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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Tiles, Bricks, Beeeeeeeees!

By the late days of the Republic and the early days of the Empire -- from around the first centuries BC to the first centuries AD -- those systems of applause became more and more elaborate. As power consolidated under one person, passing from Caesar to Caesar to Caesar, plaudits became both more systematized and more nuanced. Applause no longer meant, simply, "claps." While Greco-Roman audiences certainly smacked their palms together the same way we do today -- the classics professor David Levene pointed me to Plautus's play Casina, whose conclusion specifies applauding "with hands" -- their overall strategies of applause were much more varied than clapping alone. Plaudits thundered, but they also buzzed. They also trilled. Crowds developed ways to express degrees of approval of the person or persons before them, ranging from claps, to snaps (of the finger and thumb), to waves (of the edge of the toga). The last gesture of which the emperor Aurelian decided would be replaced by the wave of a special handkerchief (orarium) -- a prop which he then helpfully distributed to all Roman citizens, so they would never be without a way to praise him.

The applause rituals were influenced by Rome's expansion, as well. Nero, for his part, amended Rome's clapping style after a trip to Alexandria, where he found himself impressed by the Egyptian method of noise-making. The emperor, per the account of the historian Suetonius,

summoned more men from Alexandria. Not content with that, he selected some young men of the order of equites and more than five thousand sturdy young plebeians, to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause ... and to ply them vigorously whenever he sang. These men were noticeable for their thick hair and fine apparel; their left hands were bare and without rings, and the leaders were paid four hundred thousand sesterces each.

What Nero wanted to replicate was the Alexandrians' varied style of noise-making, which texts of the time break down into three categories: "the bricks," "the roof tiles," and "the bees." The first two varieties seem to refer to clapping as we know it today -- "bricks" describing flat-palmed clapping, and "roof tiles" (taking their cue from the curved roof tiles common in Roman architecture) describing the cup-palmed version. The third type seems to refer to vocal rather than mechanical applause -- to the humming or trilling that would make an assembled crowd sound like an enormous swarm of bees. (Or: BEEEEEEEES!)

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The AMA, in the Roman Arena

So applause became, in its way, a political technology -- a tool used by rulers and ruled alike to communicate with each other. This would not be specific, of course, to Rome. Or, for that matter, to the ancient world. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes a district party conference attended by Josef Stalin. Attendees rose to greet the leader, leading to applause that lasted for ten minutes. Stalin's reputation had, of course, preceded him -- and nobody wanted to be the first to stop applauding for the dictator. Finally, the director of a paper factory sat down, allowing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. After the meeting ended, the director was arrested.

But Soviet-style dictatorship, from the dictator's perspective, is always difficult to maintain -- and that was especially so in an empire as widely distributed as Rome's. One reason Roman leaders so systematically built amphitheaters and racetracks throughout the lands they conquered was to, on the one hand, foster a sense of "Romanness" among their subjects. But it was also, on the other, to offer a place where the public could become, publicly, "the governed." The amphitheater was a place of conversion. "To be a legitimate emperor," Aldrete says, "you have to appear in public and receive the applause of the people." So the arenas were Rome's early answer to the radio and the TV, the ancient incarnation of today's Twitter Q&A and YouTube hangout and Reddit AMA: they allowed the powerful to interact with their constituents, en masse. They offered the illusion, if not the reality, of political freedom. And applause -- medium and message at the same time -- became the vehicle for the performance. Using it, people answered back to their leaders, with buzzes that mimicked bees and claps that mimicked thunder.

And the spectacle, in turn, ratified and then amplified Rome's power. "When you get a crowd chanting 'Hail, Caesar,'" Aldrete notes, "it makes someone Caesar."

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Joe Biden applauds the president during the 2013 State of the Union. John Boehner does not. (Reuters)

'See, I Told You It Was Funny!'

It's no surprise, then, that the powerful began making a business of manipulating the crowds. Which are, for all their wisdom, notoriously manipulable. Rome and its theaters, Aldrete told me, saw the rise of a professional class of public instigators -- laudiceni, or "people who clapped for their dinner" -- hired to infiltrate crowds and manipulate their reaction to performances. The practice seems to have started with actors, who would hire a dozen or so shills to disperse among their audiences and prolong the applause they received -- or, if they were feeling either especially bold or especially indignant, to start "spontaneous" chants of praise among the crowd. (Actors might also hire laudiceni to instigate boos and hisses following the performances of competitors.)

