What did you have for dinner last night?
Pasta with mushroom sauce.
Grilled cheese sandwiches.
Artichokes and cardoons and capers.
We had leftovers.
I would call it a chicken kiev.
Meyer lemon fennel treat.
I just got a hot dog on the street.
What’d you have for dinner last night? And, more important, why? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what makes it to your plate, and how it got that way? About what cooking really means, and how much of the past we should drag into the future? In this episode, you’ll hear from some people who spend all their time thinking about that. So go ahead, grab a fork. We’ll wait for you.
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Raise your hand if you really like to eat. Yeah, me too. What’s not to like? Food is awesome. It’s even fun hearing people talk about food …
Alice WATERS: Something that’s timeless, really, picking, you know, walnuts off a tree in the fall, cracking them open, and eating them.
Nathan MHYRVOLD: So with a vacuum desiccator you suck air out, which allows you to dry food at low temperature.
WATERS: First thing Monday, call the fisherman and see what happened.
MHYRVOLD: Water is a polar substance. Now what that means is that the charge is not evenly distributed. That’s another way to say they stick together.
WATERS: I’m thinking about root vegetables in the fall and in winter. I’m thinking about nuts, dried nuts, and berries. I’m thinking about jams and syrups. I’m thinking about dried beans of all kinds, grains like lentils and split peas.
MHYRVOLD: So then you cook it to perfect medium-rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fried it. We pop it in a deep fryer or we use a torch on it.
WATERS: I’m Alice Waters and I’m in the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. And I’m also the founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation.
MHYRVOLD: O.K., I’m Nathan Myhrvold and I’m both and inventor and a cookbook author. I trained as a physicist and then I worked with Stephen Hawking on quantum field theory and curved space-time, and the origin of the universe.
Alice Waters is the godmother of the slow-food movement, the locally sourced, back-to-nature feeding frenzy that’s epitomized by her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Waters might be the person most responsible for turning “organic” into a household word, for leading the charge to eat slow food, simple food, real food.
WATERS: We’ve been brainwashed ourselves to think that cooking is drudgery and that we need to go out and buy what’s quickly available, that’s fast, cheap and easy. And we think of everything that way. When in fact what is slow and delicious is what is really satisfying, what is good for us. I think we’ve just gotten off that path. We need to come back to our senses and come back into that river of civilization that has food as part of culture and agriculture.
Beyond her restaurant, Waters’ philosophy has been made manifest in a public-school nutrition program and more than a dozen cookbooks. Nathan Myhrvold is also a cookbook author. He’s trained as a chef, even won a big barbecue award — but he does approach cooking a bit like — well, like a physicist.
MYHRVOLD: Cooking is an example of applied physics; because of course, applying heat to food is the key technique to cooking. And the physics of heat conduction, or heat radiation, and convection, those are very important to cooking. Chemistry is also important because there are lots of different chemical reactions. That’s why meat browns, for example. There’s a reaction called the Maillard reaction, first described in the 19th century by a French physician. That’s what makes meat brown.
Myhrvold used to be the chief technology officer of Microsoft. He graduated from high school at 14 and had his Ph.D. by the time he was 23. Now he’s in his early fifties, and he’s become a bit of a polymath. He’s an accomplished nature photographer and mountain climber; he collects rare books and rocket engines. After leaving Microsoft, he co-founded an invention company called Intellectual Ventures, in Bellevue, Washington. The inventors on his staff are trying to come up with a better version of nuclear power, a better way to perform brain surgery; they’re trying to stop hurricanes, and global warming.
MYHRVOLD: Well, we have a whole diversity of projects and people. Right beside the kitchen is our insectary where we grow mosquitoes. And we grow mosquitoes because we have a number of anti-malaria projects. And you have to know your enemy. So we grow malarial mosquitoes, and it’s literally right beside the kitchen. We grow thousands of mosquitoes so we can test different ways to kill them, attract them, repel them. Our single most dramatic way of doing it is a device that spots mosquitoes in the air and shoots them out of the sky with laser beams. And that sounds like something from an Austin Powers movie, but by God it works.
That kitchen Myhrvold keeps mentioning? It’s not your standard little office kitchen — a microwave, a fridge, a hot plate. It’s a culinary lab. Myhrvold is part of a movement — a strange, fascinating, growing movement — that’s sometimes called molecular gastronomy. Or, less pompously, it’s called modernist cuisine. He traces its roots to the mid-1980’s, when there were a handful of chefs …
MYHRVOLD: Particularly, a guy named Ferran Adria in Spain, started experimenting with techniques that pushed the envelope with what was possible in food.
