Narrower, Deeper, Older

Phil Moss writes,

But the plethora of new dances comes at a cost. It increases our fragmentation. It creates a barrier to entry for both veterans (who come and go at various points in their lives) and for newbies who have to “drink from a firehydrant” in order to become regulars. For veteran non-regulars it becomes daunting to come back and see so many dances they haven’t learned. Unless one attends regularly, one becomes a stranger in a strange land instead of feeling comfortable when “coming home.”

The article is about Israeli folk dancing, which I know interests me a lot more than my readers, so I won’t say “read the whole thing.” Instead, I want to talk about the general trends I see in the way people engage with their interests. You can become engaged with any number of interests, including your religion, a sport, a hobby, your profession, a charitable cause, etc.

I want to offer some observations that apply to the entire class of interests, and I will suggest that “matching technology” (Tyler Cowen’s term) plays a role in these trends. Then I will come back to Israeli Dancing.

My central claim here is that the nature of engagement has changed over the past fifty years, in these three ways:

1. Narrower. There are fewer people casually engaged.

2. Deeper. Those who are engaged are more committed and have deeper knowledge.

3. Older. For any interest that has been around for a long time, the demographics of those interested now skews older.

For example, consider the game of bridge. A social bridge game is four friends getting together in someone’s house to play. A bridge tournament is many strangers competing against one another in a large room. In high school and college, I played a lot of social bridge. In college, I also played some tournament bridge. I then stopped playing for decades.

Fifty years ago, I believe that there were more social bridge players than tournament players. Today, it is closer to the reverse.

When I tried to get back into tournament bridge a few years ago, I found that the “barrier to entry” had gotten much higher. Players expect you to know a plethora of new tactics, which in bridge are known as “conventions.”

The other point to notice was that the median age of players at the tournament seemed to be about 70. Not many young people are willing to get past the barrier to entry.

As another example, consider people with an interest in baseball. Fifty years ago, many casual fans knew the batting averages and home run totals of well-known players. Today, there are fewer fans with that knowledge. Instead, there is a relatively small group of fans whose knowledge includes arcane statistics that did not exist when I was growing up.

Also, I think that interest in baseball skews older, in spite of marketing efforts aimed at the young. My sense is that in the ballpark it is mostly people over age 50 who are paying close attention to the action on the field. The younger people are on their cell phones and/or watching the JumboTron.

I believe that religion is becoming narrower, deeper, and older. A smaller fraction of the population is affiliated with a place of worship, but there may be an uptick among those deeply committed, such as Orthodox Jews. Otherwise, many congregations are thinning out as their populations age and die off.

I suspect that what Tyler Cowen calls “matching technology” (the Internet) plays a big role. Instead of settling for a lowest-common-denominator activity, like a game of social bridge, you can find something that really excites you and connect with people who share your excitement. With better matching technology, the total number of viable interests goes up, and the share of people who settle for activities in which they are only moderately interested goes down.

“Matching” means that any given interest draws a narrower set of people. Those people are more committed, so that the interest becomes deeper, with a higher barrier to entry in terms of study and practice. Finally, as new interests emerge, the population engaged in traditional interests gets older.

Back to Israeli Dancing (ID). I started dancing almost exactly 40 years ago, at MIT in Boston. It was a weekly session, and the only session in the area devoted exclusively to ID.

In the late 1970s, the MIT session “held out” against some of the then-newer dances. The repertoire was stable and predictable. There was a lot of repetition, in that each dance lasted several minutes until it had been repeated many times, and many of the same dances were done from week to week. You could progress from the beginner stage to having a familiarity with the majority of the dances in just a few months. If you went away for three months and came back, it would feel as if you had never left.

ID then was almost entirely young and mostly social. You went dancing to meet people, and when you met people that you liked, you got together with them outside of dancing. My wife and I met at MIT ID, and in fact there are quite a few couples who met there.

Now, we live in the Washington, DC area. We regularly attend three sessions a week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. There also are sessions that meet less often than once a week on Saturday night (“classics”), Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. We occasionally go to one of these other sessions.

