of industries that could use some good disruption: cable providers, health insurance, and the Department of Motor Vehicles come to mind immediately. Even the tired (no pun intended) mattress industry was arguably due for the jolt it's seen from the likes of Casper, Leesa, and their competitors in direct-to-consumer sleep sales.
I, myself, have touted many game-changers in fields from e-commerce to carpet sales. But in many cases, it seems the touting of the term "disruptor" often masks the very lack of any disruption actually happening at all; it's a lazy sticker slapped on a mediocre candle/catalog/capsule collection to make it instantly more exciting to the startup set and that mythical millennial consumer.
Consider it the Instagram lens of product marketing: Instead of creating a better, smarter, different product that might actually cause some disruption, companies figure they'll stick the buzzword into their branding and hope the façade holds, just as today's influencer can use one posed, edited moment as evidence of an enviable life.
It's not entirely surprising that we've become a society more prone to procuring buzzwords than putting in the hard work. In an age where fads move at lightning speeds and attention spans are at an all-time low thanks to our newly-gained scrolling habits, you've only got so much time to make an impact.
But there are other ways to make noise. No need to threaten disruption when there is none. Let's tout craftsmanship, quality, or even just plain beauty. When someone comes up with an app that lets me bypass the nightmarish quagmire of setting up a cable and internet package with
Time Warner Spectrum, we'll drag out the disruptor badge of honor. But until then, please, for the love of God, stop disrupting me.
This article was first published by Hadley Keller on Architectural Digest