Man is a fraction of the animal world. Our history is an afterthought, no more, tacked to an infinite calendar. We are not so unique as we should like to believe. And if man in a time of need seeks keeper knowledge concerning himself, then he must explore those animal horizons from which we have made our quick little march.
For all our smart phones, digital music players and social networking sites, we’re still just primates in suits. We’re animals. We run with the pack, go with the herd, and jump lemming-like into whatever our collective mob jumps into. Monkey see, monkey do.
We often decide what is good by observing what others think is good. Robert Cialdini talks extensively about social proof in his work on the science of influence — case studies, recommendations, lines out in front of restaurants, etc.
I’d venture to say that end caps at retail stores are examples of social proof. We see more stuff on display, infer that it’s there because lots of people like it, and poof! our individualism disappears in an anthropological ball of smoke.
Have you noticed that the vast majority of positive reviews are judged “helpful” on Amazon? The vast majority of negative reviews are judged “unhelpful”. If you are critical, you are criticized.
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I’m re-reading Robert Ardrey again after many years — African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative. His thesis is simple. Our primary drive, older than procreation, is the acquisition and control of territory. Our social grouping — still the source of all ethnic tension, religious intolerance, and racial hatred — has evolved to support our innate need. Social harmony — the rule of law, social breeding, cultural mores — has evolved to best manage territory control and defense. Thus, we reward those who agree with us and shun those who don’t.
What does this have to do with blogging? I have a pet theory that all things being equal, more posts – which manifest themselves as more lines in an RSS feed aggregator – create more readership. Like lines out front of a club or products on an end cap, more is better. An even more important trigger is the number of comments. We comment on blogs — all things being equal — that already have comments on them. We pause — all things being equal — when we don’t see enough posts frequently enough. An unhealthy gene pool?
What’s the right frequency? Do you find yourself holding back when commenting on a blog that never has any comments? Is is phenomenon good, bad, or utterly irrelevant?
Or is it just your suppressed animal instinct pushing you away?
Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny
In my first years here in the US, I worked at a medical center for the treatment of brain-injured children and part of their neurological development involved learning from anthropology what is normal. I’m sure we’ve all observed empty stores and resisted going in while we pushed into already crowded stores.
That’s exactly what happened to me this past Saturday at the Mall. On the other hand, I dislike environment that promote too much competition, so I walked out of the Tiffany store (where, let’s not forget, I was conducting field research) and into the Swarowski store. It was empty at the time, but as soon as I engaged the sales person, 3 people walked in needing attention. Your thought of zero comments prompts an additional question about blogs that have many; in some cases, I have not added my two cents on blogs that already had a great number of them because I felt my opinion was not going to make a difference. How many comments are too many?
Great post. Your thesis – more posts = more readership – is true. I think that applies in the individual case, which is why it’s true generally. I visit blogs with infrequent posts and virtually no comments less and less, until I finally give up. So, probably does everybody else.
Special thanks for the ref to Ardry’s work. “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born” was one of the most elegant quotes I ever heard.
Valeria: you are absolutely, positively correct — I almost went down this path on the post but instead stayed where I was.
The idea of “too many” means “too much” is very valid. As an avid fan of the ill-fated Washington Redskins, whose excellent blog gets on average 300 to 500 comments per post, I’ve found that I don’t comment because I doubt my voice will be heard. Too much competition for scarce resources (meaning attention and eyeballs)?
Jim: funny you should mention the, “Not in innocence” quote — it was what I originally had up top on my post. Thanks for your comment — Ardrey is well worth a re-read after all these years.
I’m in search of a few interesting anthropology blogs right now — I’m going to see if Savage Minds works out for me and take it from there.
Great stuff! I’ve been thinking about the tribal aspect to online consuming for a while now, and I think your theory is right–and the comments point to a refinment of the theory.
It’s not a direct relation, but an inverted U. The comments should not be too much or too little, but just right to inspire a sense of community. Of course, lots of posts may signal something else, like the security of large numbers or impermeability.
Anthropologists have estimated that somewhere around 150 is the “magic number” (it’s often called “Dunbar’s number”) at which a large group begins to feel too large. It’s supposed to be the cognitive carrying capacity of our brains, our upward limit on recongizing and being recognized as a community member. People are searching for signals online of community–is this a good place to hang out? Is it too crowded? Is it too sparse? I think these comments point to a very interesting way to think about the relationships that people build with blogs and other online sites of interaction.