For veteran dancers who are not heavily committed to keeping up with the latest dances, only the “classics” session feels comfortable. For people who are new to ID, only the Tuesday session makes any effort to make them feel comfortable. Even with that effort, few of them develop into intermediate or advanced dancers. Instead, many people attend the hour of beginning dancing every week for many months, without ever progressing beyond that.

Compared with 40 years ago, ID feels much less social. It struck me that there is someone who for the past five years has attended the same three sessions that we have, for a total of nearly 2500 hours on the dance floor together, and yet we have spent less than one hour together off the dance floor. That is now typical.

As recently as a few years ago, there was a lot of overlap in the dances taught at each session. Now, there are many more dances that are unique to a given session. This greatly increases the difficulty for me. Instead of having one new dance repeated two or three times a week, I am dealing with learning three dances a week, each done no more than once a week.

As every session’s repertoire gets larger, there is much less reinforcement of dances after they are taught. It used to be that a new “hit” would be done week after week for months. Now, it might be done every other week for a while and then fall off the hit parade, with only a few dancers remembering it.

Attending a session in another city creates a whole new challenge, particularly for partner dances. Recently, in Los Angeles we went to a session where the first hour was couple dances. Of all the dances that were played, my wife and I had only seen two of them before!

I am not a markid (session leader). If I were, I would be doing two things that have not traditionally been part of a markid’s job.

First, I would create and execute a formal plan for the frequency of various dances. I would choose which dances at a weekly session should be done 20-30 times a year, which should be done 10-20 times a year, which should be done 1-10 times a year, and which are not going to get done at all. Ten years ago, you probably did not have to think so carefully about that. Forty years ago, the groupings would have been more like 40-50 times a year vs. 20-40 times a year, with no conscious thought required at all. Now, I think that a plan is in order.

The other thing I would do is informally survey the people who attend a session. Try to see if they can articulate what excites them and what bothers them. I do not believe in paper surveys or computer polls. Real conversations are what I have in mind. Perhaps focus groups. It is particularly important to have these conversations with younger dancers and with moderately-committed dancers.

In summary, I believe that the changes in ID over the last 40 years reflect broader changes in how people approach interests. It is part of a general trend toward narrower, deeper, and older. For a markid, this poses a challenge. You do not want to make your session boring to the super-committed dancer. But you do not want to make it inaccessible to the moderately-committed dancer. I especially fear the loss of the moderately-committed dancers.

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8 Responses to Narrower, Deeper, Older

  1. Edgar says:

    Malcolm Gladwell speaks of making the world safe for mediocrity. This appears to support such a case.

  2. collin says:

    Sure there is a lot more matching but there is a lot more choices today. Growing in the 1970/1980s, it really weirds my kids out hearing there were 3 networks and few other rerun & local channels. I explain to them there was no Cartoon Network (or others) or internet or these movies on demand. Look at sports programming, I explained to my kids about hearing Vin Scully (Dodgers) on the radio many nights and surprised it was not always on the TV.

    (What truly weirds my kids out is the reality of California being a deep ‘Red’ state with Ronald Reagan calling the OC “Reagan Country”. They can not believe how Republican our state was and I told with movement of military out of state and few other changes, this state is Deep Blue. I will note my kids school is majority 40% Hispanic-Americans , and plus 20% Asian-Americans so Trump unpopularity really makes sense.)

  3. blink says:

    Great examples and analysis, Arnold! I think this is part of the larger trend that might best be described as “better optimized.” On that, I wholeheartedly agree with the “narrower” and “deeper” descriptors. That your examples also reflect “older” I think is an artifact of the examples you wish to consider.

    An early multi-age example that I like is pie choice. As the story goes, when it was one-size-for-the-family, almost every family chose apple; once it became possible to buy individual slices, each family member chose something different, none choosing apple!

