What do Frank Sinatra, fake Twitter followers and professional mourners all have in common? We explore how social imitation works and how it could help explain why people flock to your site or leave in their droves.
It was the screaming girls that spurred J Edgar Hoover into action. Francis Albert Sinatra was a threat. If the letter was right then the “shrill whistling sound” of those girls screaming for him was planting the idea in the minds of Americans that their very own Hitler would be ok. It was the anonymous letter about those screaming girls that brought him to the attention of the FBI chief.
Sinatra’s first solo appearance at New York’s Paramount Theatre was deemed a sensation. The young women in the crowd loved him. How was J Edgar Hoover supposed to know that a year on from starting that FBI file on Sinatra that the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would invite Sinatra to the White House for tea? Roosevelt praised Sinatra telling him, “Fainting, which once was so prevalent, has become a lost art among the ladies, I’m glad you have revived it.” How was either, the director of the FBI or the President of the United States of America supposed to know that some of those girls were actually paid to scream for Ol’ Blue Eyes? Here’s some background on the story:
In December 1942, on one of the biggest nights in the musician’s calendar, Bob Weitman, of the Paramount Theatre in New York, booked Benny Goodman’s clarinet and big band, still thought of as the best in the country. For reasons he never could explain, Bob Weitman also booked Frank Sinatra to sing with the band, despite the fact that Goodman was bringing Peggy Lee. Then George Evans made his move. He arranged for fans, young women, who were paid $10 a pop, to attend and make as much of a scene as possible. They didn’t disappoint.
When Sinatra took to the stage, a small army of girls became hysterical, yelling, ‘swooning’, in a display that shocked even the tough-arsed Goodman, who’d seen a few crazes. Sinatra became the latest ‘teen sensation’ virtually overnight. He stayed at the Paramount for a couple of months. Evans coined the term ‘bobby-soxers’ to describe his nurturing fan base and set about building Sinatra into a national force. They set up fan clubs everywhere and ensured a loyal following at every show. Pretty soon Sinatra could write his own contracts with Columbia Records and RKO Pictures. On a return visit to the Paramount in 1944, the street ground to a halt at the mercy of screaming crowds, estimated at 25,000. Monkey see; monkey do.
The Washington Post report confirmed the story that a “press agent later conceded that at least part of the Paramount hysteria was staged”. The press agent admitted:
“We hired girls to scream when he sexily rolled a note,” the agent said. “But the girls we hired to scream swooned, and hundreds more we didn’t hire swooned with them.”
So why did the women, who weren’t paid, scream for Frank? George Evans understood that people tend to imitate one another. By paying a few women to scream it eventually leads to more screaming and a huge contract with Columbia Records. Terms, like social proof, informational cascades and bandwagon effect essentially describe the same thing – that people tend to look to others to make their own decisions. The women in the crowd that night decided to copy the others who were paid to “swoon”.
In their influential paper, A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades, Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch put forward the theory of “informational cascades”. From the paper [PDF]:
“An informational cascade occurs when it is optimal for an individual, having observed the actions of those ahead of him, to follow the behaviour of the proceeding individual without regard to his own information.”
People will often imitate the actions of others without thinking for themselves if they think they are learning something from others. In James S book, Wisdom of the Crowds explains information cascades happen because people “…believe they’re learning something important from others” (p.54)
Terms such as bandwagon effect, social proof and informational cascades may be relatively new, but there are examples of them occurring in the ancient world. Egyptians even hired professional mourners to cry at funerals:
A person’s status was judged by how many mourners were present at the funeral. Sometimes, families would hire professional mourners to cry hysterically at the funeral. These women would wave their arms, throw dust in their hair, and weep. The better the performance, the more they were paid!!
Social proof and your site
If people have used social proof since ancient Egypt, then there’s a reason behind it – it works. Information is costly, either in time or money spent, so it’s often rational to follow what others are doing. Visitors to a site are likely to make decisions based on what other people think. This could come from
- Feed subscriber numbers
- Twitter Followers
- Facebook Fans
- Number of comments
- Comment count
- Number of users currently online
Depending on the browser or add-ons they use or what third party sites they visit people could also make a judgement based on:
- Votes from social news and bookmarking sites
- Incoming links
- Alexa rank
- Page rank
Most of those topics have already been discussed at length and there are already a number of excellent resources for helping to increase Twitter followers, Facebook fans, comment counts, incoming links and other social proof elements that you might like to look at. Instead, we thought it might be interesting to explore the topic from a slightly different angle and ask – is it ever worth faking social proof elements on a website?
Faking social proof?
We’ve already seen that Frank Sinatra’s manager paid for girls to scream and as far back as ancient Egypt people were faking social proof, so is it really a surprise when the same thing happens online?
There are a number of different services that allow you to fake your own Twitter followers (which we won’t link to here).
It’s easy to see why people would be tempted to fake their Twitter followers. The perception that a site is popular will almost inevitably lead to that site becoming even more popular. Like diamonds, value is based on perception.
There are also articles recommending that you pretend to be someone else to increase your comment count and various tools for sites like Youtube to make it appear that multiple people are commenting on your video. There are other examples of people faking sales to increase their rankings on sales charts.
Author, David Vise, was caught buying 20,000 copies of his own book. Some publishers claimed that it was to manipulate book charts (although Vise denies those charges). John Kremer didn’t buy his own books but instead used email lists to get his books onto the Amazon bestseller lists. He explains how manipulating these numbers can lead to more than just book sales:
People know that becoming an Amazon.com bestseller does not mean that the book is a bestseller elsewhere, but people do pay attention to such sales. Foreign rights buyers, book club buyers, larger publishers have all contacted people who have been successful at creating an Amazon.com bestseller. And for good reason. Such an achievement, while temporary, does say that the author/publisher is willing to do what is necessary to get attention and to sell a book. That is significant.[Note: this isn’t to suggest that John Kremer has done anything underhand to get his books to the top, it his just his explanation of how perceived success on Amazon can result in more success for an author]
Personally, I think the subsequent success of the author is less about showing that one is willing to do whatever is necessary to get attention and more to do with the value of social proof. Once a book is deemed a success then more success will follow. We look to our peers to determine if something is worth our time or not.
While social proof elements undoubtedly help to increase a site’s popularity, if those aspects are faked then would you still trust the information or services that the site provides?
Frank Sinatra faked his fans initially and then turned into one of the most popular singers in the world – it also landed him on the FBI list. What do you think, would Sinatra have made it anyway?