I ran across an article from The Atlantic a few days ago, called “A Brief History of Applause, the ‘Big Data’ of the Ancient World,” that described applause as the original method of gathering “big data” about audiences and what they want – the caveat, of course, is that now we also have Facebook “likes,” surveys, and targeted marketing that also gathers data on what we like and what we don’t. In the ancient world, performers and politicians only had the audiences’ applause, or lack thereof.

It’s an interesting article that notes that, for centuries, both performers and politicians manipulated crowd psychology with audience plants, who would applaud or boo depending on what they’d been paid for. (and here I will lift significant chunks from the article, because it’s interesting)

So savvy politicians of the ancient world relied on the same thing savvy politicians of the less-ancient often do: oppo research. Cicero, the ur-politico, would send friends of his to loiter around the theater, taking notes to see what kind of greeting each politician got when he entered the arena — the better to see who was beloved by the people, and who was not. And his human clap-o-meters had a lot of information to assess. “Ancient crowds tended to be more interactive than they are today,” Aldrete points out. “There was a lot of back and forth between speakers and crowds. And particularly in the Greco-Roman world, crowds — especially in cities — were really good at communicating messages through rhythmic clapping, sometimes coupled with shouts.” The coding was, he says, “a pretty sophisticated thing.”

As power consolidated under one person, passing from Caesar to Caesar to Caesar, plaudits became both more systematized and more nuanced. Applause no longer meant, simply, “claps.” While Greco-Roman audiences certainly smacked their palms together the same way we do today — the classics professor David Levene pointed me to Plautus’s play Casina, whose conclusion specifies applauding “with hands” — their overall strategies of applause were much more varied than clapping alone. Plaudits thundered, but they also buzzed. They also trilled. Crowds developed ways to express degrees of approval of the person or persons before them, ranging from claps, to snaps (of the finger and thumb), to waves (of the edge of the toga). The last gesture of which the emperor Aurelian decided would be replaced by the wave of a special handkerchief (orarium) — a prop which he then helpfully distributed to all Roman citizens, so they would never be without a way to praise him.

Rome and its theaters, Aldrete told me, saw the rise of a professional class of public instigators — laudiceni, or “people who clapped for their dinner” — hired to infiltrate crowds and manipulate their reaction to performances. The practice seems to have started with actors, who would hire a dozen or so shills to disperse among their audiences and prolong the applause they received — or, if they were feeling either especially bold or especially indignant, to start “spontaneous” chants of praise among the crowd. (Actors might also hire laudiceni to instigate boos and hisses following the performances of competitors.)

So did, centuries later, French performers, who institutionalized shillery even further with the practice known as “the claque.” The 16th-century French poet Jean Daurat is generally credited with (or: blamed for) the resurrection. He bought a bunch of tickets to his own plays, handing them out to people who promised to applaud at the end of the performances. By the early 1820s, claques had become institutionalized, with an agency in Paris specializing in the distribution of the shills’ services.

Theatres have, for centuries, manipulated crowd psychology in a variety of ways. We still do. There’s a trope that, if you’re presenting a comedy, you want the audience to sit as close together as possible, because laughter is literally infectious. If we’re further away from the nearest audience member, it’s as though we’re alone, so we won’t laugh as hard. Comedian Darren Collins actually asks producers, on his website, to ensure audiences are packed close together to take advantage of this phenomenon:

Pack the audience as tight and close together as possible. This may mean roping off back and side areas. No one really knows what it is that causes it… but an audience that can smell one another tends to laugh louder and listen quieter. Get them close together. Comedy clubs know this, music venues know this, church fellowship halls, sanctuaries, and outdoor parking lot shows are generally not good at this. People should be seated close together whenever possible. Darren may even encourage youth to sit close on the floor and in the aisles at some events.

With such long-existing crowd manipulations, I would argue that applause is actually not a great way to gauge audience approval anymore, especially with theatre. Audiences are – as the Atlantic article argues – trained to applaud at the end of shows, with laugh tracks, or when signaled with a sign saying “Applause, Please.”

One can still hear a difference in amount of audience approval by how much, and how loudly, audiences applaud. Take, for instance, the difference between applause at President George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural address:


And President Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural address:

You can hear a clear difference in the crowd’s enthusiasm. But, both crowds applauded, and there was some shouting in approval. Neither audience boo’d the president, because that is just not done anymore. The way we now measure audience approval is with surveys, which can be more easily manipulated or even outright ignored than a visceral crowd reaction.

The original article in the Atlantic does argue that social media is a way of showing approval like the Romans used applause, and I can also understand that. While there’s a bit of a barrier (a screen, a keyboard, time, and computer code) between the audience member and performer, there’s also an existing record of the approval or disapproval.

So while theatres struggle for new methods of gauging audience feedback – applause has become too ingrained a ritual, since we all know to applaud when actors take a bow whether we liked the show or not – it makes sense to me, as I have said before, to lean more heavily on social media as a method of gauging audience feedback. That said, while trolls exist, I suspect most theatre-going audiences wouldn’t send a mean Tweet directly at a theatre if they disliked the performance, but using Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, and even Tumblr and blog posts to encourage audiences to leave feedback might be a way of reinvigorating an audience that otherwise sits and performs a role just as much as the actors do.

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