    I see the same trend in sports. Among youth, specialized lessons, coaches, camps, and training facilities are the norm. A casual Little Leaguer will no longer compete with his or her dedicated peers, probably shunted to the “minors” already. In this domain, the conclusion is generally “younger” in the sense that the window for peak-performance is usually early and more optimized implies that those a little beyond this window now struggle much more than in the past. Could even Michael Jordan have kept “coming back” in today’s NBA? Career records in MLB, NFL, NBA, etc. have probably never been safer.

  4. Moo cow says:

    Interesting observations. I sometimes wonder whether it is looking back with nostalgia, but it seems there were more community activities 40 years ago.

    I went to school in Holland. We were all encouraged to join groups and leagues. For me it was basketball, cycling, and drama. It wasn’t really competitive. When I went to college in the US it was teams, but you tried out and it was competitive.

    Everybody knew how to bowl. I think. A random middle class person it seemed could achieve a score, and knew the rules. Is there anything like that today?

    I was in Norway last year, in the fjords. There were masses of cycling clubs on the road. People were sailing, kayaking, camping, hiking. It was organized by club as opposed to an individual as in the US.

    Online gaming, for example the Japanese game Final Fantasy. 5 million people organized into groups (Free Companies). I’m going to think of a thesis today.

  5. Ray Lopez says:

    You see the same “deeper narrower older” phenomena in chess: 100 to 150 years ago, it was all the rage in the coffee shops, but the level of skill was low; today, it’s a specialist hobby and the level of skill is very high, even at the amateur level. In the Philippines, at the local chess club, I was almost the next to lowest rated player at 1900 Fide Elo, which puts me in the top 90% of all chess players.

  6. psmith says:

    Motorcycles, cars, and guns, too.

    You occasionally see pieces in industry publications (or, for that matter, Scott Sumner’s blog) saying things like “motocross/muscle cars/high-end hunting rifles are out and digging in the dirt with a stick is in, what is the deal with these weird anti-materialistic Millennials and their values?” This seems pretty obviously stupid to me and I’m still fairly sure that trends like these are driven by declining real wealth (heterodox statistics! CPI is worst index!) and/or increasing risk aversion (standard microeconomic explanation if I’m wrong and we really are getting richer, or phytoestrogens in the water supply). But your examples make me think there might be something more to it after all.

  7. Corey says:

    Arnold, you “fear the loss of the moderately-committed dancers”. Younger people are inventing or finding new interests, and going whole-hog there instead. You fear this?

    I challenge you to explain, based on something other than your own personal preferences, why the continuous evolution of new fanatics in new interests is a bad thing? Other than nostalgia, why “should” an established interest like ID be maintained?

    I don’t think the social, matchmaking aspect is sufficient anymore. Every casual, social interaction my 25-year-old cares about is quick and efficient, usually via an app on his phone. Especially sex. Either he socializes as part of participating in some narrow interest (he’s part of a competitive dodgeball league, which I didn’t even know was a thing), or based on something “everyone” has to do: coworkers, schoolmates, family.

  8. Matt says:

    Arnold, I’m re-reading Charles Murray’s In Pursuit and he’s talking about Little Platoons – local groups of affiliation where people are able to meet their needs. It brought me back to your post as I think your post may indicate why the Little Platoons may not be feasible. It seems to me that the world has professionalised, with more technical, domain-specific knowledge, which is a barrier to those with moderate interest or casual observers. It is also consistent with the growth of government, which, when combined with a technocratic approach, creates insiders and outsiders (pace Gurri’s work). We now throw social problems over to governmemt because we cannot understand what they are saying. We are rationally ignorant. At the same time we see the silliness of the government’s approach and want change. Who will speak our language and enable us to understand the institutions with which we associate?

    We should acknowledge that we have been more than happy to offload responsibility onto the government and enjoy the freedom that that entails. But it comes back to bite us in the form of regulation, incomprehensibility and stupidity on the part of government.

    The point is is that a technocratic and professionalising approach to society will create the barriers you write about, preventing self-governance.
    Further, when combined with an activist, progressive ideology underpinning growth in our major focal point – the governmemt – the result is a society that does not understand its own operation and seeks to regain control. They don’t have the expertise to do so and so will really behind someone else who will show the way.

    The result is constant revolt on the part of the masses.

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