The biggest problem I’ve always had with Western philosophy, especially in the wake of the neo-Platonic Humanism that fueled the Renaissance, is contempt for crowds. Pericles’ famous comment about “hoi polloi,” hailing the masses as the fount of Athenian greatness, has somehow been transmogrified into a symbol of contempt for crowds and crowd behavior by Western intellects. I’ll none of that¹. Crowds, like individuals, are capable of intelligence, and of stupidity.  Yet bigotry against crowds seems a common affliction of modern intellectuals, especially progressive ones.

This philosophical lead-in is to explain why my reaction is so visceral to the discussion stemming from How I Accidentally Got 700,000 Fans on Facebook.” The article stems from Gregory Levey’s surprise when legions of Facebook users clicked the “like” button for his book’s page, not because they liked or were even aware of his book, but because they wanted to share a laugh with their friends about the phrase that happens to be the book’s title (and thus the title of the page).  The article itself contains only muted disparagement of the 700K, but as I expected, it has become a magnet for more flagrant abuse of these people.  In comments and in sites linking to the article you can find plenty of casual epithets of “stupid Facebook users” and a sentiment that the 700K deserve contempt for having clicked the “like” button without first investigating the author’s intentions for the page.

Let me please reiterate that I am not unsympathetic to Gregory Levey, whose main interest from the article seemed to lie in seeking advice in handling the situation.  I’m glad he duly received a variety of useful advice (and some inevitable cheek), which I hope helps him take advantage of his unexpected good fortune.  My interest is in the social and technological implications of the surrounding attitude toward those 700K, to Facebook users as a whole, and sometimes even (yes, hubris likes to stretch the embrace of its arms) to entire generations.

This area happens to be my technical specialty.  In my day job as computer engineer and entrepreneur, I specialize in how to manage the context of information on the Web.  We are all aware of the search engine context problem.  If I search for “apple”, do I mean the fruit or the computer/entertainment company?  When a search engine is examining a page that contains the word “apple” it faces the same problem with context.  Search engines use a lot of specialized, brute-force techniques to deal with such problems, and have become remarkably good at it (the problem is far more immensely difficult than a layman might generally suppose).  Search engines are not always good enough.  First of all, there are many uses for even more specialized contextualization, gaining a sense not only from overall pages, but even from concepts represented within pages.  This area of study is often called “Semantic Web,” where the “S” word is in respect to how to better annotate Web pages with context.

One of the core principles behind the success of the Web is flexibility of interpretation of semantics.  For any Web resource (which might be a page overall, or might be things referenced within a page), there are numerous interpretations.  There is the interpretation of the author, that of each of the eventual readers, and those of tools and software that also deal with the page (e.g. feed readers and search engines).  From the perspective of the Web these are completely independent, and that is why the Web has been so successful.  Flexibility of interpretation means that the author’s page, once deployed, can be used in all sorts of interesting ways that the author themselves never anticipated.  When the Web was born, no one anticipated search engines, portals, “deep linking,” news feeds, social media or any of the myriad application of Web resources.  But the barrier to innovation on such fronts is drastically reduced by flexibility of interpretation.

That is how the Web has worked for almost two decades now, but unfortunately many are too slow to appreciate this.  There have been innumerable PR gaffes, scandals, technological blunders, lawsuits, feuds, and plain old arguments emerging from the failure of one side to credit flexibility of interpretation by another.  Many people who have learned these hard lessons have the resources, whether legal, financial or social, to survive their naïeveté.  Authors of literary works are rarely placed to squander such resources,and in fact, one of the most important aspects of The Nervous Breakdown, in my opinion, is to help such authors maximize the benefits to be gained from the Web and social media.  That’s why it particularly pains me to find in this space the sort of missteps that more well-heeled clients pay me to avoid, in my position as a consultant.

The crux of this article is to point out that: flexibility of interpretation means that once you have established a Web resource, you should not expect to control, nor even fully understand how it is used by others.  If you find yourself in a situation where many people have adapted a divergent interpretation, your best course is to respect and acknowledge that divergence, and to use the attention to further your ultimate aims.

It’s only natural to be frustrated with a divergent interpretation that seems to hijack original authorial intent, but it is naïve to disparage those who have followed the trend for no further reason.  If the book were a UFOlogy volume titled “Aliens among us,” and a divergent interpretation emerged of wing-nuts using the page to spread anti-immigration messages, my own sympathies would lie with disparaging that group for xenophobia, but not for the basic phenomenon of their divergent interpretation.  Gregory’s article does not suggest any such substantive enormity on the part of the 700K.

In this situation is Gregory thinks he has established a resource for his book, Shut Up, I’m Talking(after all this, the book deserves some straight-up link love).  That’s all well and good. The 700K, on the other hand, in using that resource, are interpreting it as a resource for the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”  That is also all well and good. Gregory’s interpretation is not really privileged. As long as the 700K are getting the utility they want from their own interpretation, all is well. Now of course in practice the author does have some privilege. For example, Gregory could delete the page. In this particular case, however, the 700K have already extracted all the utility they want from the resource (all they were interested in was sharing a phrase with their friends in the link-able manner Facebook supports), so though such an action would stop the viral spread of the page, it wouldn’t curtail the utility of the resource by the 700K, which has already been consummated.

And that’s also where the pragmatic privilege of the author ends. If Gregory were to delete the page, he would not destroy much utility for the 700K, but he would destroy utility for the original 400 actual book fans (and for himself). This is why social media works, and this is why it’s valuable. Social media tends to work through the action of individuals to draw resources into the commons.   It’s easy to call off-hand actions by individuals “stupid”, and forget that by such standards we’re all profoundly stupid.  We all use phatic communication, including the most literary of intellectual writers.  By their own harsh standards, they also have to wear that “S” on their chest.

Reality is that social media is the first human phenomenon that can so rapidly draw resources into the commons, a consequence of the aggregation of off-hand, casual interactions by a large number of actors.  In this case, the name of the book, and to some extent a resource established for that book, has in effect been drawn into the commons.  That is some prodigious power in the hands of hoi polloi.  Importantly, a clever agency can share a significant amount of that power by accepting a trade-off between loss of control and expansion of platform.  Smart PR firms have learned how to harness this power.  Entertainment firms have learned how to harness this power.  Activists have been extraordinarily effective in harnessing this power.  Governments are slowly working out how to harness this power.  Even old media—you know, like the New York Times and company whom we’re only too happy to write off as dinosaurs?  They are slowly but surely figuring out how to harness this power.  Do we really think it’s a good idea to sit back in our Lazy-Boyz lobbing casual insults at these emerging social forces?  I think not.  I think our focus should be on joining the ranks of the savvy who know how to harness the power of social media.

The first step to conquest is understanding.  Gregory admitted how long it took him to figure out what was going on.  Maybe I have the advantage of being a Web expert, or maybe I just happen to be a Facebook user who pays attention (I think it’s probably the latter), but it seems to me that if we as writers decide: “hey let me use that Facebook thingy to promote my work” it is incumbent upon us to actually understand the implications of doing so.  After all, surely we’re not promoting ourselves on Facebook just because everyone else is doing it, right?  Only hoi polloi do that, right?  Facebook’s “like” feature has been well followed, well examined, well criticized, and overall well discussed ever since it made its debut last year.

Facebook’s intention was always to make it very easy for users to share Web resources without regard to context, reasoning that people have lives; they have jobs; they have hobbies.  Worrying about context is the author’s problem, because that is where the interest lies.  As it happens, Facebooks’ feature has been very successful, with all that implies, including cutesy Like-hacking, such as the “you” page, which leads to circulation on users’ Facebook wall messages such as:  “Jane Doe likes you.”  As with every feature on the Web, it has also led to malicious use, in this case “clickjacking” where criminals use the feature to lead unwitting users to malware.  I personally deplore the feature because of my professional interest in increasing the prevalence of context on the Web, and also because I think clickjacking is a real problem.  But I blame Facebook for this, not users of the feature.  And since there’s not much I can do about about problems introduced by Facebook, it is even more important for me to understand the feature, so that I can avoid the negatives while taking advantage of whatever positives might present themselves.

And it seems churlish and even fatuous not to see 700,000 new eyeballs as a fat wad of positives.  Even if many of them are unlikely to become readers of the book in question, a potential audience of 700,000 seems a much better divisor than 400.  If the author starts broadcasting say, weekly messages and tidbits about the book, some of the 700K will start to click “un-like”, but there is no reason to think there will not be some who turn out to be genuinely interested.  And certainly 700,000 eyeballs is an extraordinary incentive for anyone tasked with helping promote the book.

If the first step is understanding, the second is circumspection.  A prerequisite for such benefits is to treat the 700K with respect.  Even if they may have come along by following in the footsteps of a crowd, there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by the generosity of affording them the dignity of individuals.