These chefs brought a lot of science into the kitchen. They used the tools of chemistry, physics, even engineering to build new textures, new sensations. To do things you might not have thought possible — or advisable — with food. Today, in some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, they produce some of the most sought-after dishes. Maybe you’d like to start with … the white beet soup with liquid-nitrogen frozen crab-apple spätzle? Then maybe you’d like to try … the bison, pan-seared with bacon bits and tapioca starch alongside a dehydrated leek ring with a goat cheese sphere and chili powder on foamed carrot juice? And for dessert, maybe you’d like to smoke our “virtual chocolate cake” from a pipe?
To put together his Intellectual Ventures kitchen, Myhrvold recruited some chefs who appreciated modernist cuisine as much as he did, who looked at the kitchen as a place to experiment, to have fun. Where you’ll cut up watermelon in a meat slicer, then vacuum-infuse starch into its cells so you can deep-fry yourself some watermelon “potato” chips. Where you consider the hamburger — the humble hamburger — a piece of food that’s worthy of a scientific overhaul:
MYHRVOLD: The problem with a hamburger, you would like to have the meat cooked perfectly, at least I like it medium-rare. But you’d also like the outside to be brown and crusty. And it’s very hard to get the outside brown and crusty without having a fairly thick layer of grayish, over-cooked meat. If you’ve ever bitten into a hamburger and looked at, particularly a thin hamburger, there’s only a very tiny amount that’s actually medium rare. Well it turns out that there’s actually a way to solve that, and our ultimate hamburger, you take the hamburger and you cook it sous vide.
Sous vide, that means “under vacuum,” when you seal food in a plastic bag and cook it, very slowly, in a warm-water bath.
MYHRVOLD: So then you cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fry it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it, a blowtorch. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen that prevents it from over cooking, so you get the perfect medium-rare hamburger.
We should make it clear here that Myhrvold hasn’t been doing all this experimental cooking for kicks. Last year, he published a cookbook called Modernist Cuisine.
MYHRVOLD: Well, it is an encyclopedic treatment of the science of cooking, how cooking really works, and describes modern cooking techniques that evolved over the course of the last twenty years.
It’s not your typical cookbook – in ambition, or size.
MYHRVOLD: Six volumes, twenty-four hundred pages, thirty-five hundred color photographs, sixteen hundred recipes. My favorite statistic is if you took the text and you put it all in one line at 10 point size, it’ll be six miles long.
Modernist Cuisine retails for $625, but you can get it cheaper on Amazon. So far, it’s sold well over 20,000 copies. It was produced by a team of three dozen people — chefs, writers, editors, photographers. In it, you’ll find all sorts of recipes as well as entire chapters on microbiology for cooks, the physics of food and water, and a chapter on … foams:
MYHRVOLD: Bread is a foam. You may not think of it that way, but bread is what we classify as a set foam. Gas in the bread, which is created either by baking powder, or created by yeast, foams a dough and then we heat it in the oven to set the starches and proteins. So a tremendous amount of cooking is about foams, so we want to explain how do foams actually work?
Stephen DUBNER: Talk about some of the physical acts involved in making the book. So we’re looking at a photograph here on your screen, traditional cooking. And it seems to show, if I can tell without knowing, a cross section of a pot with something that looks hammy in it, perhaps.
MYHRVOLD: It’s a pork roast.
DUBNER: A pork roast,. O.K., and it looks as though there are fire embers, coal embers above and below. So some kind of …
MYHRVOLD: It’s in a cast iron Dutch oven.
DUBNER: But we’re looking into the pot as though we have 3D vision. It’s a cut-away. Do describe — how do you make that?
MYHRVOLD: So that was one of the key concepts in the book was we wanted to show people what happens inside the pot, inside the microwave oven, whatever thing they’re cooking in. And so we cut a lot of pots in half. We cut a whole microwave oven in half. We even cut a five-thousand dollar professional steam oven in half in order to show people what processes are going on during the cooking process.
DUBNER: Presumably, there’s not a lot of resale on half of it, right?
MYHRVOLD: Well we have two halves of one of the best kitchens in the world now.
Pablos HOLMAN: That kitchen is pretty remarkable in that, unlike your kitchen, they have all kinds of amazing tools.
