Measuring audience reaction: from the applause of crowds to Facebook likes

Megan Garber provides an overview of applause, “the big data of the ancient world.

Scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious — “a remarkably stable facet of human culture.” Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause – as acclamation, and as celebration. (“And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, ‘Long live the king!'”)

But clapping was formalized — in Western culture, at least — in the theater. “Plaudits” (the word comes from the Latin “to strike,” and also “to explode”) were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, “Valete et plaudite!” (“Goodbye and applause!”) — thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world’s first human applause signs…

As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”…

So the subtleties of the Roman arena — the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning — gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: “What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give ’em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?” The lack of applause, on the other hand — the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing — “that I can respond to.”…

Mostly, though, we’ve used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation — and our approval — by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We’re audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs.

Fascinating, from the human tendency across cultures to clap, planting people in the audience to clap and cheer, to the rules that developed around clapping.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there notable moments in history when politicians and others thought the crowd was going one way because of applause but quickly found out that wasn’t the case? Simply going by the loudest noise seems rather limited, particularly with large crowds and outdoors.

2. The translation of clapping into Facebook likes loses the embodied nature of clapping and crowds. Yes, likes allow you to mentally see that you are joining with others. But, there is something about the social energy of a crowd that is completely lost. Durkheim would describe this as collective effervesence and Randall Collins describes the physical nature of “emotional energy” that can be generated when humans are in close physical proximity to each other. Clapping is primarily a group behavior and is difficult to transfer to a more individualistic setting.

3. I have noticed in my lifetime the seemingly increasing prevalence of standing ovations. Pretty much every theater show I have been to in recent years is followed by a standing ovation. My understanding is that at one point such ovations were reserved for truly spectacular performances but now it is simply normal. Thus, the standing ovation now has a very different meaning.