Thursday, October 25, 2007

Take me out with the crowd

Previously I described the currently popular setup of crowd, performer and large display and said there must be some basic human reasons why the experience remains popular despite the obvious inconvenience. Here are some guesses. I suspect the real answer is a combination of them and other obvious stuff I've missed:
  • Not all senses virtualize well or easily. If you're at the venue, you don't just hear and see the show. You jostle with people. You smell all manner of interesting (and not-so-interesting) aromas. You feel sound in your entire body, not just your ears, even without a high-powered sound system.
  • Meeting people in person. People still like to meet face-to-face, for a number of reasons, including the previous point, even if it's only in small groups. Sure you can invite your friends over to watch the game on TV, but you can't invite the vendors or the random people you'll be seated around or run into in the parking lot.
  • Ambient noise. To my knowledge, there aren't a lot of (or any?) virtual experiences that provide the murmur of 50,000 people chatting before the house lights go down, or the roar when the stage lights go up, or the sudden hush when something dramatic happens.
  • Spontaneous mass expressions. There's probably a better name for this, but I mean things like chants, songs, the wave, synchronized clapping and so forth. Ambient noise could be simulated, but that would break the feedback loop behind these.
  • Sense of community. When thousands brave winter weather to watch a crucial away game on the big screen in their home stadium, it's clear that they're there (and not at home watching TV) largely because they want to show that they care and be with people who care the same way. This has a lot in common with a mass political demonstration.
There is definitely overlap among these, but each has its own effect. Some of the items have analogs in the virtual world. Current home theater systems can bring the noise reasonably well. The slashdot effect is not unlike a mass reaction to something on the screen and there are word-of-mouth phenomena similar to a chant or wave getting started. Not all reactions in real crowds are spontaneous -- think applause signs or the organist/PA at a sports event -- and neither are they on the web -- think viral marketing.

Nonetheless, the combined effect (together with whatever else I missed) remains unique, which is why the virtual element of the big screen is more an adjunct than the main show. As far as that goes, the big screen is just an extension of the amplified sound of the PA, which has been around considerably longer than the net. Neither is necessary for a large crowd experience. Those have been around forever.

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