That’s Pablos Holman. He’s one of the inventors at Intellectual Ventures.
HOLMAN: They have a drill press, and a band saw in the kitchen, but they also have a rotary evaporator, and a homogenizer, and a centrifuge, and a pharmaceutical freeze drier.
Holman is not part of the team that produced the cookbook, but he did sit really close to the Intellectual Ventures kitchen.
HOLMAN: And what they do is they make these really elaborate recipes. Some of their recipes the average is like 15 pages or something, and they’ll spend like two weeks making something the size of a grape, which is amazing. I mean, they can really do some amazing stuff.
To be fair, Nathan Myhrvold points out that about two-thirds of the recipes in Modernist Cuisine can be made in a regular kitchen — as long as you’ve got an adventurous spirit and don’t mind ordering some ingredients online. You should, however, be prepared for instructions like: “Drop frozen cherry spheres into hot sodium alginate bath” or “Blend in calcium gluconolactate and xanthan gum to fully disperse.” And, if you’re making gel cubes from concentrated fruit, make sure you know the acidity level so you’ll know whether to use sodium hexametaphosphate or methylcellulose E4M as your gelling agent. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you one person who doesn’t think molecular gastronomy is much fun: Alice Waters.
WATERS: I can’t say that I care a lot about it. I can’t say that.
DUBNER: And tell me why?
WATERS: Because I’m trying to get back to a kind of taste of food for what it is.
DUBNER: And molecular gastronomy is trying to accomplish what in your view?
WATERS: In my view it’s to, you know, make it into something you can’t imagine, surprise you. Now, that’s not to say that I haven’t been delightfully surprised. It’s not that. It’s that I am so hungry for the taste of the real that I’m just not able to get into that which doesn’t feel real to me. It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing.
DUBNER: You once said, “Looking at food is entertainment. That’s how we got into this mess.” Can you explain that? What do you mean by that exactly?
WATERS: Well, that we think that, that we really need to be amused at the table. And it’s kind of taking your tray of food and going and watching television while you’re doing it. That you haven’t been introduced to food in a way that is gratifying either in terms of taste or the experience of the table.
Waters is, however, familiar with Myhrvold’s book — and she doesn’t entirely disapprove.
WATERS: Well it’s an astonishing project; I have to say and definitely should be in every library. I don’t think we all need our own six volumes. But someone who’s this interested in gastronomy is somebody very valuable to us in general, that we could educate ourselves. We need to know about the existence of that work, and the time that went into it. Just — we need to think about this.
DUBNER: I’m just curious, I have to ask, have you ever eaten a Big Mac, let’s say?
WATERS: I did one time, actually. I did. I went to Kansas and I was on the way to a board meeting at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and I came in on a plane and hadn’t eaten. I thought I should get a little bite some place before I went to the meeting. Then I decided I would do this little experiment and went to the McDonald’s drive through. And in and out in five minutes.
DUBNER: And? How was it?
WATERS: For me it wasn’t tasty. It was soft bread and salty, French fries. Really objectively, it was kind of nondescript.
So Alice Waters doesn’t like Big Macs at all, and she thinks people like Nathan Myhrvold are mad scientists. Their pyrotechnics might be entertaining if you didn’t have something better to do — if you didn’t have, maybe, an open hearth where you can fry a free-range egg on a long-handled metal spoon and serve it over a salad of chives and tomatoes, along with some organic bread. Alice Waters’ idea of advancing the way we eat is to reconnect with the past — not only how our food is prepared, but how it’s grown, or raised, or caught. What she’s after, above all, is simplicity. Nathan Myhrvold, for his part, loves Chez Panisse, Waters’ restaurant. But he also loves complexity. And he loves bringing science into the kitchen. Because, he says, it’s already there:
MYHRVOLD: Well, like it or not, physics happens, O.K.? It turns out when you heat a piece of meat there’s a set of physical principles that are at work. Wishing doesn’t make the food hot, it’s the way molecules bump into each other that makes the food hot. And if you are going to understand that in a reasonable way I think it informs how you do cooking. Now is it possible to cook without understanding? Of course it is. For people that just want, in a rote way, to repeat exactly what they were told to do without understanding why it works, hey, go for it! You don’t need me. If all you want to do is repeat the recipes of the past and have no curiosity about how or why it works, then you don’t need to have this physical understanding. On the other hand, why does it ruin the experience to understand how and why it works?