¹”I’ll none of that” and “I’ll none of it” is standard Elizabethan (e.g. Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” and “Twelfth Night”, and Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.”  Well attested as late as Dryden.  For my part, there’s no more emphatic way to put that sentiment 🙂

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards. To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

146 responses to “700,000 Facebook Users Must Be Many Things, but Probably Not Dumb”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    I would love to have Gregory’s problem, Uche. And your argument for bigotry against the masses is the same reason I’m not supposed to like James Cameron’s films, even though I do.

    I’m sure, since I share some common professional interests with you, that you must have heard of this funny instance of mistaken web identity. A well-optimized blog posted a story about Facebook and its desire to be “your one true login,” and many misguided users, who use Google as their URL entry field, posted inane comments about how they “couldn’t get logged into Facebook” or “Change Facebook back!!11” thinking the blog was Facebook, instead of a story about Facebook.

    Intellectually, I know when users are confused with an interface, it’s a problem of design. Good design should prevent these sorts of mistakes.

    But Uche, I have to ask: If we can’t casually lob epithets at stupid Facebook users, at whom can we lob them? 😉

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Ah, Richard. Well to start form the bottom, I can’t tell a lie. You got me 🙂 The usual benefit from ridiculing crowds is that it is less of an act of violence than ridiculing individuals. I guess if I really felt that was the spirit of the whole thing, I would have less of a problem. Nothing wrong with good-natured ribbing. But when I read the original article, and especially when I read the responses to it, it didn’t seem so benign to me. It really did feel like a frustrated attack on things people were choosing not to understand (again Gregory is less guilty of that than folks who were responding to his tale).

      Yep, I did follow the ReadWriteWeb/Facebook login fiasco. A better link is:


      Of course, I think this case illustrates my point very nicely. Google was the tool that led to confusion in this case, not and it woould have happened in the case of any company with such a single-sign-on strategy. It just so happens that Facebook is so popular that the cascading effect was particularly striking. And there is no doubt that many individuals in that case were doing something I would readily consider stupid (I’m certainly no goody-two-shoes as many friends and colleagues know). But in this case it was the many individuals who were failing to understanding their tools. I would argue that in the 700K episode, it’s the author who is failing to understand his tools. Anyway, we agree about good design. That’s why I said that the 700K case illustrates problems I have with Facebook, but not really with its users.

      And re: your first point, I don’t much like James Cameron films, but I unapologetically love a pretty slice of pop-culture, and I think it’s not often enough acknowledged that just sometimes, pop culture is popular because it’s actually good.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      BTW, do I get bonus props for a cover boy comment? 😛

      • Richard Cox says:

        But of course you get bonus props. Thank you!

        I think we agree. As a conceptual problem, the problem of how to get users where they want to go, to give them what they want, is key. I read a few comments on the link you provided, and one fellow suggested the problem lies even deeper…the OS ought to recognize habits and automatically provide desktop shortcuts, etc. There’s no reason why an OS or browser should work a certain way just because some of us have come to accept it.

        But wow, it’s hard not to poke fun at people who can’t tell the difference between a browser address bar and a Google web page. Of course, a general familiarity with how UI’s work has something to do with that sort of “elitism”, but it’s not as if Firefox and IE and the rest are difficult to use. They’re the most basic tool for browsing the Internet. Can designers not assume even the tiniest bit of education on the part of their potential users?

        I suppose they shouldn’t. So let’s make fun of the rude commenters but attempt to solve the larger problem. Yes?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:


          That said, unfortunately, I think solving the larger problems might require an some way on the Web to annotate the nature of a link. “I am rebutting the linked article” “I like the linked article” “The link is to my wife’s page”, and so on. Microformats were an attempt at this sort of thing, but that’s like a band-aid on a severed limb.

        • George London says:

          Sidenote about the Facebook login thing – surely I’m not the only person who uses a browser set up to search from the address bar? With Google as my default search engine?

          It’s not how I normally get to FB, but if I type ‘facebook login’ in my address bar, I end up at a Google results page – top result is the actual Facebook login page. Maybe many people do this, and have been clicking on the top result for so long that they’ve stopped actually looking at it? I also know many people with Google as their home page who search there instead of remembering URLs – which to be fair, is what Google would love us all to do!

          Just because somebody uses a tool in a different way from me, doesn’t make them stupid does it?!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Yes, George, that is *precisely* what happened in the RWW FB login incident. And I certainly agree with your conclusion. Computers sometimes confuse even the most experienced engineers, never mind casual users.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I think this is at the heart of it. Your mention of James Cameron tipped me. At the heart of my whole objection to this whole… *umbrella-type gesture*…defense of the masses thing.

      I’m a contrarian and a militant individualist.

      If everyone in the world likes it, if it’s all the hype, the rage, the thing to be into, I hate it immediately. So much. I see the flocks. The water-cooler discussions. The intractable, depressing sameness and ubiquity of it. An overwhelming title wave of common interest.

      And the source of the contempt is sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. Do I hate it because I’m some kind of elitist, and the hoi polloi’s stamp of approval means it is stupid already, or do I hate it because I know, stupid or not to begin with, it (and the zeitgeist surrounding it) will, in very short order, become stupid? Is my contempt reactive or preemptive?

      I don’t even know. I liked Titanic, but I was a teenager and my brain wasn’t functioning yet. The whole Avatar scenario filled me with loathing. I refuse to participate.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I found it interesting during the discussion about The Matrix and The Truman Show, when I mentioned something about special effects, you got all huffy with me. Especially when you were busy dissing Tarantino. The combination of those two things gave me the impression you thought I was being a film snob.

        Which I am to some degree. I can’t handle it when a film fails as a story.

        But the budget of a film doesn’t always decide it’s worthiness as story, and neither does its ticket sales. The original Star Wars films worked for me, the second half didn’t. The Terminator and T2 worked, T3 was mediocre and the Christian Bale one didn’t. The Hurt Locker didn’t. Pi and Requiem for a Dream did, but The Fountain didn’t. Personally, I thought Titanic was great.

        Sometimes it has to do with expectations. I didn’t expect Titanic to be the most complex character study of all time, but I did expect adventure and a realistic depiction of Titanic’s voyage. I got that and more…in large part because of special effects. For me a film can be relatively basic as long as it delivers on a compelling story. And I’m a sucker for a guy-gets-the-unreachable-girl tale. Independent films don’t have a monopoly on good…although I do watch far more of them than I do big budget films.

        Regarding Avatar, I saw it in IMAX 3D. Not the strongest story, but I graded it on a curve because it looked so amazing. I liked it well enough. I don’t think it works nearly as well without the theater experience, which was sort of the point, I suppose.

        I’d guess you and I probably like a lot of the same films. But I don’t ignore something because it’s an event. Most of the time, I’ll agree, those films aren’t so hot. But sometimes they are.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh yeah, Cameron did Avatar. I did enjoy Avatar, and I agree that the spectacle did the trick for me. All the other Cameron films I could immediately think of, including Titanic were not my cup of tea.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Wasn’t accusing you of film snobbery at all.

          It really was just a commentary on my preferences. And at the end of the day, visuals are important to me. Maybe the MOST important thing to me. I wouldn’t be caught dead fawning over “The Piano.” But Avatar’s brand of visual is not the kind I like. I am made fun of regularly because my favorite director is Tim Burton. “Don’t you ever get sick of black and white and red????”

          The answer: Not really. Burton’s films are visually stunning. Not because they succeed in a bid to create a reality (like Avatar), but because they manage to pervert or queer a familiar reality (like Big Fish or Sleepy Hollow). The Matrix has a similar quality, where Truman Show is totally unfamiliar.

          I like Guillermo del Toro for the same reasons, but he’s just a little bit TOO queer.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I’m with you on Burton. Edward Scissorhands is one of my all-time favorites (although it’s more pastel than black and white and red). And aside from story, which is a prerequisite in almost every case, for me the audio matters as much as the visuals. A good score turns a decent film into a much better one, but also the use of the sound stage. One of the reasons I always cite Requiem is because of the amazing usage of sound effects, particularly when Sara Goldfarb is experiencing meltdown. When she’s in the doctor’s office and hearing things, the multichannel audio is amazing.

          I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, but I haven’t been as interested in the others.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’ve never seen Requiem and haven’t been interested. The Golden Army is nutso. The story is fun, but who cares.

          It’s visual crack. Totally gorgeous. And ugly. At once.


        • Greg Olear says:

          You should see Requiem, Becky, although the last sequence is intense to an almost painful degree. And it’s about things I don’t give a damn about. Really, really great film.

          Oh, and “The Piano,” to me, is like a long SNL sketch, ridiculous to the point that I was laughing at it. (Sorry, Zara).