The practice spread to courts, where lawyers might hire professional rabble-rousers to react to arguments and thus sway juries. And it bled, as so many elements of theater eventually do, into politics. Nero, the legend goes, enlisted 5,000 of his soldiers to praise his performances when he acted. Centuries later, Milton Berle would ask Charles Douglass, founder of the laugh track, to edit in some post-facto guffaws to recordings of his comedy routines that had fallen flat. (Douglass would fulfill the request. "See, I told you it was funny!" the comedian would reply.) Romans, for their part, did the same kind of editing. They just had to content themselves with real-time manipulations.

So did, centuries later, French performers, who institutionalized shillery even further with the practice known as "the claque." The 16th-century French poet Jean Daurat is generally credited with (or: blamed for) the resurrection. He bought a bunch of tickets to his own plays, handing them out to people who promised to applaud at the end of the performances. By the early 1820s, claques had become institutionalized, with an agency in Paris specializing in the distribution of the shills' services. (In Urban Government and the Rise of the French City, the historian William B. Cohen describes the intricate price lists these faux flatterers would hand out to would-be patrons: polite clapping would cost this many francs, enthusiastic applause would cost this many, heckles directed at a competitor would cost this many.) 

The claque also became categorized: There were the rieurs ("laughers"), who would laugh loudly at the jokes; the pleureurs ("criers"), who'd feign tears in reaction to performances; the  commissaires ("officers"), who would learn a play or a piece of music by heart and then call attention to its best parts; the chatouilleurs ("ticklers"), who'd keep the audience in a good mood, in the manner of later drink minimums; and the bisseurs ("encore-ers"), who'd request encore performances -- the first one having been, obviously, so delightful.

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Like Douglass's 20th-century "Laff Box," which allowed its operator to select among pre-recorded titters and teehees and guffaws, the claqueurs offered a range of reactions to perform for (and within) the Parisian crowds. Their practice spread -- to Milan, to Vienna, to London, to New York -- before falling out of fashion. The claque, like so many scams both before and after, lost its power once people became savvy to its tricks.

Slow Claps

And clapping itself evolved, too. Symphonies and operas became more serious, aligning themselves with the reverence and spirituality associated with religious ceremonies. With the advent of sound recording -- of performances subject, as it were, to mechanical reproduction -- they further quieted down. Knowing when to stay silent, as well as when to clap, became a mark of sophistication -- a new kind of code for audiences to learn. Applause became a matter of "do" or "don't," "all" or "nothing," "silence" or "elation" -- losing many of its old shades and nuances. (Per a 1784 report in Carl Friederich Cramer's Magazin der Musik, "It is not uncommon that after a perfect opera, [the Romans] remain in the theater for an hour or more in incessant clapping and rejoicing.... Sometimes also the composer of such an Opera is taken [in triumph] in this chair from the orchestra pit.")

Those changes changed performers, too. Applause began to seem less a dialoge with an audience, and more a brute transaction with them. It promised and teased. "The point," Gustav Mahler explained, "is not to take the world's opinion as a guiding star but to go one's way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause." The word "claptrap" (literally, "nonsense," but more commonly, "showy language") comes from the stage of the mid-18th century. And it refers to a "trick to 'catch' applause."

So the subtleties of the Roman arena -- the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning -- gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: "What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give 'em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?" The lack of applause, on the other hand -- the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing -- "that I can respond to."

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But, now, we're putting the nuances back. We're finding new ways to reinvent applause, to make it what it used to be: a coded, collective form of communication. We've invented, of course, the slow clap -- the thing the linguist John Haiman, in his book Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language, dutifully and delightfully describes as "a heavy monotonous, thoroughly controlled repetition of the clapping gesture." We have delivered unto the world The Clapper, the device that lets human hands talk to electric light, and is therefore deserving of wonder and awe. We have created new ways to outsource our applause.

Mostly, though, we've used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation -- and our approval -- by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We're audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs. 

But our claps matter more now, in many ways, because they are no longer ephemeral. They are performances in themselves, their praises preserved, their rhythms tracked, their patterns analyzed and exploited. They send messages far beyond the fact of the applause itself. Our applause, when it's given, is silent. And also thunderous.

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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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