Nathan Myhrvold and Alice Waters both have an obvious passion for the future of food, but radically different ways to realize that vision. Myhrvold has a pharmaceutical freeze dryer that retails for $50,000. Waters doesn’t even own a microwave. But the amazing thing is that her ideas have gained so much ground. A few decades ago, the organic-food movement was fringe at best; now, the U.S.D.A. approves organic foods to be sold at Wal-Mart.
But what about Myhrvold’s experimental approach? Is supercharging your dinner with ingredients that are centrifuged at 60,000 RPM really worthwhile? Cutting a microwave in half is good for grins — but is that all? Is Myhrvold’s $600 cookbook just a new toy for the Tesla crowd, or is there a chance that all his scientific inquiry might trickle down to you and me? Or, better yet, to the hundreds of millions of people who could care less about molecular gastronomy because they’re too busy trying to scrounge up a bowl of rice so their kids don’t go to bed hungry?
And what if the future of food doesn’t even involve cooking as we know it?
HOLMAN: And you just push one of those buttons and the machine has toner cartridges of frozen or dried and powdered foods, and it goes down and puts a little pixel of powdered food down, hydrates it with a needle, zaps it with laser to cook it, and rinse and repeat for every pixel, and prints you a meal.
Coming up, we talk some more to the well-fed inventor Pablos Holman about a revolutionary idea.
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Here’s Pablos Holman again, the Intellectual Ventures inventor. He made his name as a hacker.
HOLMAN: You know, what hackers are good for just discovering what’s possible, right? The mindset of a hacker, you know they’re good at figuring out all the things that are possible that the manufacturer never intended. It’s kind of like being a scientist, just without all the formal training and accountability.
Here are some of the projects that Holman has worked on: commercial space flight … building the world’s smallest computer … making self-sterilizing elevator buttons for hospitals … trying to stop hurricanes from reaching land.
HOLMAN: Last year, I tried to cure cancer, which didn’t work out.
Holman isn’t what you’d call a foodie. But for the past few years at Intellectual Ventures, Holman sat right next to the big experimental kitchen ,where Nathan Myhrvold and his comrades try out their new, modernist recipes.
HOLMAN: I mean, I laughed out loud. They made me some foamed baked potato. It tasted like baked potato with butter, and bacon bits, and chives, and everything in there, but it was foam. And I took a bit of it and just lit up. I couldn’t believe how good it was.
Holman’s proximity to the kitchen lab got him thinking a bit more about how Americans eat — and it didn’t take long to spot a lot of inefficiencies. Behind every supermarket, there’s a Dumpster full of expired food, and pounds and pounds of packaging. By some estimates, between one-third and one-half of all food produced in America is never eaten.
HOLMAN: The inefficiency is consolidated around the last mile of how we eat. We’re really good at efficiency at an industrial scale, agriculture, and good agricultural efficiency. We are not good at efficiency in the last mile where we take those ingredients and prepare them and serve them.
Holman decided to do something about it.
HOLMAN: So, you know, my original vision was this kind of ATM machine that you walk up to and it shows you three buttons. What I ate yesterday, what my friends like, or “I’m feeling lucky.” You just push one of those buttons and the machine has toner cartridges of frozen or dried and powdered foods, and it goes down and puts a little pixel of powdered food down, hydrates it with a needles, zaps it with laser to cook it, and rinse and repeat for every pixel, and it prints you a meal.
Doesn’t that sound absurd? Kind of how it must have sounded absurd when someone suggested … an ATM dispensing cash, instead of a bank teller? What Holman has in mind is, essentially, a 3D printer that can print food. Now, 3D printers have been around for years — they’re called “rapid prototypers.” In fact, Intellectual Ventures already uses them, to make plastic models of a brain aneurysm so the neurosurgeon can study its shape and size before cutting through the patient’s skull. What if you could use a rapid prototyper to print … food?