        • Zara Potts says:

          Greg, have you turned into an Australian? making fun of ‘The Piano’!!!
          Jeez. What’s the world coming to?
          I think I will take a long stroll on that very beach (which is my local) tomorrow wearing a pair of pantaloons.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Becky, you can be a militant individualist all you want. Wear what suits you. I made a pragmatic argument why a writer faced with the power of crowds should seek resonance with that power rather than reflexively write off the crowd as stupid. After all that, you are of course quite free to go ahead and assume crowds are stupid. I have made my point.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Uche, no need to get defensive. Tap out if you’d like. Wear what suits you.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Aw, lovely! I quite like echoes. They usually signal that inexplicable natural beauty of chasms.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Don’t they, though? Which of us will fall in?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Ah, there you go with that Aristotelian thinking again. Look to the East. Neither of us will fall in because you and i, we *are* the chasm.


        • Becky Palapala says:

          Put your Buddhist niceties away. I’m a Taoist at best.

          Let me put it to you this way:

          It is my experience that the people most vehemently opposed to the characterization of others as stupid–particularly when it comes to those they perceive to be like them–are terrified of being called stupid.

          And when I say it’s my experience, I mean it is my experience. Listening to you defend the “hoi polloi” is like listening to myself defend midwestern hicks.

          We are probably both right, to some degree. It is probably the case that not all of what’s-his-fuck’s fans are idiots. It is also probably the case that not all midwesterners are narrow-minded.

          But these ideas exist for a reason. “Not in a vacuum,” I think you said.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I was still carrying momentum from your self-characterization as a “militant individualist.” I suppose you could also be a taoist, but I must say I would be fascinated to hear some of *that* internal argument.

          And I like your bit with the stereotype within the stereotype (your third para), but I’m not sure how it furthers any argument, one way or another.

          Finally, I think you badly misconstrue what I’ve said about the midwest. I don’t assume crowds of midwesterners are stupid any more than I do crowds of FB users.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I’m sure you won’t make the mistake of sounding like you make such assumptions for at least a few weeks.

          All the tao requires is balance and I only said a taoist *at best*. As long as I am both a militant individualist and its opposite, there is no argument to be had, right? Do I contradict myself?

          I am large. I contain multitudes.

          You can objectify the discussion all you like, but at some point, you’ll have to own your opinions. Admit your bias, as it were.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          What? Hulloa? I was just about to make about a dozen more assumptions. On rye toast. What’s this “few weeks” business? And yeah yeah with the Whitman. All I said is that I wouldn’t mind hearing a couple of those multitudes in palaver.

          And, sure, I have a bias against midwesterners. Is that some huge admission you’re hoping for? Unfortunately for the news value, that bias disintegrates rapidly in the face of specific situations and specific experience. Having 700K FB users appear in one’s waiting room is as specific-y a situation as I can imagine. Once again it seems to me you think I’m coming from the perspective that human bias is extraordinary. Not sure how many times and ways I can explain you’ve got hold of the wrong bit.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I don’t think you think bias is extraordinary. I think you’re acutely aware of everyone’s bias but your own. You combat it by alienating and distancing yourself from your opinions, refusing to own anything, but it’s naked anyway.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think I’ve written more than enough in these comments that I’m confident others can judge for themselves whether or not you’re right about that.

  2. dwoz says:

    I will say, apropos the comment about usability, that Facebook is perhaps worse than Myspace in that realm, as if that’s even possible.

    The user’s page administration UI is specifically designed to prevent the user from doing page administration…that’s the only explanation that seems to fit.

    Speaking of content/context control…look at what is happening right now to the comments on that original article. There is definitely a cost/benefit tradeoff on viral popularity, it being relatively damaging to community.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hmmmm. That makes it sound as if I don’t dare go catch up on comments to the original. Last thing I need is a trollop time sink.

      And yes, Facebook gets its own first letter for good Web citizenship. Usability problems are just part of the madness.

  3. It is probably unfair to write off 700,000 people as idiots, just because most of them presumably made a mistake. That certainly was my first impression, but I think that came down to Facebook snobbery on my part. I never join a group or “like” a page unless it’s something I really do feel strongly about. I like to think that when someone sees the phrase “David Wills joined ______” in their feed, that I’m helping to support the blank in question.

    Having read the “Shut Up, I’m Talking” wall, though, I feel that it’s probably justified to call some of these people idiots. Although maybe that’s a bit harsh. They just didn’t bother to look at the picture in the top left hand corner of the page (or the info section) when they came along to post their “witty” remark.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I think that has some parallels with Richard’s point, and it’s true that in a crowd of 700K there will necessarily be a good number of idiots. That said, I don’t see so much wrong in their having left unrelated messages. Yes, the page info would tell them it’s for a book, but they’d soon get to the page with a ton of other messages by fellow phrase fans. That’s the only reason they bothered with the “like”: they want to share a viral moment with others. That’s really how viral trends always work, so I’m sure that by the time they have left their message, the non-idiots among the 700K know full well that the page has been re-purposed, but they have also found their fellows in the crowd.

      After all, we’re not often shy about re-purposing comment threads here on TNB, and that’s one of the sources of energy.

  4. As dwoz commented on the original post, it was the author who selected that title. This for me is what makes the author’s utter surprise at his Facebook popularity a bit strange and his mild contempt for those inadvertent fans even stranger. If if he’s being honest, the title is something of a catchphrase to begin with (a sassy one he had to expect could belong on a t-shirt somewhere on a rack next to “Don’t Go There”). Not that there’s anything wrong with such a title at all, it’s actually doing well what titles are supposed to do: grab attention. But I had a similar reaction to you, Uche, that he’s rolling his eyes after so successfully grabbing what is a potentially rich kind at the moment, social media attention.

  5. Becky says:

    It’s easy to call off-hand actions by individuals “stupid”, and forget that by such standards we’re all profoundly stupid.

    Whoa, Brother! Speak for yourself! 😉

    Though I should point out, with regard to your title, that there are likely at least 700,000 dumb facebook users.

    What makes them dumb is a separate issue.

    To be perfectly honest, I must admit to still believing the immortal words of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones is a personal hero): “A person is smart; People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”

    Or, my favorite demotivator: “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

    Most studies (official or not) of large crowd/ group behavior will trend toward the general conclusion that the more people you put in one place, the greater the chances that they will behave like idiots. But that is something different from, at the individual level, those people actually being idiots. I don’t know. I share, to some degree, contempt for the hoi polloi (in the literal sense–“the many”–that is, no particular social or political class but rather any given large group), mostly for their inability or unwillingness to recognize the disparity between their individual and group actions. A lack of self-awareness. But that is something other than freedom of interpretation.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      As I know you know, the title was with reference to a specific sample of 700,000. Should have put a no-goody-two-shoes disclaimer in the post itself. I definitely believe in stupid individuals. Oh boy do I ever! And I think there happen to be a fucken shitton of the species, and surely at least the square root of that number on Facebook. I also do believe in stupid crowd behavior, including by Facebook users. I just happen to believe that in this case there was a lazy leap to the idea that the 700K provided such a case.

      I am a strong believer that studies are heavily influenced by author/experimenter bias (it’s a Mack-truck-sized hole in the scientific method, but that’s a different story). Yes, I’ve read many ingenious psychological/sociological experiments designed to demonstrate that crowds are almost always stupid, and I’ve heard all the truly shocking anecdotes of bystander-effect incidents, but I don’t really buy all that. Society has always provided occasions for crowding, and modern society (of this supposed run of stupid generations, of course) provides a huge amount of same. Right now, in cities across South Africa, and worldwide, truly enormous crowds are forming several times a day, in almost every case well-behaved and interacting positively. If crowds truly tended to be stupid, we’d witness many more stupid things done by crowds, and that’s just not the case. As I said sometimes crowds are intelligent, and sometimes stupid, just like individuals.

      • Becky says:

        What you say about experimenter bias is true and, due to humanity’s imperfect nature, unavoidable. Though it’s not a hole in scientific method, necessarily (or at least not in the way you characterize it), as the method itself accounts for bias in the review, recreate, retest portion of the process. Part of the scientific method is searching out bias, removing it in whatever form it appeared, and testing again to see if results remain consistent. So bias is indeed a factor, but it is not sufficient to discredit a notion that has been tested, revised, and tested again.

        Humans are social animals. It should not be surprising that we have behaviors that reflect that, including behaviors that are not particularly appealing, as in the bystander effect, gawker effect, whatever. That humans behave differently when there are more than one or two of them is an obviation. I don’t know how that could possibly be controversial.

