Scott McCoskery spent 20 years in meetings clicking a pen or opening and closing a knife. At some point, he came up with an idea to build a tool designed simply to keep his hands busy, something personal and sturdy and small enough to slip in a pocket. He experimented with a few prototypes. He made dozens, and tested dozens, and discarded dozens, until he settled on a device that, to him, was perfect: a metal gadget with two round arms and a central ball bearing, round like the a smoothed-down button of a jean. The device looks like a missing machine part until it hits a finger, and awakes. It mutates into a whirring blur — the “pure and simple application of momentum,” as McCoskery describes it. He named it the Torqbar. He sold his first in September 2015. Hundreds of requests poured in from there.
Soon McCoskery couldn’t meet the demand himself, so he teamed up with a friend, Paul de Herrera, and the two started MD Engineering. They collaborated on a more scalable Torqbar design, and advertised a presale in September 2016, hyping the product in their and other Facebook groups. When the store went live in September, traffic was so intense that the site shut down six times in 45 minutes. “We had to close,” de Herrera says. “We had sold enough Torqbars to keep us busy for the remainder of the year.”
That Torqbar is basically a rich and classy cousin to the colorful three-pronged fidget spinner that has become a craze among the elementary-school set, so much so they’ve been banned in many classrooms. The premise behind these gadgets — whether it’s a cheap Chinese import or stainless-steel and custom-made — is that fiddling and flipping and twisting these trinkets releases pent-up energy to help people focus. They’ve been used as therapeutic tools for those with ADHD, autism, and even PTSD. Though science behind the fidget spinners hasn’t been closely examined, recent studies have touted the benefits of fidgeting in general, and positive spinner testimonials abound. But whatever their potential mental-health perks, fidget spinners — like pogs of the ’90s or Cabbage Patch Dolls of the ’80s – have officially spiraled into fad territory.
A fad is, by definition, a short-term enthusiasm, says Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Delaware and author of Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads. “[People] get caught up in something for a relatively short period of time — and then they drop it.”
The people who get hooked on a fad are trading on its novelty, Best says, but that novelty is finite. Suddenly, everyone wants a thingy or becomes enamored with an idea because it’s new, or interesting, or has been reinvented with a new purpose. Once everyone has tried that idea or owns that thing, it loses its appeal. The Tickle Me Elmo sits at the bottom of a toy box.
Margo Berman, an advertising professor at Florida International University, puts it simply. “These kids see something cool. They want what the other person has,” she says. “All of a sudden it becomes something desirable.”
But here’s the tricky part about fads: We know one when we see it, but it’s hard to explain exactly why something explodes when it does. “I don’t think you can engineer it,” Best says. “Whatever catches on, whenever it does, it just continues to spread.” Why Chia pets? Why fidget spinners? “No one knows,” he says. “There are lots and lots [of things] to capture our attention. We all make choices, and sometimes these things catch on, and the popularity grows and grows.”
Berman agrees that finding a catalyst to a fad might be an unanswerable question. It would likely involve a combination of factors — an incremental shift in attention to a product, or maybe the endorsement of an important influencer (that so-called “Oprah Effect”). The fidget spinner’s popularity began quietly last year, around the time McCoskery and de Herrera’s business — and a few other companies — began selling versions of fidget tools, from spinners to those fidget cubes. Interest first took off among the Everyday Carry community, or EDC, a group dedicated to making or collecting highly customized basics you’d find in pockets — utility knifes, phone cases. (McCoskery’s inspiration for the Torqbar prototype came from a custom tool by Peter Atwood, an EDC mainstay; McCoskery thought to put a ball bearing inside of it.) The actual physics behind the spinner are stunningly simple — “it’s taken a 12th-grade physics education,” quips McCoskery — and so even more toolmakers began pushing tweaked designs. Online communities gained spinner fans: YouTube videos of users showing off spinner tricks and DIYers making homemade spinners.
Soon the cheapies started appearing, some copies of those early designs within the EDC community. Many are made in China, which, as experts explain, is a pretty typical pattern — Chinese companies will find something easy, cheap, and appealing to sell in huge foreign markets, like the United States. So the fidget spinners found their way from Alibaba to Amazon, where they sell for a few bucks a pop, advertised as focus tools. They likely first arrived in classrooms as study aides, and soon morphed into collectibles, where students like Albert, a sixth-grader in Brooklyn, bought fidget spinners in bulk and sold spinners to his classmates for $8 a pop, a small markup. “When I first saw it, [I said] ‘What’s the point of it?’” Abert says. But “once I touched it and started playing, it started to be a little addicting.”
That addictiveness might explain some of the gadgets’ appeal. Both Best and Berman point out certain aspects of the fidget spinner that helped it explode among school-age kids: They’re wacky-looking and colorful, which make them fun to collect; they’re a gender-neutral toy that would appeal to both boys and girls; they’re tiny, making them easy to throw in a backpack and show off at school; and they’re cheap. Affordability makes them accessible to as many people as possible, as Berman puts it. “It’s not a big stretch financially,” she says. “It’s a small luxury and those types of things will tend to take hold.”
And whether or not they actually help people with ADHD to focus, they do serve a purpose: Spinners are silly and entertaining, and that in and of itself can be an outlet for anxiety. Berman surmises that there’s something about our cultural moment — a seeking, stressed-out society — that may add to their appeal. Take other recent trends: adult coloring books. Slime. Kinetic sand. All are updated versions of those foamy stress balls, or even the Rubik’s Cube.
“It also fits with a lot of what’s going on in our culture today,” said Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “People are not used to sitting and doing nothing. We’re tirelessly addicted to our email and want to check all the time, and fidget spinners take advantage of our desire to do something.”
Best still cautions against using those kinds of explanations, especially for product fads. “There’s no rhyme or reason,” he insists. “When people sit around and start pontificating that fidget spinners are really a sign of this or that element of a culture, I think that’s a fool’s errand.”
But one thing pretty much everyone can agree on: Fidget spinners — at least the cheap ones being traded in classrooms — are about to whiz into oblivion. “The faster they catch on the faster they die out,” Berger says about these types of trends. “I’ll be surprised if we’re still talking about them in six months.”
Best predicts an even swifter death: the last day of school, a few short weeks away. Even Albert, who still has $200 in fidget-spinner profits cooling in his wallet, knows it’s time to hang up the business. “They’re still pretty fun, but no one really has them anymore since the school banned them,” he says. “No one really talks about them.”