HOLMAN: So what would happen is just like an inkjet printer you have at home — instead of putting down droplets of ink, I’m putting down droplets of food, right? But I control every single pixel, right? I can use a laser to cook a pixel of food and get it exactly as warm as I want, exactly as slow or as fast as I want. And again, I think by comparison, what has been done in cooking is Neanderthal; it’s very primitive. I mean, we don’t have that kind of resolution and control of our cooking. And there’s a lot of other advantages. So, in this system, all my ingredients are prepared on an industrial scale. And they’re preserved at the point of origin. If you go to the best restaurants in the world, they don’t serve you market fresh produce, they serve you produce that was ripened on the tree, picked riped and flash frozen on site. And that’s because that’s an optimal way to preserve all the flavor and all the nutritional ingredients that are in there. And so what I want to do is bring that to everybody. So in my system, all the ingredients come from the farm, directly off the tree, they’re frozen or dried on site and powdered. So I take that, I put it in a sealed toner cartridge, the FedEx guy comes by once a day and swaps out the empties in the machine, and so when it’s making you a meal it’s using optimally preserved ingredients.
If you’re thinking Holman sounds like someone who’s read too much science fiction — well, yeah:
HOLMAN: Chefs can be designing meals in C.A.D. programs and it can print out, you know, tessellated 3D fractal, you know, hamburgers if they want. You can do something here that’s not been possible before. I can make a meal where maybe you have a meal the size and shape of a Snickers bar or something, but you start at one end with an appetizer and work your way through an entrée and then end up with dessert at the other end.
But the more you listen to him — or at least the more I listened to him — the more you realize how thoroughly he’s thought this through, and even if the invention he eventually winds up with is only 1 percent as good as he’s hoping for, it seriously might start to change the world.
HOLMAN: When I’m printing you a meal, I have total control of what’s going on it there. So when I print your meal, I get your allergens accounted for, any dietary restrictions are avoided, I might incorporate your pharmaceuticals, I might be sending a report back to your doctor that you might be getting the right dosage of these things every day. And then I can do really cool things. Once you’re eating from printers every day like this, the fundamental part is that we’ve networked your food consumption. Now we know a lot more about what you eat, and we can use that to help you out. So we can have apps that wean you off of sodium or cholesterol, things that you might be having a problem with now. Just imagine if you had a problem with too much sodium. Well, I can just ratchet it down a few milligrams a day over the next few months to get you down closer to zero, and you’ll never even notice it’s happening, because every time you eat something it will taste exactly like what I had yesterday. It just won’t taste exactly like what you had last month. Those possibilities don’t exist in the way we eat now.
Networked food consumption. Eliminating food waste by producing just-in-time meals — which, potentially, could also help keep you healthier. Yeah, it sounds like science fiction, but think about how our current food system might have looked to someone 100 years ago — to someone who ate a piece of meat once a week if he was lucky, to a mom who could only count on feeding her family whatever happened to be in the root cellar. And no, children, you won’t be having any fresh, calcium-fortified orange juice from Florida or Brazil this morning — or any other morning. Science has already changed the way we eat, a great deal. And it will continue to do so. How? I can’t predict the future. What I can say is that the kind of changes that will make Pablos Holman and Nathan Myhrvold happy probably won’t make Alice Waters very happy.
WATERS: We need to come back to our senses and come back into that river of civilization that has food as part of culture and agriculture.
By the way: Pablos Holman is not alone in thinking about a food printer. A group of engineers at Cornell has got a prototype in the hands of a New York chef. And can you imagine how nice it would be to have a few printers, or maybe a few hundred or thousand food printers, that you could airlift into some disaster zone after a hurricane or an earthquake?
DUBNER: All right, Pablos, one last question, what’d you have for dinner last night?
HOLMAN: So last night I had a … I live in Seattle, in parts of town they have street vendors selling hot dogs with cream cheese, and I love those things. They’re unbelievably good.
DUBNER: A hot dog with cream cheese? That may not be your idea of a great meal. But it works for Pablos Holman. Not just the food itself — but the very, very low opportunity cost.
HOLMAN: It was fast. It took me probably three minutes to buy it and eat it. And those other fifty-seven minutes of that hour that somebody else might have spent shopping or cleaning, or cooking, I got to spend salsa dancing.
Coming up: We stop eating and start tweeting. And we ask: How social do you have to be in a social network?
DUBNER: So, Levitt, when we first thought about starting a Twitter account for Freakonomics, a couple of smart media consultants told me that it would be very poor form to expect people to follow us unless we followed a lot of people as well. There’s really a reciprocity at work here. And we didn’t follow that advice. We follow zero people on our Twitter account. Um, how do you feel about that?
Steve LEVITT: We have a Twitter account?