        I suppose, whether or not the crowds in South Africa are well-behaved is a matter of opinion and/or degrees. And, of course, well-behaved is not the same as “smart;” just because you didn’t kill anyone or light anything on fire doesn’t mean you behaved as intelligently (for lack of a better word) as you might on your own.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Hah, I love it when I get to intersect an argument. The reproduction requirement in the scientific method merely screens out individual bias, not group bias. And what were you saying about the intelligence of groups? 😉 Furthermore, since direct reproduction duplicates the apparatus of the original, it does not get around any bias inherent in the experiment’s design, and in my study, psychological/sociological experiment design absolutely hums with bias. Yes, the intent of scientific method is not just reproduction, but constant refinement of experimental design for a given hypothesis, until it trundles all the way to status of law. But in general such biases tend to get interpolated into the process refinement.

          And I never said I discredit the scientific method. I said it has a Mack-truck-sized hole. It’s like Churchill’s quote: “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” The scientific method is by far the best system we have for understanding and predicting nature. That does not mean we should shuffle along completely unaware of its flaws. Science is always an important input into my thinking, but in the end, I think for myself.

          And in the very next para you wheel out another straw man. I never said humans don’t behave differently in crowds. Of course they do.

          And finally, the intersection between smart and well-behaved obviously depends on situation. In this particular case, the two happen to be fairly coincident, as anyone knows who if familiar with some of the historical behavior of football fans, as individuals or groups. Again, the claim that crowds tend to stupidity does not stand up to actual experience with crowds.

        • Becky says:

          What you’re saying would be true if every experiment was conducted by the same group, but that is not the case, no matter what definition of “group” you’re using–outside of “human,” and potentially “likely educated,” I suppose (though the latter isn’t even necessarily the case).

          You are trying to argue, it sounds like, that some degree of bias, whether one way or the other, is unavoidable. I agree with that and said as much. Not sure where you get the notion of shuffling along unaware of its flaws. I’d warn you not to talk to me like I’m an idiot if I weren’t so sure you were just trying to prolong the argument.

          Especially in social sciences, there is nothing to be done about human bias but to try to balance the biases in general movement towards a considered, well-rounded, and objective–insofar as such a thing is possible–picture of a given situation. We seem to agree on that point.

          There really is not much more to that story. I’m not sure why we’re still talking about it.

          I will say, though, that once you start talking about law, you’re talking about politics, which adds a level of influential bias above and beyond anything that science is capable of. We could throw media in there, too. I would say the distribution, consumption and application of science is separate from the science itself (even if it is related), at least at the theoretical level this discussion is on.

          As for my straw man, it was never intended to be an argument in and of itself. Just a distillation. More interesting is that you left the actual meat of the statement untouched. The gawker and bystander effects? Do these not exist? Have you ever watched, say, at a sporting game, the way people tend to organize themselves to move around? Is it smart because it creates a “traffic flow,” or is it idiotic because it holds as its most basic motivation a mindless sort of herd behavior?

          Again, the claim that crowds tend to stupidity does not stand up to actual experience with crowds.

          I’m not sure what to tell you, except maybe to concede that you are a much more generous person than I am.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I certainly hope you don’t think I was talking to you as if you were an idiot. I’ve never done that. And hey, I’ll offer immediate evidence that I’m not at all trying to prolong the argumen….


        • dwoz says:

          the only saving grace of social research is the damn odd phenomenon of Convergence of Error toward the Mean.

          Come to think of it, that’s probably the operant mathematical concept with crowds, instead of Reduction to Least Common Denominator…

          …”I will say, though, that once you start talking about law, you’re talking about politics, which adds a level of influential bias above and beyond anything that science is capable of. “…

          Becky, damned if this doesn’t seem to suggest that subjects with inherent bias cannot be studied? That when someone puts their thumb on the scale, we’re helpless to quantify it’s weight or factor for it?

        • Becky says:

          Oh, I have no problem with prolonging an argument for its own sake, but I do react badly to any suggestion–real or perceived–that I might be or condone being, of all things, uncritical.

          I mean, for one thing, it’s just not very observant.

          I take great pride in my griping, nit-picking, hyper-critical personality and will tolerate no assertions that it is anything less than off-putting in its relentlessness. Fault-finding is an art, I tell you. An art! My personality is my magnum opus. You may as well insult my mother.

          “Shuffle along unaware…” blasphemous.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Well, I’m not sure that Convergence of Error toward the Mean really works here. That principle applies in the case of reasonably stochastic patterns of error. I don’ think that’s the case for shared bias by experimenters and experiment designers. In this case the error is encapsulated in the bias, and bias, by its very nature is not stochastic. As a result, you get convergence of error toward the bias. It’s the old precision versus accuracy. Serial scientific process is quite capable of increasing confidence in a wrong hypothesis. That has happened many, many times when apparent psychological, sociological, medical, etc. truisms have been proven to be completely false, generally as new experimentation has emerged from a more and more diverse body of scientists, which has the effect of resisting (if far from completely eliminating) bias.

          And I think Becky misunderstood me. I meant scientific law, not political. I didn’t pounce on that because I didn’t think it was really important in the grand scheme, so I was managing my own argumentativeness 🙂

        • Becky says:

          dwoz, per usual, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m pretty sure it is unrelated to anything I said.

          I said that the application of science (policy/law as one application) and how people become aware of and/or are made to understand scientific research is different from the research itself.

          I guess you’re going to have to connect the dots for me because as far as I can tell, what you’ve given me is a non sequitur.

        • Becky says:

          Well I did misunderstand, but to your actual point, doesn’t the fact that some such “laws,” as you say, have proved false indicate that in the end, the method works?

          That something has been swayed by bias, and through the scientific process, the bias revealed and the law reconsidered?

          I mean, seems to me you just proved my point to some extent.

        • dwoz says:


          Yes, absolutely. I’m not talking about error within a single study, as much as error from a stochastic scattering of studies.

          For example, is chocolate ok, or evil, today? We seem to vacillate back and forth on that point, depending on which study is newest in our minds. At this stage though, we find the study bias converging to the mean, the mean being that reading chocolate studies is bad for your health.

          …”dwoz, per usual, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m pretty sure it is unrelated to anything I said.”…

          the experiment was a success!!!! yay!!! (hehehehehe)

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Becky, a ha! I’m glad you clarified what you reacted to in what I said. That was not directed at you. It was a neutral foil. Maybe that’s the same thing that was going on when I thought I saw you replacing my arguments with straw men¹, so fair play. I do think there are people who “shuffle along unawares” to the dictates of science, but I agree that between you and I, the argument is more of degree than such absolutes.

          ¹BTW I have a stupid hypothesis “straw man” is not given as an example of sexist language because no woman wants to be equated with that phenomenon 😉

      • dwoz says:

        I think it’s reasonably accurate to say that crowds, whether real or virtual, are a specific expression of commonality.

        The nature of that commonality determines the tenor of the crowd. the word commonality itself doesn’t tend to be evocative of expansive states of being…

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @dwoz: Right. As dangerous to stereotype crowds as individuals.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @Becky, not, you’re still misunderstanding me. Scientific laws can be proven false, but by the time something becomes a law it represents an enormous level of confidence. My point is that it’s perfectly common for that confidence to be completely betrayed. The separate fact that the scientific method allows for this betrayal to be later exposed does not contradict the basic danger of potentially misplaced confidence.

          And now I really do think I’m beating a dead horse, and will leave off (we’ll see if I actually *shall* 😉 ).

        • Becky says:

          In a crowd, even a thinking person will often act without thinking. Tenor has nothing to do with it. You both seem to have a different idea than I do about what, exactly, constitutes acting stupidly.

          My issue is with following behavior, whether it’s peaceful, violent, noisy, quiet, or otherwise. One can expect a fair amount of groupthink. A reluctance to think/act independently or contrarily to the masses.

        • Becky says:

          But it does contradict the notion that the scientific method is the problem. Skepticism is always well-advised because misplaced confidence is always a danger, but that, too, is a basic tenet of the scientific method.

          The scientific method is the solution to bias, not its source.

        • dwoz says:

          I almost agree.

          “Proper test design” is the solution to bias. Unfortunately, it’s extraordinarily difficult to do well. and double-extraordinarily hard when we’re talking social or perceptual testing.

          I used to work on a team that developed comparability algorithms for student achievement testing (i.e. the standardized tests you took in 4th grade, 6th grade, and 8th grade). Which is odd in and of itself because I’m personally very much against that kind of testing in the first place. The long and short of it is that there was bias in EVERYTHING. EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of the testing was rife with bias, right down to the type of pencils the students were given. crazy stuff like that. Bias due to morning vs. afternoon test sessions!!

          So the process was much like mowing down zombies on the front lawn. It was hopeless because the bias just kept getting back up. It had real effects on the width of a standard deviation of confidence, on all the qualitative measures.

