Contagious Kontomo – Public

(Reading time: approx. 3 min.)

In this fourth brief essay bouncing off of Jonah Berger’s book on information virality, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, I’d like to tackle the public/private paradox.

Let’s start with an example Berger gives about how public visibility (or the lack of it) can affect transparency and interpretation of information.

For a…familiar example, think about the last time you sat through a bewildering PowerPoint presentation. …At the end of the talk, the speaker probably asked the audience if anyone had any questions.

The response?

But not because everyone else understood the presentation. The others were probably just as bewildered as you were. But while they would have liked to raise their hands, they didn’t because each one is worried that he or she is the only person who didn’t understand. Why? Because no one else was asking questions. No one saw any public signal that others were confused so everyone keeps his doubts to him- or herself. Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

Jonah Berger (Contagious, 133)

One could disagree with Berger’s proposed interpretation of course. The silence could be partly cultural; you could be refraining from asking a question that might be misunderstood and cause unnecessary controversy. Or perhaps, the question was too personal to air publicly. Or maybe you simply didn’t care enough to make it worth the effort of asking. And yes, perhaps, it could be an issue of confidence and courage…

Regardless, Berger’s hypothetical example feels familiar to us because ‘herd behavior’ and ‘social proof’ are hard to deny and are such powerful forces. At the same time, people don’t arbitrarily hop on just any bandwagon just because “others are doing it.” Berger doesn’t explore this aspect too much in Contagious, but for people to join in a certain behavior or belief, there must be some level of sympathetic concurrence between individual egos. That is, there has to be some level of common interest in some area. Plus, the “cost” of joining in the behavior has to feel morally and financially within reach, relative to the attractiveness of joining.

Likewise, the above hypothetical scenario could unfold differently. If one person were to confidently challenge the speaker with questions or comments that strike a chord with the audience, others might indeed rise up as well. But add strong negative feelings of anger or frustration to that, and we’ve created heated arguments. There’s a reason moderators are placed on discussion panels and courtrooms are designed the way they are with barricades and separated sections. Without some buffers, both logical and physical, it’s all too easy for a discussion to devolve into a frenzied brawl.

The point I’d like to emphasize here, and to borrow from Berger’s hypotheses, is not so much that herd behavior happens, but that the magnitude of such behavior is related to how visible it is.

Visibility is truly a multi-edged sword. The more a certain behavior is publicly exposed, the more that behavior becomes a possibility for people who wouldn’t have even thought of it in the first place. And this is for all types of behavior, whether happy or sad, beneficial or detrimental, productive or destructive, thoughtful or thoughtless.

It is not coincidence that, for better or worse, the visual aspect of social media has both made it easier to magnify actions and behaviors in both scale and duration. Particularly pointed examples are everywhere – whether it is the impressive intensity and longevity of the protests in Hong Kong, the Climate Crisis marches inspired by Greta Thunberg, migrant caravans, and I would argue, even the increased frequency and scale of gun violence in the U.S..

Now, in concerts, the simplest and most obvious observable action is probably the applause. Perhaps you’ve been to a concert where you weren’t actually too impressed, but saw some enthusiastic people in front or beside you jump up and give a standing ovation? And even if you had a strong and confident contrary opinion, perhaps you felt quite a bit of pressure to join the crowd in the standing ovation, especially as more and more people join in? (Add to that that your view is nil if everybody around you is standing up and you’re the only one sitting!)

Standing ovations, however, only affect the behavior of those who are there at the concert (and have stayed to the end). And from a marketing and social, perspective, the realities of today suggest that concerts are in need to go beyond applause as the channel of social approval or abstract discourse. And yet we have not moved beyond or built upon applause because there is not yet a consistently better alternative.

(Please note, I am intentionally leaving out the variable of concert ‘content’ here. Neither am I suggesting that applause should be replaced. And yes, I am envious of European audiences who manage to spontaneously applause in sync – it eludes American audiences!)

In this perspective, one hint in the direction things are going is the trend of taking photos of playbills as a memento and evidence of participation in a concert, and sharing through social media.

It only feels natural that we want to be proud of belonging to a concert, and to leverage that by being visible. We also appreciate having a souvenir, even if we might end up losing it or throwing it away. It is literally, just as the word souvenir means in French – to remember/recall. There’s this strong desire to belong in a group yet still have a private identity that’s kept just to yourself; to have the option of being able to recall yet willingly forget.

At Kontomo, these philosophical yet practical issues are part of the foundation of how we think. In our soon-to-be-released new version, we’re proposing a new way to address these issues of visibility and the public/private paradox in concerts and events. Sensitivity to the balance between private thoughts and public camaraderie is central to the eventgoer-centered social experience.