So Steve Levitt and I — he’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author — we did start a Twitter account. But we aren’t what you’d call aggressive Tweeters. We don’t tell people what we had for breakfast, or what show we’re watching on TV, or which kid lost which tooth. In fact, all we really do is send out links to our blog posts or this radio show, stuff like that. But here’s the thing: We have a lot of followers — at least what seems to me like a lot of followers – roughly 400,000 people. Now, that probably doesn’t really mean much. It costs nothing to follow someone on Twitter; all you have to do is click your mouse one time. A lot of those people probably never read a single thing we tweet. Still, it’s kind of cool …
But as I told Levitt, we don’t follow anyone on Twitter. It just seemed like, if you’re going to follow some people then you’d feel bad about not following other people and next thing you know, you’re spending your whole day on Twitter, figuring out who to follow and who to be followed by.
So for us, Twitter is a one-way street. It’s a little bullhorn, nothing more. So here’s a question for you: Does that make us jerks? (Or, since we’re talking about Twitter, does that make us twerks?) Do you think that Freakonomics should start following people on Twitter?
Duncan WATTS: O.K., my name is Duncan Watts, I’m a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research where I run a group called the human social dynamics group. We’re interested in all sorts of questions that have to do with social networks and how information diffuses through social networks, and how people influence each other, and how all of this helps us to understand social behavior.
Duncan Watts is a sociologist who taught at Columbia before moving on to Yahoo! He’s at the forefront of what’s called “network theory” — how people are connected, whether in person or virtually, and what those connections yield. He’s written a few books — Six Degrees, a sort of academic take on the Kevin Bacon thing; and more recently, a book called Everything Is Obvious — Once You Know the Answer. It’s about “common sense,” and how it lets us down. Watts still writes academic papers too. One recent paper is called “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter.”
WATTS: It’s true that, you know, there are millions of users on Twitter who are listening to other users. But we also find that there is a remarkable concentration of attention. So about 50 percent of all tweets that a random person on Twitter receives on any given day come from just 20,000 users. So that’s about one-half of one-tenth of a percent of all users on Twitter.
DUBNER: What do you call this as a sociologist, then, in terms of the distribution?
WATTS: Well, it’s a skewed distribution. But you certainly see this kind of distribution in activity if you look at, you know, how active people are on Twitter you see the same thing where there are a small number of people who are very, very active.
DUBNER: Were you surprised to find a concentration that intense?
WATTS: Well, we are used to seeing these skewed distributions so I think not in principle, it was still striking just how concentrated it was.
DUBNER: It may be more striking to people who don’t know what these distributions usually look like. I mean it may be more surprising to people who’ve been hearing for that past couple years that Twitter is the great democratization of communication.
WATTS: And it is, but what happens in democracies is that everybody pays attention to the same people. You know, so I think that it might change our view of democratization.
Last year, during the Arab Spring uprisings, Twitter helped stoke the fires of revolution. But those were extraordinary circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances, however, what we see is that a relatively tiny group of people on Twitter wield most of the power. Remind you of anyplace else you know? Like: the offline world? Duncan Watts says he became a sociologist to study exactly this kind of thing: whose voices get heard in social situations, how people in groups interact, how groups form, how firms form, how markets form. This is the kind of thing sociologists have been fascinated with since the beginning of sociology. Trouble is, it’s always been hard to quantify.
WATTS: The problem is that actually measuring any of this, observing any of this has been historically impossible. So although we have theories about social networks that go back 50 or 60 years, and the sort of quantitative study of social networks goes back almost as long, in practice, it’s been restricted to very small groups of people …
DUBNER: As many people as you could hit with a clipboard and questionnaire, right?
WATTS: Something like that. You’re asking … you know, you’re handing out survey tools, or in some great, some of the classic studies sociologists would even sit in a doughnut shop and record painstakingly every single time a person talked to another person, and they would sort of extract the communication network out of these interactions they observed, which is very creative.
DUBNER: Which, today … But today seems extremely archaic, right?
WATTS: Well, it is.
DUBNER: The sample size is tiny, the sample pollution is strong, I guess, depending on which coffee shop you happen to pick, right?
WATTS: And you can only do it until your brain explodes, which is for must humans is a couple of hours. So, you can’t really, sort of, measure anything or observe anything that’s happening over extended periods of time.