          It really pissed all the PhD’s and masters interns off too. They thought they were going to get to sit around and eat donuts instead of having to schlub data with us paid guys.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Becky, I’ve already answered that one above. I’m pretty sure I’m not at all contradicting myself in claiming the scientific method is flawed. But I think we’re going in circles and getting precisely nowhere.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @dwoz, BTW, great story, and agree 100% with:

          ‘“Proper test design” is the solution to bias. Unfortunately, it’s extraordinarily difficult to do well. and double-extraordinarily hard when we’re talking social or perceptual testing.’

          And with the caution I read in:

          ‘The long and short of it is that there was bias in EVERYTHING. EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of the testing was rife with bias…!!’

        • Don Mitchell says:

          This is all interesting and has made me start thinking about a post about some differences between laboratory hypothesis-driven research, and the kind of inductive social-science research that people like me (an anthropologist) willy-nilly end up doing. And — because nobody on TNB or maybe anywhere else outside of professional journals would want to read that — about how that can, years later become the basis for fiction and poetry.

          While these comments have been appearing, I’ve been scanning 500 pages of field notes from 1969 (and have 700 or 800 to go, from later on) and I’ve been grabbing a few snatches to read while scanning.

          The notes show, in serial form (because I’m scanning them that way) how a researcher works his way into another language and culture. False starts. Misunderstandings. Possible hypotheses. Crowds and their behavior and what to make of it (for example, how to interpret a new-style feast with alcohol (this being only a year after alcohol was made legal for “natives”)). Relationship between individuals and kin groups. Power. Lethal actions. Loving actions. What to do when “sorcery cleansing” sweeps the area.

          Just an example of how it goes – I’ll paste in a couple of sections from my notes.

          [I] saw a [ceremonial house] which had maybe 50 or 70 pig jaws hanging up in it. I had the idea of looking at them and seeing from the dentition what the range of ages was at death. I sort of would like to do this, to get an idea of how long the average pig must be cared for before death. Problem is that I don’t know anything about pig dentition.

          Continuing along these same lines of thought, even though such assholes as [name of famous anthropologist I didn’t admire] have done their best to discredit things like calculations of calories, etc, I don’t think that it is entirely trivial to try to get at some quantitative measures of energy exchanges, provided it is done with a proper appreciation for error, etc.

          Some of the parameters I’d like to get at:
          1. pig population and distribution of ownership.
          2. what amount of energy (using the term loosely, here, meaning say hours of labor) is required to care for them, and, most importantly, what would be the difference between the different laws regarding where pigs are to be kept, etc.
          3. How long is a pig kept, on the average not forgetting [variance]) before it is either sold or eaten by the owner?
          4. And so on — I can’t quite get it all down, but I think that the interplay of prestige, cacao, pigs, money, [ceremonial shell valuables], taro vs [sweet potato], administration vs traditional ways, energy exchanges, etc., can all be put together into some very interesting patterns.”

          That’s what I wrote on 15 July 1969. There you have what eventually became the focus of my work. There were a bunch of loose areas scooting around in my head, but a bunch of pig jaws on a particular day brought them together. It took me another 3 years in the field, never working more than 3 or 4 miles from that collection of pig jaws, to refine my thinking and collect that data. A couple more years to work it up, and it got me the reputation for being the most quantitative guy of all those engaged in similar work. Which was not the reputation I really wanted.

          And now, 40 years later, I’m going through the notes again, using them as a source of ideas for fiction. Going from hard to soft.

          I think what I’m saying here is that I sense a view that “scientific” research into human societies (or crowds) is or should be conducted along the lines of ordinary laboratory research. Maybe I’m wrong about that — all those hours scanning may have addled whatever wit I started with — but I’m here to say that out there in the field with real people, there’s a lot more inductive go-with-the-flow than there is experimental design and structured data collection.

          I probably shouldn’t click Add comment, but I’m going to. Sometimes I feel as though my longer comments are the proverbial turd in the punchbowl. Uche, you’re in control of deletions.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Fuck you, Don, I’m not deleting your awesome comment! Sheesh! The nerve!


          I find this extremely interesting. The University of Nigeria at Nsukka was at the tail end of a lot of pioneering work while I was there. ( kept reading about all the acclaim from other unis, UNESCO and FAO NGOs, etc. From what I gathered it was all about qualitative analyses of energy consumed in particular patterns of husbandry and agriculture versus energy yield, and how those intersected with cultural development across the diverse landscapes of Nigeria. I wonder whether some of those dons took inspiration from your work.

          I have always preferred the inductive approach to such research. Yes there bias inherent in empirical observation just as there is in overt hypothesizing, but I think at least in the former case, the super-ego has its hands less firmly on the steering wheel.

          Be assured that when you post your full piece, you’ll have at least one avid reader.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          OK, don’t delete it then. I like that steering wheel analogy.

          The most condensed/refined piece that emerged from all that fieldwork can be read here:


          What I also showed elsewhere (a technical monograph, not available on the web) was that turning land over from subsistence agriculture to cash crop production wasn’t going to work out, because the cash income from a given land area was far too small to replace the food that area would have produced with purchased imported food.

          I predicted that the transition to cash cropping wasn’t going to be successful and my prediction came true. As a researcher, I was happy that I’d seen what was happening and that my predictions (backed up by hard data) had been borne out, I was greatly saddened by the fact that it meant that the people I cared greatly about got themselves into trouble.

          I tried to check the UNN library, just in case they had my book. But the library’s book search facility is for internal use only.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Fascination upon fascination. This supports my own bias. Yams, other tubers, legumes for Nitrogen fixing, and other vegetables were the subsistence agriculture in Igbo culture for centuries. My surname “Ogbuji” means “great yam farmer” and is quite an impressive honorific, underscoring the hierarchy of our traditional agriculture, and the extraordinary skill required to raise yams, which are famous for their high caloric energy yield; a good trade.

          Along came the British who in the midst of overall very complex economic and political pressures steered us more towards crops more obviously suited to mass-production, such as cassava and maize, which upset things pretty badly, not just by disrupting the naturally-developed process of crop rotation. Then the rush to cash crops such as rubber and oil palms came along, and it was utter devastation. We have never really recovered in terms of basic capacity for agriculture to support the population. Hunger was an absurdity in the southeastern rainforest in pre-colonial times , and we lost that benefit.

          To make things even worse, cash from crops were deemed insufficient in the years after independence, and we instead jumped into the bubble of wealth from mineral production. We did so without taking the opportunity of restoring pre-colonial modalities of agriculture in order to at least ensure subsistence, even though studies such as those at the UNN were demonstrating the urgent need for this. When the mineral wealth boom collapsed through mismanagement, as predictable, we were left with a real problem of effective poverty in a place. An astonishingly high amount of caloric intake in Igbo land now comes from imported cereals such as bread and rice. The absurdity is becoming the persistent reality.

          It’s an absolute crying shame, and I dearly wish more non-OECD policy-makers had found and appreciated your work.

          Haven’t yet had a chance to read the link. Still juggling work and TNB 😉

          ¹African yams, not sweet potatoes, as I know you know, but to avoid any general confusion

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I don’t want to suggest anything too outrageous, but if you guys really want to run with the bias thing, we might as well call the obsessive declaration of biases bias for being overly fixated on fault-finding in a world that is necessarily imperfect.

          That is to say, at some point, persisting in an ideology of infinite perfectability in which eradication of all bias is the ideal and only unassailable or at least acceptable end may be convenient for your rhetorical purposes here and in certain political discussions over the validity of statistics or pew polls, but it’s necessarily fantastic–unrelated to reality–and as a result, supernatural. Not the least bit scientific at all. It is an endless maze of “what ifs” with no real purpose but to sidestep an unsavory or inconvenient scientific finding.

          Certainly we are familiar with this very strategy as it exists among climate change “deniers.”

          I suspect the proper attitude and the one most conducive to actual knowledge is one that neither ignores bias nor aspires to eradicate it entirely. This, to the best of my knowledge, is what the scientific method does.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Yes, Becky. I couldn’t agree more about the bias worries. If there’s a sample to be collected you have to be very careful, but if you’re generating hypotheses or just working on something that seems like it might be interesting, to see where it goes, all you have to do about bias is recognize that it’s there.

          In the preface to my book I quote Rene Dumont, an excellent development theorist, to wit:

          “. . . scientific exactitude and doubt will always prevent me from considering my proposals absolutely ‘correct,’ no matter how much observation, thought and study have gone into their formation. If I arrive at honesty and objectivity, which is very difficult, I am pleased. Even the concept of ‘correct positions’ in political and economic matters, seems to me a scientific absurdity in the absolute sense.” (False Start in Africa, 1969:252-3)

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Uche, yes. I like yams very much (the kind you’re talking about). Dense and filling. Have you ever eaten taro?

          You should come to Hilo sometime when I’m there. We could have a tropical foods eating orgy!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Taking the spiral around the Dumont quote, and starting at the center, I’d say it’s a pretty quote, but not really useful in context. I can’t imagine anyone would disagree with it. Certainly a climate change denier would not disagree with it. In fact, a climate change denier would probably use the very same quote against climate change believers.

