Herd Enough?

by Barry Drogin

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I'm really glad my local newspaper isn't written by a computer. For all that is true about the myth of objectivity and the struggle to define what is newsworthy and what isn't, I am glad that humans are directly involved in the writing, editing, and ordering of the content of my most important source of information.

Of course, I am sure the staff of my local newspaper would be shocked to learn that I consider the Letters to the Editor section to be the most important, as it forms an informal town square that my neighborhood sorely lacks. But I know that they know that the discussion in that town square is usually triggered by the news that they choose to report on, or is in reaction to the manner in which they report it.

This website is also not written by a computer, and I have consistently refused to allow the public to have any control or make any un-regulated contribution to its content. I don't run a blog with a comment section, I don't let readers vote on whether they like or dislike a particular posting. That is against the tenor of the times. Business consultants are advising clients to leverage social media, to empower their customers as a way of keeping their attention and letting them act as their own customer service help desk.

At the crude level of advertising, they are right, but, without a salesman, many potential customers hang around these virtual stores forever without buying anything, and can be quite an annoyance to the real buyers.

I am glad that radio news programs also aren't written by a computer. I don't listen to the radio much. On rare occasions I rent a car, and on rarer occasions my trip is so long that I forego my self-programming (a CD or two that I enjoy while driving) and turn the radio on. It was during one such trip that I heard a fascinating interview with an economics researcher, Dan Ariely, who had some cogent observations about herding behavior.

(Mr. Ariely has since collected his observations into a book, "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.")

There are many details of Mr. Ariely's research that fascinate and delight me, most of which may not be pertinent to what you are reading now. Mr. Ariely is active in behavioral economics, which uses psychology to explain why consumer behavior does not always fit the "classical" model of rational market behavior.

One behavior that humans do is herding. An example Mr. Ariely provides is two adjacent restaurants, one with a long line in front, one without. Although a rationalist might decide to go to the cheaper restaurant with less of a wait for a table and service, many people presume there is a reason that the popular restaurant is popular and get on line. They join the herd.

Internet search tools and social media tools have codified herding behavior into their algorithms. Google will now suggest completions to your search as you type it. The results you get on the first page (aside from all the paid advertising) are selected by an algorithm that associates links and visits with importance and pertinence. It's the difference between the answer you might get from a knowledgeable teacher or librarian and the answer you get from a politician. The latter tells you what you think you want to hear, the former provides actual useful guidance.

Similarly, social media tools will guide you to discussions that are most recent or most popular, the first being the "new" in news, and the latter assuming a basis for the "worthy" in newsworthy. I've given in to this on "A Musical Contrarian": in addition to telling people which pieces I think are the most important, I tell them which are the most recent and which are the most popular. Since search engines rule, most people do not read the pieces I think are the most important.

When the Internet was young, people would connect with me about the content of my website, either by filling out a comment form or by writing to me. This is what resulted:

  1. In the beginning, the piece that got the most attention was "Wagner’s Music and the Holocaust." The attention it got was almost exclusively hate mail.
  2. Although I didn't get much feedback, my piece on "Horizons '83" was widely read by music students. I found this out not only from my site visit statistics, but from strangers I'd meet at concerts who considered me famous as a result of reading the piece.
  3. My "Harry Ruby Memorial Page" put me in touch with a variety of Mr. Ruby's relatives and fans, a delightful experience for me.
  4. My song cycle, "Love Poems from the Sanskrit," got an inordinate amount of attention for all of the wrong reasons. I killed that by providing a link to a column by sex columnist Dan Savage.
  5. A humorous piece I contributed to the Kalvos & Damian website, "Being Your Own Worst Enemy," has resulted in some of the most bizarre correspondence I have ever received, proving that misery loves company.
This is in stark contrast to what I would have liked. I guess I should have expected that the Harry Ruby Memorial Page would not have brought new fans to Mr. Ruby but merely attracted the old. Prior to the Internet, I had tried desparately to get my piece on "Horizons '83" published (I wrote at least three versions of differing lengths), but it never reached its target audience or became part of any public discourse.

On the other hand, portions of the website that I would have liked to see generate some activity never did. These include:

  1. The Volunteer Programmers for New Music never attracted a single volunteer.
  2. Offering some scores for free never resulted in any performances.
  3. Publishing an excerpt from my manuscript, "Play," did not result in any attention and the manuscript was never published.
  4. Although there was a bump in the site visit statistics, I've never seen any real feedback on my old "Oedipus Rex" piece, nor have I seen it move other music journalists to adopt its techniques.
  5. As previously noted, the pieces on "A Musical Contrarian" that I considered most important were never treated as such.
I had some success as moderator of the C-OPERA listserv from 2000 to 2008. By this, I do not mean that moderating the C-OPERA listserv led to any significant advances in my career, but that I was good at doing it and was even given an award at a NewOp/NonOp meeting for doing it. Being a good moderator meant "goosing" the list when it got quiet, getting people to take their discussion off the list if it got too irrelevant to everyone else, and blocking the occasional crank from posting if the list rules were violated.

At the time I was moderating the C-OPERA listserv, I was also a frequent poster on the NewMusicBox bulletin boards, which, at the time, were unmoderated and which exposed me to some extremely unpleasant harrassment as a result. Most of the discussions on NewMusicBox were intellectually stimulating, and I formed some temporary friendships through my postings, so I wouldn’t claim that my participation had no merit.

In 2008 I was involved in my 25th college reunion. We set up a wiki and a facility to upload photos but, aside from the tools that the reunion committee itself used, there was no evidence that social media played any significant role in the success of the reunion.

I remain convinced that social media tools, if adapted properly and moderated intelligently, can be useful. I do not believe that software can substitute for a human, or that software must be allowed to take over to allow a social media tool to "scale," to quote some recent correspondence.

I've "herd" enough.

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Last Updated: February 21, 2011