A Brief History of Applause, the 'Big Data' of the Ancient World

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Once, people measured their leaders -- and themselves -- one clap at a time.

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The Dionysus Theater in Greece, from a German encyclopedia, 1891 (Wikimedia Commons)

And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties -- smiling, frivolous duties -- some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.
-- Vladimir Nabokov

In the seventh century, as the Roman empire was in the decline period of its decline and fall, the emperor Heraclius made plans to meet with a barbarian king. Heraclius wanted to intimidate his opponent. But he knew that the Roman army, in its weakened state, was no longer terribly intimidating, particularly when the intended intimidatee was a barbarian. So the emperor hired a group of men to augment his legions -- but for purposes that were less military than they were musical. He hired the men to applaud.

Heraclius's tactic of intimidation-by-noisemaking, the audible version of a Potemkin Village, did nothing to stanch the wounds of a bleeding empire. But it made a fitting postscript to that empire's long relationship with one of the earliest and most universal systems people have used to interact with each other: the clapping of hands. Applause, in the ancient world, was acclamation. But it was also communication. It was, in its way, power. It was a way for frail little humans to recreate, through hands made "thunderous," the rumbles and smashes of nature. 

Applause, today, is much the same. In the studio, in the theater, in places where people become publics, we still smack our palms together to show our appreciation -- to create, in cavernous spaces, connection. ("When we applaud a performer," argues the sociobiologist Desmond Morris, "we are, in effect, patting him on the back from a distance.") We applaud dutifully. We applaud politely. We applaud, in the best of circumstances, enthusiastically. We applaud, in the worst, ironically.

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We find ways, in short, to represent ourselves as crowds -- through the very medium of our crowd-iness. 

But we're reinventing applause, too, for a world where there are, technically, no hands. We clap for each others' updates on Facebook. We share. We link. We retweet and reblog the good stuff to amplify the noise it makes. We friend and follow and plus-1 and plus-K and recommend and endorse and mention and (sometimes even, still) blogroll, understanding that bigger audiences -- networked audiences -- can be their own kind of thunderous reward. We find new ways to express our enthusiasms, to communicate our desires, to encode our emotions for transmission. Our methods are serendipitous and also driven, always, by the subtle dynamics of the crowd. We clap because we're expected to. We clap because we're compelled to. We clap because something is totally awesome. We clap because we're generous and selfish and compliant and excitable and human.

This is the story of how people clapped when all they had, for the most part, was hands -- of how we liked things before we Liked thingsApplause, participatory and observational at the same time, was an early form of mass media, connecting people to each other and to their leaders, instantly and visually and, of course, audibly. It was public sentiment analysis, revealing the affinities and desires of networked people. It was the qualified self giving way to the quantified crowd. 

It was big data before data got big.

'This Is How You Gauge the People'

Scholars aren't quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious -- "a remarkably stable facet of human culture." Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause - as acclamation, and as celebration. ("And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, 'Long live the king!'")

But clapping was formalized -- in Western culture, at least -- in the theater. "Plaudits" (the word comes from the Latin "to strike," and also "to explode") were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, "Valete et plaudite!" ("Goodbye and applause!") -- thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world's first human applause signs.

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Roman mosaic of choregos and actors, from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (Wikimedia Commons)

As theater and politics merged -- particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire -- applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero's letters seem to take for granted the fact that "the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.") Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume -- and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length -- of the crowd's claps for clues about their political fortunes.

"You can almost think of this as an ancient poll," says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. "This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings." Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for "buy" buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people's polls -- to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it's nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, "I wish that the Roman people had one neck."

Caligula was neither the first nor the last politician to find himself on the business end of an opinion poll -- just as Shakespeare was neither first nor last to see the world and its doings as an ongoing performance. In Rome, as in the republics that would attempt to replicate it, theater was politics, and vice versa. There, "even being a ruler is being an actor," Aldrete points out. "And what he's trying to gain is the approval of the audience." The dying words of Augustus, the legend goes, were these: "If I've played my part well, then clap your hands, and dismiss me from the stage with applause."

So savvy politicians of the ancient world relied on the same thing savvy politicians of the less-ancient often do: oppo research. Cicero, the ur-politico, would send friends of his to loiter around the theater, taking notes to see what kind of greeting each politician got when he entered the arena -- the better to see who was beloved by the people, and who was not. And his human clap-o-meters had a lot of information to assess. "Ancient crowds tended to be more interactive than they are today," Aldrete points out. "There was a lot of back and forth between speakers and crowds. And particularly in the Greco-Roman world, crowds -- especially in cities -- were really good at communicating messages through rhythmic clapping, sometimes coupled with shouts." The coding was, he says, "a pretty sophisticated thing."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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