Tuesday, December 22, 2009

metaDRAMA: The Dangers of Group Think

Not that this is an surprise, but in the latest issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson reports on an experiment run by Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik which basically showed that if enough people told you, in advance, that a product was good, then you would be inclined to like it. Similarly, if enough people told you it was bad, you'd probably dislike it. This occurred even in their devious test, in which they lied about results: i.e., if you gave something five-stars, it was reported as one-star to everyone else, and vice-versa.

Now, for me, this isn't a problem. I never read a review before I see a show. Of course, this sets a rather odd double standard for myself, because I write reviews, and I'd sort of like people to read them. It's a difficult spot for theaters, too, because it illustrates how dangerous opinions can be--and, as the last year has shown, not necessarily those of critics, so much as those of an all-too-easily networked group of theatergoers. Especially those paying customers who couldn't wait to gossip about disastrous preview performances. A theater can't afford to get any negative buzz, and yet, it can't afford to not have any buzz. Worse, there are few shows--especially in theater--which totally satisfy audiences of all types. In other words, the findings of group think suggest that, to survive, theaters must go niche, culling audiences into like-minded masses, and then giving them exactly what they want.

This isn't a scientific result; I'm spit-balling. But user ratings everywhere are everywhere these days, from Audience Extras to nytimes.com. I worry, because those tiny, gold-starred pictures are not worth a thousand words, and the more that people stop thinking about what they're going to see--or thinking about what they've just seen--the faster the theater community will erode. What's the solution? Well, for me, it was the choice to abolish grades and stars this year--I let the reviews speak for themselves--and the attempt to encourage discussion on this site; i.e., to open up the blog as a place for conversation about a show, not just a place in which my word could be law. It doesn't always work, but as we head into 2010, and I start my fourth year as a theater critic, you can be sure I'll keep looking. I hope you'll join me; not as a group, but as individuals.

No comments: