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Disruption: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

· September 19, 2012

This weekend was the First Annual (hopefully!) XOXO Festival.  XOXO was a conference that brought together artists and technologists to share their experiences participating in what has been described as a new economy, in which creativity is supported and crowdfunded, with the help of online tools and platforms.  Several XOXO write-ups have explored this theme, including this New York Times post and this Wired post.

XOXO appeared to be concerned with disruption; the XOXO website used the word “disruptive” in the first line of its description:

XOXO is an arts and technology festival celebrating disruptive creativity. We’re bringing independent artists who use the Internet to make a living doing what they love together with the technologists building the tools that make it possible.

The night before the conference started, Andy Baio, one of the XOXO creators, apparently tried to de-emphasize disruption.  One participant tweeted that Baio said “This is about disintermediation not disruption.”  Another participant toward the end of the conference tweeted an interesting reflection, that panelists’ experiences suggested disruption was an unintended means to an end: “Theme over and over is: disrupt distribution as an accidental side effect. Most didn’t set out to not use traditional channels.”  This particular tweet caught on, and was retweeted by participants such as Tim O’Reilly.  Disintermediation is not itself disruption, but disintermediation occurs by relying on alternative platforms for distribution, which are disruptive to existing methods.  One frequent type of disintermediation occurs through crowdfunding, often using Kickstarter, and then distributing directly, which is uniquely advantageous but does come with some unexpected burdens, as this recent New York Times article described.

There was another quip on disruption that seemed to resonate with people, and it is representative of a broader problematic misuse of the term “disrupt.”  One of the panelists in the CASH Music presentation asserted that disruption/being disruptive is easy, while fixing things is what’s really hard.  This line was tweeted by eight different accounts, and then retweeted and favorited by dozens more.  (For various paraphrases of the quote, see: @erinw, @kccr, @hesketh, @heskethdotcom, @alisonhallett, @nyergler, @benwerd, ‏@xor.)  Anil Dash — who was XOXO’s FOMO-preventing/JOMO-encouraging hero for live-blogging all the panels — was able to expand on that tweet-worthy soundbyte in his live blog of the panel.  According to Dash’s notes, the panelists remarked that:

“Disruption” has been oversold – it’s as easy as shouting “fire” in a crowded room. But fixing things is what’s really hard. The innovations of the tech industry can save creative industries and keep supporting artists, and this can be a start, not an endpoint, to building new systems that work.

I do not entirely disagree, but consider these critiques:  First of all, disruption is not always, if ever, easy.  Disrupting an industry requires skilled managers who know the business rules and when to break them, such as shifting resources to produce at a lower cost even when it is not clear that a product will be immediately popular with consumers, and truly visionary designers and engineers who can solve physical and technological constraints.  That’s a challenge.  Second, disruption and fixing things are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, disruption often is the way that things are fixed, as disruptive innovation reinvigorates competition in the market, to ultimately benefit the consumers by providing more options at lower prices.  Finally, the above-described shouting may be a disruption under one definition, like a child being called disruptive for acting out in class.  But the appropriate meaning of disruption in the business world is the disruptive innovation theory coined by Clayton Christensen in his seminal book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

This mischaracterization also allows me to make a broader point about disruption.  Dear Silicon Valley startups:  I know you want VCs to give you money and tech blogs to give you press, and maybe you have some great ideas, but sorry, you’re probably not disruptive.  One representative example is this recent tweet that proclaimed: “New startups are disrupting older startups: Branch cutting into Quora, Lyft cutting into Uber, and Postmates cutting into Task Rabbit.”  Actually, no they’re not.  “Disrupting” doesn’t mean “competing with” or “cutting into” market share; Christensen’s theory is much more nuanced, and blindly throwing around conjugations of the word “disrupt” threatens to dilute the concept.  Additionally, “disrupt” may seem to carry a negative connotation, implying radical change and harm, that is glorified by entrepreneurs and feared by legacy industries.  Matt Schruers addressed this in his recent post on some in the tech sector “evangelizing disruption for its own sake” and “lioniz[ing] those who ‘move fast and break things.’”  Unfortunately, for those who don’t realize disruptive innovation is a term of art, disruption and its synonyms invoke confusion and interference and destruction, and suggest causing problems rather than finding solutions and “fixing things,” as in the CASH Music quote from XOXO.  But in reality, disruption is an important tool for societal progress, as we at DisCo explore in our posts about creators and innovators.  If you’re new to DisCo and disruptive innovation theory, start with our introductory post:  “Why Disruption Matters.”


Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.