          Becky, nice try hiding the premise for the entire discussion, but I’ll none of that, either. I made a point about the pragmatic foolishness of assuming crowds are stupid in my post, and specifically decrying the bias that makes people stereotype crowds as stupid. You mentioned scientific studies that indicated that crowds tend to stupidity. I said that those scientific studies are not immune to the very fundamental bias we’re arguing. I disagree that your dear studies are a good reason to assume crowds are stupid, and I brought in discussion of bias because it was fundamental to the point from the very first paragraph of my post, and not because I am obsessed with bias. So once again, nice try but no dice.

          As I said: “The scientific method is by far the best system we have for understanding and predicting nature. That does not mean we should shuffle along completely unaware of its flaws. Science is always an important input into my thinking, but in the end, I think for myself.”

          But you have said nothing else that newly contradicts any of my points, so having dispatched the “obsessive declaration of biases” red herring, I’ll leave off to antecedent.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Don, re: taro, yep. We call it cocoyam, but it’s the main ingredient of Epang Nkukwo, the most famous dish from Calabar, my Mom’s homeland area. Gawd I’m hungry all of a sudden!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I advise you calm down with the divination of my motivations.

          I think you may be the least perceptive person I have ever seen. I’m not that hard to see through, but you’re batting about .150 at this point.

          And really. No need to reiterate the discussion. I’ve been here the whole time. As for my “dear studies,” (which is SO over-the-top hostile, by the way), I wonder if I am expected to accept your opinions and anecdotes in their stead?

          What do you propose as an alternative?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think I’ve already stated the alternative: *your own* anecdotes, and (I expect) reasoned thinking from which your opinions. No sure what I *should* say when it does feel to me that we’re going in repetitive circles. Best to say nothing, I guess.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Such a cop out, Uche. Everything’s endlessly relative? We should all just operate on our own anecdotes? PoMo points for you.

          Don’t feign humility. It’s indecorous at this point.

        • dwoz says:

          I don’t have to assume or divine your motivations, I already know them.

          They’re written right on your forehead.

          …what, nobody ever showed you how to read foreheads?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Becky, once again I’m not sure what you’re reading. Certainly not humility on my part. And PoMo? Ouch! That’s a low blow.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Stop hyping the relativity of experience, protesting the evil metanarrative (boogeyman!) and I’ll stop calling you PoMo. Pretty easy.

          Feigned humility. Insisting multiple times that you’re done and there’s nothing civilized left to say, but keeping talking anyway.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Sorry, you were saying something about hostility earlier? 😉 There is indeed nothing more civilized to say, but I’m still talking anyway. Why not? I’m self-indulgent. Is that what you call “humility” or “feigned humility” too? Your frames of reference are entirely alien to me.

          Which of course makes it not so unusual that you are so far off in the weeds with that relativity business. The same weeds, I suppose from which you construct the straw man you label “protesting the evil metanarrative.” I’m not someone you remember meeting in some theory class, but I also can’t stop you from any such misidentification.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          After I drink more coffee I’ll say why I included the Dumont quote.

          Maybe I’d better read the whole exchange again. I had the feeling that the Uche/Becky/Dwoz/me disagreements were not great — matters of degree of adherence to the classic scientific method. Maybe I missed a key disagreement.

        • Becky says:


          Are you trying to hold up a ribbing against formal logic? I’m going to start an Uche drinking game. Drink once every time Uche says straw man, drink twice every time he blames it all on cultural differences, whatever it is.

          Don, no. At least I don’t think you did. I gave up the actual defense of any serious point after my *high five* to you and have just been needling since, but I’m having a hell of a time getting Uche to play.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Hmm, Don, it’s really not that important. I don’t think there are any substantive disagreements here at all about the scientific method. The actual disagreement is whether it makes sense to assume crowds are stupid, and everything else is just jabbing convenient pins into voodoo dolls.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    As someone whose on work has spawned a caustic dressing down by another TNB author, I can’t help but feel compassion for Gregory Levey. I took his piece as more of a cautionary tale (which should more properly be regarded as a celebratory tale from a PR perspective).

    I interpreted his comments about the relative intellectual capacities of the Facebook fans to be inoffensive, simply because I don’t believe that Gregory or anyone reading his piece, might honestly believe that 700,000 people could be established to be “stupid” for liking his page. Had Gregory gone to more elaborate lengths to convince readers that these people were of lesser intellectual mettle, then I would most surely have cried foul. But in this case, it seemed to me to be simple literary puffery.

    The debate you raise about interpretation is an exciting one, to say the least. And one that every content publisher should consider carefully, because as you say, once we put something into the hands and minds of the public, we relinquish all control as to how it is consumed. We may go to extraordinary lengths within the content and subsequent to its publication, but as you point out, there is no guarantee that our creation will be accepted or interpreted as such. In fact, I argue that it is the absolute right of each person to ascertain, articulate, and defend their own individual meaning of the publication, no matter how divergent from the original author’s intent.

    So basically, I don’t think any of the 700K fans of the page are stupid and I certainly don’t think their actions in liking his page are proof of anything but impulse, nor do I think Gregory was unreasonably reckless or arrogant in his treatment of the issue.

    • dwoz says:

      one point to the discussion about content creation and relinquishing of control…

      another aspect of the whole social media “revolution” involves the crafting of a new ethic around copyright and intellectual property rights in general…

      The one side, affectionately called the “freetards” by many, see copyright and content control as being some kind of stupid anachronism.

      Another side sees the content control issue as being a direct attack on their bread and butter.

      There’s yet another side, the content aggregators. These people (i.e. google) don’t create content themselves, but rather mash up other’s content into a new context. They also see copyright and IP rights as being a problem, but from the standpoint that it annoyingly impacts their profits.

      I see Uche’s comments as side-stepping this aspect of things.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Oh dear! I certainly hope this situation is not comparable to yours, Joe. I really did try hard to express that this is not an attack on Gregory. My response to Gregory’s piece itself were exactly as I expressed in my first comment. To paraphrase:

      * Wow I’m surprised that took you so by surprise (it turned out to be unpopular that I mentioned that I myself had cottoned on right away, but I’m not sure what else I was to appeal to by my own impression as a FB user)
      * Really? Do you really think an unflattering comment to the 700K is warranted or a good idea?

      I think of that as a fairly mild reaction. What got my dander up was the chorus of comments castigating the 700K, and then, as the story caught on in other Weblogs, the extremely condescending attitude I found so common and casual.

      When you got the dressing down, it seemed a very direct attack on what you yourself had written. I found that uncalled-for. I hope I’ve not been a hypocrite.

      • Joe Daly says:

        Nothing you wrote was uncalled for- you were respectful, you articulated your point well, and in a few parts of your own piece, you specifically acknowledged Gregory (even giving him props with a link).

        I saw the parallel in that Gregory, like me, probably thought his post would be taken one way (i.e. a humorous, inoffensive “look what happened to me” piece), but it ended up birthing a rather spirited debate that actually garnered a separate piece from another contributor about a decidedly larger issue.

        I see where I implied pretty directly that your piece was a dressing down of Gregory, and that was bad writing on my part, as it was not my intent. I apologize for that- the “dressing down” applied to my own situation only. My empathy for Gregory is in the assumption that there’s no way he could have thought that his piece would have thrust him into the spotlight of this particular debate.

        You’re a gentleman and a scholar, Uche! Apologies for all implications that you have not been fair and reasoned in your piece. I enjoyed the read and I continue to enjoy the debate that is unfolding in these comments.

        • Dana says:

          Get a room.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @Joe: Yeah, makes sense. Gregory seems to be a magnet for attention. Some people just got that glow 🙂

          @Dana, you’re just jealous, you!

        • Joe Daly says:

          >>Get a room.<<

          Hey, did someone here order a douchey comment?

        • Dana says:

          Wasn’t that just a bit of over the top mannerliness? Sheesh fellas, take the gloves off every now and then. Or at least the shoes.

          I just wanted to get in on the topic, but really didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. It’s pretty much how I go through life.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Dana, but I’m confused. What do we do when we take the gloves off? I’ve heard of this thing called embracing, but I can not fathom what it might actually be.

