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The Envy Effect: How Friendly Competition Spurs Innovation

Think all the banter on Twitter and in blog comments is for naught? Here's how social envy and the competition of ideas it generates will lead to faster innovation.


Jason Fidler has posted a very interesting rebuttal to my recent blog post on the envy effect. I originally argued that the e-social revolution will likely lead to more competition among people, because increasing transparency makes it easier to compare attributes.

Fidler suggests my argument is flawed because competition for pay (and other things in the economic world) is based on actual transparency, while competition for social media dominance is based on "selective" transparency. In other words, we are transparent in social media only to the point we permit ourselves to be, choosing either to disclose or not to disclose different personal attributes.

Moreover, he says, the economic comparisons required by the SEC led to actual improvements in CEO pay, while "it is safe to assume that few have truly better personal lives because of their activity on social networks."

I definitely agree that we can usually choose what things we disclose to others in social media. Of course, once we’ve made the choice, it’s not possible to reverse it. You can’t take it back. As one blogger famously said, "Dude, you can’t take something off the internet. That’s like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool."

But as to whether the competitive urge is or is not stimulated by social media, I stand my ground.

If social media didn’t stimulate the competitive juices, then what could possibly have motivated a rebuttal?

The back-and-forth between my initial post and the responses, along with the associated tweets and other status updates, is nothing more than a competition of ideas as we collectively wrestle to the ground a somewhat tricky analogy between the economic domain and the social domain.

On the other hand, Fidler’s thoughtful perspective highlights something very useful about envy itself.

Scientists think that human beings probably evolved to feel envy because those who most carefully observed the traits and actions of other, more successful people were able to to imitate them and thus to be more successful themselves.

So if the e-social revolution does, in fact, allow people to make faster and more detailed comparisons of their own thoughts and perspectives with those of others (just like Fidler’s take on my original post), then social envy and the competition of ideas that it generates will lead to faster innovation.

A more envious species will be a more innovative species, because success will be copied and imitated faster, and good ideas will be more quickly improved.

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  • Steve Boller

    This was interesting! My reaction is that the accelerated flow of ideas is often more than our brains can handle and process. The challenge appears to be finding a balance between focusing on our own endeavors, then reacting and responding to what other people have been doing. Characterizing this as “envy” seems like it could be negative, since envy is often a counterproductive emotion.

    Creativity is a combination of focused originality and blatant plagiarism.

  • Don Peppers

    Jason, my feeling is that companies have to walk a very fine line between promoting competition among their own employees to spur innovation and better performance, and promoting teamwork and collaboration.  One solution some companies use is to get teams to compete with other teams within the organization.  We've suggested that kind of strategy at some large companies trying to change their cultures to become more customer-friendly, for instance.  

    And Zara, your point about the difference between incremental product improvement and breakthrough innovation is well taken.  But genuine breakthroughs are still usually spurred by some individual's creative juices having been stimulated by a combination of ideas from different and often unrelated domains.  As Matt Ridley has said, new ideas can only hatch when old ideas get together and "have sex" to spawn them.  

  • Kara Zarate Kneen

    Agreed, good ideas will certainly be improved upon quickly. But great ideas that transform & alter mass human experience will remain a mystery. A more envious species will be a species that continually improves upon
    the same old ideas & thoughts. But no matter how innovative, the
    best version of the same old thing rarely revolutionizes how we
    experience life. Revolutionary innovation isn't copied. 

  • Jason Fidler

    Very good point Don, and unfortunately my envy can not produce another rebuttal! As social networks continue to strive to reflect actual human society online, I suppose in terms of envy we will see the worst get worse (e.g. competition over things like number of Facebook friends) and the best get better (e.g. the collaboration and communication of ideas).  A question regarding the latter, particularly pertinent to Fast Company is: How do companies tap into social envy in order to spur innovation in areas such as product improvement, design, etc.?