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what is it about seeing someone?

In the past couple of weeks, I went to see some public lectures at McGill and elsewhere: the first was Amy Goodman, of DemocracyNow, giving the keynote at the ReDefining Media conference. Then I went to see cognitive psychologist, Stephen Pinker talking about language and the human mind. Finally, I saw management guru David Maister (choice quote: “just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s easy”) at PodcampBoston.

All three were good, interesting, intellectually stimulating.

But, the question is, given that I can (and do) see Amy Goodman on the net, whenever I like; and given that I can see Stephen Pinker present in video in, say, TEDTalks; and given that I could just read Maister’s book & blog posts; why do I want to go to physically see them? What is the value that I get by actually being there?

I had dinner during PodCampBoston2 with a good group: Sylvain Grand’Maison, Neil Gorman, Julien Smith and Anita from LibriVox. And we were batting around ideas about why that physical presence brings more to you than just reading text, listening to audio, or watching a video.

Some theories:

1. 2-way experience
Being there means that you are somehow engaged (or think you are engaged) in a two way communication with someone. I wonder though, in a big lecture hall (both Goodman & Pinker were speaking to hundreds, and I certainly had no sense that they were communicating with me, much less that I was communicating with them) whether this applies. Maybe our subconscious minds trick us into thinking we’d be able to really communicate, even if our conscious minds know that’s unlikely.

2.sharing the experience
Maybe somehow you “get” “more” (more what? how?) from seeing a person live with a group of other people. Is it that you will later be able to discuss it? How does this work?: if you go alone, and don’t know anyone there who you will discuss with later, this one doesn’t make much sense. Maybe it’s something though about being a part of a greater community that shares knowlege? collective unconscious? Hmm, I don’t know about this – though certainly if people you know are going, you’d like to be there too.

3. more information
In person, “more” information is transmitted. This one gets my bet as the most likely, though I don’t quite know what it means. but beyond the explicit information (ie, “here are 7 ways be be effective: make a list, make deadlines…” etc), seeing someone live transmits a richer breadth of information. voice, body, brainwaves… i don’t know. somehow information is transmitted more easily (for me) and with a sort of 3 dimensional context that you can never get from text alone, but more information as well, not contained in the explicit info; for me personally audio is a better way to understand concepts (probably that’s not true for everyone; and for detailed knowledge, text is always better); and video is “better” I think, though I prefer the flexibility of audio – you can listen while you do other things. But live, has something more than all that.

Probably it’s a mix of all three, but i think #3 is the most interesting. But the question is what exactly do you get that is *more* … ? any ideas?

Other ideas:
* seeing someone famous or smart in person gives you some perceived smartness and famousness in the eyes of others … when you tell others about the smart/famous person you saw.
* smartness and famousness actually rub off on you – and you get smarter and famouser by seeing someone smart/famous
* seeing someone live *forces* you to pay attention … you don;t have the same distractions as you would when reading, or listening at home (computers, other people etc).

Any more ideas?


  1. Dan Parsons Dan Parsons 2007-11-03

    The same reason seeing Rush in concert is unbelievable, even though you can listen to their music any time you want. The charisma of the speaker engages you and makes their material seem even more interesting than it might if you were viewing from home. If something’s more interesting, you pay more attention, and get more out of it. Not sure if this is the same as one of your own reasons but it seems different to me.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-11-03

    so the question is: what is “charisma” and why is it “better” live than recorded? or, what is the mechanism by which you receive charisma and measure it against other events (say listening to the same person on your ipod)? and what’s so good about charisma anyway? why do we like it?

  3. Dan Parsons Dan Parsons 2007-11-03

    Well, the first thing that comes to mind is being able to see body language very clearly, though I suspect there are other reasons. Body language is a big part of charisma, maybe even the biggest part. You can pick up on body language a bit by watching a video, but it’s more visible when viewing in person, additionally you pick up on the body language of the crowd reacting to the speaker.

    Oxford defines charisma as “compelling attractiveness”, so in answer to your question, why do we like charisma, the obvious answer is: because if we don’t like it, it’s not charisma :) But that seems like a cop-out. I think people with lots of charisma are simply adept at pushing other people’s buttons to get what they want. If what they want is the person to like them, then it’s charisma. If they want the person to give them all their money, then it’s not charisma anymore, but being a con artist, or whatever.

  4. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-11-03

    I think we are very receptive to cues from people around us. If we are surrounded by hundreds of people who respect a speaker, or a band, we pick up on that, and respond to it. And large crowds can show respect and disrespect in very subtle ways. As a speaker you know when you have lost your audience, but it is hard to put your finger on what tells you that – shifting in seats, coughing etc. You can also tell when you have them in the palm of your hand.
    As an audience member you pick up on how well things are being received, both consciously, and unconsciously. A very basic part of us likes hierarchies, likes a pecking order. So the chimp at the controls of our brain sees an adoring crowd looking at someone, and says ‘Him good! Must listen!’ An effect usefully employed by demagogues, rock stars, and, if they are wise, public domain audiobook gurus.

  5. Simon Law Simon Law 2007-11-04

    The most important part of seeing someone in real life, unmediated by technology, is that you are actually there. In time and space. Which means that you actually have an effect on that person.

    Even if you’re in a big lecture hall and someone is talking at you, you can still stand up and interject. You can ask a question afterwards. You can accost the speaker in the reception afterwards. You can lean over to your buddy and whisper commentary in their ear.

    Although the online world has some equivalents for these, they’re not really as human. As a speaker, even if you had the Internet with you as you’re talking, you can choose to ignore someone who’s posted a comment to your streamed speech. But when someone from your audience gets up and asks a question, the situation compels you to respond. You can’t comfortably ignore that person.

    Finally, at the end of the day, seeing someone in person also implies that you can meet up afterwards, have a few beers, and become friends. Which isn’t too bad. :P

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