From Clapping to Likes, and Back Again
A new series looking at the cultural history of attention metrics from Victorian music halls to Facebook.
In a BBC documentary about the making of Blackadder, a cult comedy from the early 1980s, Director Richard Curtis admits something that’s very rarely discussed in TV circles. It’s in a conversation with Ben Elton, the writer who joined the show between seasons one and two, and was critical to its later success. As an aside to the context of their first meeting, Curtis says:
“This was before the days of ratings […] I still don’t know how many people watched any episode of Blackadder. I used to wander round Shepherd’s Bush [the location of BBC TV offices in London] looking in people’s windows, particularly people with basement flats, to see whether or not anyone was watching. I was looking to see if anyone was watching because one didn’t know whether it was a success or otherwise.”
Of course, this anecdote isn’t completely true. TV Ratings were collected in the 1980s, but there was a lot less competition for attention — the UK only had three TV channels. Ratings were estimated, and shared amongst executives, but Richard Curtis is right that they were rarely passed down to the people actually creating the shows themselves. They just didn’t matter as much as they do now, and so creatives operated in a vacuum, with only newspaper reviews and award ceremonies as measures of their success.
Ratings are an example of a metric for audience attention. If you grew up in the last 50 or so years, your experience of mass culture has been shaped by these metrics. They are abstracted numbers that represent complex audience behaviours and reactions. They define our discussion of what success or failure looks like in our culture. They drive the rise and fall of talent, media empires and entire industries.
But we rarely ask ourselves why specific metrics end up defining a culture. Discussions of attention metrics often focus on their role in economic transactions, for example between advertisers and platform owners. But they are more complex than just transactions.
Attention metrics are a cultural construction — a feedback loop between creators, entrepreneurs and audiences. They emerge to solve a problem for one party in that triad, but inevitably they end up defining the entire relationship. These metrics aren’t just the exhaust produced by cultural objects — they’re the spark that makes these cultural objects possible in the first place.
There are already great accounts of the economics of attention metrics, and the science of how our brains focus our attention. In this series, I want to do something slightly different. I want to explore how attention metrics shape our culture, and to treat them as cultural objects in their own right. These metrics don’t just emerge out of the ether — they were invented, tested, and adopted by people wanting to shape mass culture.
Understanding how these metrics emerged, and how they define media empires, will help us recognise that mass culture is not something that just happens. It emerges out of a complex battle between art, money and audiences. The power between these three forces changes as cultural movements mature, and is always prone to disruption and outright cheating. In fact, the ability to cheat attention metrics — to load the dice of mass culture — is one of the most important factors in their eventual adoption and success.
In this series, we’re going to look at four attention metrics — applause, ratings, charts and likes — and tell the story of how they emerged. It’s surprisingly hard to find canonical accounts of how attention metrics were invented and adopted. As genuinely cultural objects, they have many points of invention and adaption before they eventually dominate a cultural industry. In some cases, there are clear pioneers — Arthur C Nielsen in ratings, for example — but even then, the eventual success of that metric was not guaranteed. Attention metrics need to do at least something for each of the three parties in that triad — creators, audiences and entrepreneurs — and whilst empires can be built around metrics that favour one side, it will be a fragile empire, prone to disruption by a new emerging standard.
We’re in the middle of one of those periods of change now, as the attention metrics that defined the broadcast era give way to the fractal metrics of the digital era. In fact, this change marks the end of an unnaturally calm period, in which a relatively few attention metrics dominated the production and monetisation of culture for many decades. Most of us grew up in this era, in which a handful of metrics — particularly ratings and charts — defined the industries of television, radio, cinema and literature.
This kind of dominance was a blip. Taking a longer view across centuries, cultural industries are generally more volatile and open to disruption. Power shifts as new ways of organising and measuring audience attention are invented. Empires of attention rise and fall as audience behaviours change, and the ability to control (and cheat) the metrics around these behaviours succeed or fail.
The ‘golden age’ of mass broadcast culture in the second half of the twentieth century saw relatively little disruption compared to other eras. I would argue that this was because the technologies of distribution in this era made the audience harder to hear than at any other time in popular culture. Global empires were built on highly abstracted metrics of audience behaviours. It was in lots of people’s interest to not question what these metrics actually recorded, or how well they mirrored audience behaviour and attitudes.
It took the rise of social media in the early twenty first century to disrupt the dominance of these broadcast metrics, and turn the volume of the audience back up again. We’re only just starting to see how that will shape our culture over the next few decades.
Richard Curtis’ anecdote about making Blackadder in the 1980s shows how much creators need a visceral connection with the audience. For them, attention metrics aren’t just numbers, but ways of listening, of creating a feedback loop between story-tellers and audiences. This desire for a visceral connection is part of the story of attention metrics that is rarely told, but it will be a recurring theme in this series.
Over the next five episodes, I’ll share some of the stories I’ve found that explain how culture has ended up working in the way that it does. We’ll hear how audiences moved from being rowdy participants in Victorian London supper clubs to politely clapping audiences in twentieth century theatres. We’ll find out how early broadcast networks struggled to solve the problem of audiences that were invisible to them. How Top 40 charts have been fought over by artists, record executives, radio stations and the mafia. How the ‘Like’ morphed from a simple non-verbal gesture of apprecation to become the driving force of the algorithms that shape digital culture. And finally, we’ll look forward to how the way we measure audiences is likely to change culture in the next few decades.
We’ll start in the next episode by looking at applause, something that we rarely think about as a cultural construct. But it is — applause has a cultural history of etiquette, power, patronage and cheating that is fascinating and incredibly relevant to today. Especially as I’m writing this on a platform that has just introduced applause as a metric for attention.
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered why we measure culture in the way we do, you can start by giving me some of your applause, and following me on this journey.