        • I guess I don’t really understand what all this dissension is about. Gregory hit a hot web meme and now has 700k people unwittingly at his marketing mercy. Calling them stupid is indeed condescending, but also indicative of a commenter population that is over 30. Hey, on my facebook page, I list a bunch of bands, books, and movies that I think reflect my taste and might give a stranger an idea of who I am. 15 year-olds, who are probably 90% of the people who linked to the Shut Up I’m Talking idea, don’t care about reflecting their taste. They’re not linking his page for anything but a momentary laugh. Whereas many of us care about the things we link to and how they reflect upon us, the current teendom finds those connections disposable and ultimately meaningless. For them, there is no lasting value. We are like Diane Fosse, trying to ascribe an anthropological purpose while crouching amongst the ferns, but in the end there is none. Calling them stupid is lazy, reductive, and far from the mark. They are the next iteration of the same teens ridiculed for finding Elvis so fascinating, just with a better pixel count. They’ll learn, we’ll pontificate, and in the end nothing at all has changed.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Well, it seems to have become a bit like pontiff fight club. People are just squaring off and duking it out over whatever random topic grabs them. Every now and then someone remembers that Facebook, or 700K punters are meant to be in the picture somewhere, but that’s usually just a fleeting concern as the combatants return their attention to the clinch.

          As a born argumentative, I’m loving every minute of it 😉

        • Joe Daly says:

          Next thing you know, you’re going to try to tell me that Catullus was actually being sincere in his 49th poem, when the entire right-thinking world knows that he was being bitingly sarcastic, holding Cicero in microscopically small esteem.

        • dwoz says:

          are you insinuating that Cicero had a microscopically small esteem? That’s hitting below the belt.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Whatever, Sean. Have you ever talked to a teenager?

          Diane Fosse had it easy.

          You don’t think it’s reductive to say “They’re just 21st century Elvis fans?”



        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Catullus. Huh Huh Huh….Huh Huh Huh. Joe made me think of Lesbia. Huh Huh Huh….Huh Huh Huh.

        • I talk to teenagers all the time and am consistently amazed by how smart, more savvy, and more interesting they are than I remember being. Of course, I tend to talk to the subgroup that claims to like books as opposed to the one that claims to like sniffing glue, so my impressions may be a bit skewed, but I doubt it matters much.

          I’m not sure that really is any more convincing than REALLY, but I do think the point that teenagers tend to become slightly unhinged by whatever entertainment is popular at the time without it necessarily reflecting on their intelligence is a valid one.

        • Becky says:

          Well, hell.

          The children are our future, I guess.

          I just don’t want to talk to the future until it’s at least 22. And not even after that if it’s still reading Twilight.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Sean, you and I have similar experiences. I meet a lot of very intelligent, articulate and composed teenagers, of several subgroups. So much so that I sometimes wonder whether they’ve grown up too quickly. At the same time as I mentioned elsewhere in comments, teenage minds are very malleable, and that sometimes manifests into behaviors that test the patience of adults, but I believe that even what we would call junk stimulation does not necessarily lead to stunting teenage intelligence.

          I highly recommend to people curious about these issues the work of Dana Boyd, whose research (which, mind you, I review with a critical mind 😉 ) demonstrates very well that typical social media crowd behavior, especially among the young, is far richer, more sophisticated, and, yes, wiser than people tend to suppose.


  7. I’m sort of rethinking having “Circle Jerks” as one of my favorite bands on Facebook.

  8. Very thoughtful and informative piece, Uche. And now I’m off to try and create my own Facebook page that can perhaps attract even half the amount of Gregory Levey’s “Like” fans.

    Maybe I’ll call my page:

    “Hey, Shut The Fuck Up, I’m Talking Here…Well…Perhaps That Was a Bit Rude of Me…Can You At Least Keep Your Voice Down While I Talk…Ummm…Never Mind…I’ll Shut Up…You Just Go Ahead and Keep On Talking”

  9. sheree says:

    All this over a site that’s used by more high school, college and grade school kids than by perspective book buyers is absolutely hysterical to me. But then again I’m a dumb country fuck whose easily bemused by bruised egos. WTF do I know.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Sheree, well, the funny thing is that I’m active on FB *because* of TNBers. For the longest time I didn’t even join. I felt it well beneath me. I ended up joining because a bunch of my local friends (definitely not kiddies) stopped using e-mail and started communicating entirely on FB. I wanted to continue to interact with those friends, so I gave up and joined them. And then I started to accumulate TNB friends, who now number over 50, and with whom I have a lot of interesting, fascinating, energizing, and yes often very literary interaction.

      So once again, I think stereotyping is dangerous.

      • sheree says:

        Lemme slip a little hick on ya. In one hand I have TNB’ers who use face book. In the other hand I have the actual amount of people under 25yrs old who use face book to post photos of themselves getting shit faced over the weekend instead of reading a book or shopping for one on Face book. Which hand do you think is fullest? And again I’ll mention wtf do i know.

        • dwoz says:

          let me paint you a picture. If the number of facebook subscribers can actually be believed, then it’s mostly adults now.

          I bet if you could get access to the relationship maps in Facebook, it would look like a terrestrial map, with large friend masses separated from each other by oceans.

          To some extent, those friend masses will be grouped around primary spoken language, around age, around geographical commonality…but the point is, there are lots of them.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Right, and before Facebook, teens and tweens had telephones with which to call each other and engage in hours of non-information-bearing communication. “What you doing?” “Nothing? Um, you know” “Yeah, for real” “That shit with John was funny! Haha!” “Yeah! Haha…”

          And for millenia before telephones teens and tweens gathered in common rooms to engage in the same.

          And Back in ancient Rome teens and tweens gathered at the campa, and the balnea and the palaestra engaging in the same sort of conversation, and scribling rude graffiti o the walls. And Athenian youth at the agora would do the same.

          And so on, and so on.

          In general, teens and tweens are learning communication, and intellect. That is fundamental to that stage of human development. Adults love to forget their own stultifying histories and come up with all sorts of poorly-considered commonplaces about said teens and tweens.

          Facebook didn’t start the fire. That was some punk teenage cave-dude arsonist.

        • Becky says:

          Okay, this is just incorrect. A generalization, if you will. For my part, I don’t hate teenagers because I’ve forgotten that I was one.

          I hate them because I remember it all too well. I remember what I was thinking, what my friends were thinking, and, having been there, above all, I know how wrong we all were about so many things.

          I’m more than happy to meet (and acknowledge) teens who defy my general expectations for that age group, but God as my witness, there aren’t too many. Their brains aren’t done cooking, and they act like it.

          This has nothing to do with facebook, I just like talking about how much teenagers get on my nerves.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I didn’t say “Becky”. “Adults love to” is by construct a generalization. That doesn’t make it incorrect. And the bit about hating teens is yours, and nothing to do with anything I said. Have fun with your generalized hatred of teenagers. I do not share that.

          And of course this has nothing to do with Facebook. That’s my point to Sheree.

          And finally, yes. I’ve edited this comment, for clarity, not content 😉

        • sheree says:

          It has nothing to do with facebook? Mea culpa. I thought the guy was bitching about how many comments he got on face book that were related to the title of his book and not the book itself. How i got confused is beyond me.

        • Becky says:

          Well, I was joking, in part. At least hyperbolizing.

          Hence the misfit nature of the comment.

          It is true that teenagers make me uncomfortable and annoyed, mostly because they are uncomfortable and annoyed all the time, and my empathic capabilities (which folks may be surprised to learn are formidable), though generally under control when not totally suppressed, are seriously vulnerable to the essential awkwardness of adolescence.

          That shit’s like a dust storm. Seal off whatever you want; the gawkiness will get in.

          Get away from me, kid. You’re getting hormones and insecurity all over everything.

          That is my serious opinion, sans hyperbole, since I see that teenagers are no joking matter ’round here.

        • dwoz says:

          The wonderful thing about emerging teens is the unbridled confidence; having utterly mastered the universe in all of it’s aspects.

          The sad thing about teens is that they’re on the cusp of discovering that they live inside a little toy teacup.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @Becky, Damn, got me again 🙂

          @Sheree, you do realize that there has been more than one topic under discussion throughout this thread, right?

        • Becky says:

          The problem with the unbridled confidence, dwoz, is that it’s a bluff.

          Nervous posturing as they begin to realize how much, in fact, they have no fuckin’ clue whatsoever about and their desperate attempts to appear and feel like they’re on top of a situation that is swiftly spinning totally and utterly out of their control.

          Poor, obnoxious things.

          Unbridled confidence is for two year-olds.

          It’s all downhill from there, man.

        • dwoz says:

          @Becky…I know exactly what you mean. Bang on.

          In fact, your statement precisely corroborates my own personal experience of being a teenager for the last 35 years.

          I know that’s just anecdotal empirical data, but hey, ya gotta have faith in SOMETHING.

  10. sheree says:

    “And of course this has nothing to do with Facebook. That’s my point to Sheree.”

    Okie dokie.

  11. JM Blaine says:

    I clicked thoughting
    it said

    Uche Ogbuji argues the importance
    of circumcision
    when faced with unexpected behavior
    by social media users.

    Wrong number.

  12. Greg Olear says:

    Did someone mention The Wisdom of Crowds yet? I’m late to the game.

    The Galton study: 500 people at a fair in Scotland guess how much a pig weighs. The average of all 500 guesses is almost the exact answer, and closer than any one individual answer. This happens all the time, apparently, although we like to think it doesn’t.

    I have to go read this again now. I feel like I’m taking a class…

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Okay, but how is knowing the weight of a pig wisdom? How does that help us with, say, the liar’s paradox, or what to do about global warming?

      • Greg Olear says:

        It doesn’t apply to everything, just certain situations…which I think speaks to Uche’s point. Letting go of what is intuitive in certain situations and letting something go organically. But I’m really tired today, and I have a sinus thing going, so I may well be reading it wrong.

        The counter-argument: many millions re-elected Bush and have made American Idol a smash hit, so perhaps Ibsen (and Leavey) are right: the majority of the people are always wrong, because the majority of the people are idiots.

        Global warming? Easy. Stop using fossil fuels. Oh, and, get the sun to be consistently warm, as that is certainly part of the problem.

        I don’t know what the liar’s paradox is…or is that a lie?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      @Greg, a ha! cue dwoz with his Convergence of Error toward the Mean. And I don’t think anyone has mentioned The Wisdom of Crowds, but it’s a good mention. I do mention in my piece how pragamatists are gaining advantage from that power. A career writer succumbs to contempt of that wisdom at their peril.

      @Becky, another underhanded blow! You ask Greg to solve problems that no other human endeavor, including science, are able to solve. And besides, it’s unrepentant arisotelianism to even *want* to “solve” the liar’s paradox. What would be the actual benefit of doing so?

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I think you overestimate my knowledge of philosophy, Uche. You keep talking about Aristotle and I don’t know what you mean. Just because I tend toward the philosophical doesn’t mean I’m a philosopher. I’m speaking intuitively here. I’m not operating from a book. Individualist, remember?

        My point with Greg was that estimating the weight of a pig has but nil application under the (or perhaps I should say OUR or HIS) current circumstances. Estimating the weight of a pig is not particularly useful in contemporary western culture. So. What IF a large group can estimate the weight of a pig? So what?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Ah. When you first mentioned the “militant individualist” bit I started writing a whole bunch about Descartes, and the mistaken legacy of Erasmus and other Humanists, and all that. I deleted it before posting the comment because I fell into in the mood for sticking to the argument. Hence the terse comment I left instead. Now I’m doubly glad I didn’t post that 😉

          Obviously Greg was just giving an example which had seized his interest. Nevertheless, for me, guessing the weight of a pig is far more useful than “solving” the liar’s paradox.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Must be an African thing.

          Oh yeah.

          I went there. 😉

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Now you’re talking! Yep, one thing Aristotle most certainly was *not* was earthy.

          Greg, see? You’re more motherland than you probably knew B-)

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Is “earthy” preferable? Is that your bias?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I am an absolute sucker for earthy. There. Now you know my weakness.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m all about the ether. We are at an impasse.

      • dwoz says:

        there’s gotta be a way to turn the guessing a pig’s weight into a bar trick.


  13. Informative piece, Uche. The internet is still mostly Greek to me (and that was my nod at philosophy–that’s all you’re getting from me there, since I’m seeing how this comment board could quickly eat up two days of a person’s work time!)

    But I’ve gotta say, given Joe’s reference to the Steve Almond situation, okay, I know none of this is quite “the same thing,” but I’m tempted to send Steve the link to this piece to illustrate that we aren’t all just neck deep in kumbaya over here at TNB. Despite the plethora of smiley face emoticons!

    Carry on.

  14. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Neat point. Comments on this piece have been epic both in level of wrassling and level of smileys. Maybe we just like to pretend kumbaya 😉 Oops! There goes another one.

    Anyway, I did think Steve’s piece crossed a line, but I don’t think it’s a sacrosanct line. Whenever this many smart and opinionated people get together there are going to be conflicts, and some will be huge, and some will be minor, but I like to think that none will lead to permanent feuds and vendettas and the like. The Steve Almond affair came, and it has passed, and I hope everyone can put it behind them (I certainly hope Joe and Steve can). Ditto all the minor tiffs in comments above.

    Err, sorry. I realize I’m not helping your no-kumbaya argument 😉

  15. Gloria says:

    I finally read Gregory’s piece, and now this one – and most of the comments on both. My head is kind of spinning. I might lie down now.

    What were we talking about?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I think we were talking about Wonderland. And there was this crazy character Humpty Dumpty…


      But hey, if you lie down now, won’t you miss the fireworks?

  16. Gloria says:

    I am intentionally missing the fireworks. My boys left with their dad about two hours ago. I’m hunkered down in my bedroom in pants, a tee shirt, a hoodie, and a big, terrycloth bathrobe typing on my computer ignoring the chaos. I’m in a funky place these days and being around drunks with pyrotechnics doesn’t appeal to me. I see all those fireworks going off in the sky and I think about the cost and the waste. If I stepped out my front door, I would be able to see the huge fireworks display that will be set off on the Willamette in about half an hour – but I don’t want to. Because all I can think about is the letter I received from the Portland Public School superintendent the other day, which detailed the ways in which the “budget crisis” will affect the schools in this city, which already has fewer school days than (almost?) any other city in the nation. And I know how much that big display costs. And I don’t understand nationalism, which is its whole own debate that I don’t want to get into right now.

    Bah humbug.

    I’m great fun at parties.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      What gets me is that every silly town and hamlet wants to have its own fireworks display. Why the heck is that necessary? Can’t they just pool funds and pick one location? Maybe even rotate among nearby towns?

      And as an immigrant, properly confused between at least two nations and probably three, and personally far more interested in individual than national merit (hey! an oblique mention of the individual/group debate!), I sympathize with your sentiments.

  17. Zara Potts says:

    Wow. I feel stupid.

  18. Enjoyed the precision and even-handedness w/ which you approach the question of how to treat the 700,000. And I couldn’t agree w/ your conclusion more.

  19. Simon Smithson says:

    To quote Litsa: your article was precise, and it was even-handed… I’m not sure these are traits that will stand you in good stead on the internet.

    Oh, lookit. Now I generalised.

    It’s so interesting to me how this affair has played out – similar things happened on Twitter, I hear, with offers of vouchers given out shortly after its inception, which soon exploded in a frenzy of viral-marketing-to-real-world redemption (maybe at a Taco Bell? I can’t remember the exact occasion), because, quite simply, the offerers of the voucher underestimated how powerful Twitter’s reach could be. And while this isn’t the same situation, in generality, they can be catalogued together: Episode A is expected to lead to Effect B, but in fact leads to Effect C, the passage being social media.

    And maybe they were all idiots, or at least, too quick to assume ‘Shut Up, I’m Talking’ was something it wasn’t. Statistically, it’s possible. Unlikely, but possible (depending on how you define idiot).

    But it’s far too hasty to snarkily look down your nose (the royal you, of course), and make fun.

    Far too stupid, too, when you have a marketing opportunity most writers would kill for, in this day and age.

    Fascinating piece, Uche. I’ve been wanting to get to it sooner, but, I’ve been depressurising from the trip.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks. Yeah, I’m sure some of the 700K really are stupid in general, but “stupid” isn’t really the word for an action taken according to the design of a social network (Facebook “likes” are encouraged as a viral activity, not as a deep introspection into the nature of a link). The author should have understood that once playing on Facebook, he is playing by FB rules. And yes, more importantly, it seems a sinful opportunity to pass up.

      For my own part and prejudice, I would love a social network that encouraged depth rather than breadth in linking. That’s the essence of my discourse on “context”. I actually don’t think it would be a technically hard thing to do, but right now launching a new social network is rather quixotic, with Twitter and FB pwning to the extent they are. Maybe GoodReads could take a turn that way? Since they already have a head start and all. I’m happy to offer my consulting services to GR. They can contact me about my rates 😀

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I’ll drop a word into them.

        Damn it. I’ve got to start a GoodReads account. And I’ve got to start Tweeting again. And then there’s whatever the forthcoming Google SN site it.



        I’ve noticed something. The last few days, I’ve:

        – asked for suggestions of where to take a visiting friend while she’s in Melbourne
        – asked for suggestions of new music
        – thrown open a friendly competition as to who will get to come along to the movies with me (my neighbours kindly gave me two free Gold Class tickets)

        When you actually use social networking for social networking? Madre de Dios! You get results!


      • Ben Loory says:

        uche, you should really contact goodreads. they are still small enough and smart enough to actually be interested in what their users have to say. it’s a good site but it could definitely be better, and they have the right kind of clientele for what you’re talking about.

        see how easily i volunteer you??

        now i have to go read some more 50s sci-fi…

  20. I like Your New style guys

  21. […] UCHE OGBUJI weighs in on Leavey’s fan base. […]

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