The mountains of data being generated in an online ecosystem like Twitter are enough to make a sociologist like Duncan Watts put down his clipboard and drool. Twitter has about 100 million active users, sending out more than 250 million tweets — that’s 250 million data points — every day. Even from those broad numbers, you can tell — for every aggressive user, tweeting let’s say 20 times a day, there’s an army of folks who sit still, keep quiet. Or maybe who signed up because everybody else is signing up, the way everybody else used to sign up to write a blog, and then abandoned it. But if you’re a sociologist, even these things are good to know! Social-network sites like Twitter and Facebook are changing the way academics see the world.
WATTS: What we’re seeing is not that different from how people behave offline, it’s just that we have a vastly increased ability to observe it, so it sort of seems different. People seem to think that they have many more friends now because of Facebook than they used to have. And at the same time the quality of those friendships is somehow diminished. Particularly in the media, people are sort of wringing their hands over how friendship has become somehow diluted. But for most people this is actually not true. For most ordinary Facebook users, the people that they’re friends with on Facebook are in fact people that they know, right? Now, many of them may actually not be close friends, and without Facebook around they may not have a record of these interactions existing. So if you asked them in a pre-Facebook world how many friends they had they probably would say, “Oh, you know, a few dozen or something,” because they would just be thinking about people who they really count as friends. But now we have Facebook to remind us that we have all these, sort of, vastly larger halo of peripheral relationships so we sort of feel like we have more friends and somehow that they’re less real than the ones that we used to have. But actually, we always had them. So there’s sort of an interesting kind of measurement effect here where you simply allow people to measure things and it changes their perception of those things. So it’s sort of, you know, I don’t want to say that nothing is different on online, because clearly there are things that are different and it may just be because it’s anonymity.
DUBNER: Anonymity is strong. I mean you’re right, the division, the gap can be even something less profound than anonymity. If you’re driving in your car and somebody cuts you off, you might flip them the bird. But walking on the street and they cut you off on the sidewalk, the physical proximity changes everything.
WATTS: That’s a great analogy. In fact, there’s a — I’m sure you’re familiar with the classic obedience studies of Stanley Milgram back in the 1950s, and he found exactly this kind of result. The subject of the experiment was told that he was conducting a learning experiment on someone else who turned out to be an actor, and he was supposed to be giving this person electric shocks whenever they made a mistake. And so the actor was sort of pretending to be, you know getting more and more tortured by these shocks, and the shocking result was that a remarkable number of people cranked up the voltage to sort of lethal levels simply because some experimenter was telling them to do that.
Now, what a lesser-known result of those experiments is that Milgram tried a bunch of different conditions. You know, in one case they actually had to sit there and hold the subject’s hand on the plate. So they were sort of physically in contact with the person they were shocking. In another one, the guy was visible but in another room. In another one he was in, on the other side of a wall so you could hear him, but you couldn’t see him. And sure enough, the further the person was away, the more socially distant they were, the more inclined they were to exercise what seemed like cruelty.
DUBNER: I didn’t know that. That’s interesting.
WATTS: So I think that’s an excellent point that you raise.
Coming up … what do Barack Obama and Yoko Ono have in common — and why is Justin Halpern way cooler than either of them?
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There’s a website called Twitaholic, that’s full of Twitter statistics. If you like Twitter at all, you have to go to this site; you can thank me later. It shows Lady Gaga with the most followers, 17.6 million, and Justin Bieber is second with 16 million. The entire top 10 is made of up pop stars except for Kim Kardashian, who I guess isn’t quite a pop star, at No. 4, and at No. 7 President Barack Obama, who’s got 11.7 million followers.
But here’s what’s interesting: If you re-sort the top 10 not by number of followers but by the number of people they follow, you come up with a very different list. Only Britney Spears and President Obama remain in the top 10. The President follows 684,000 people! In fact, 3 of the top 11 followers in the world are politicians — Obama, British Prime Minister David, Cameron, and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Such generous people, these politicians! And who’s the most generous follower on Twitter? That would be Yoko Ono: she follows about 740,000 people, and has about 1.7 million followers herself. So that’s one follow for every 2.3 followers.
Which made me wonder: if you want a lot of Twitter followers, do you need to follow a lot of people yourself? I asked Duncan Watts to look into the numbers for the top 1,000 users. His conclusion: There’s no trend, no correlation between following and being followed. But still … if our online lives really are just an extension of our offline lives … just as a matter of common courtesy … shouldn’t you reciprocate?
Justin HALPERN: Uh, my name is Justin Halpern, and I created S*** My Dad Says and I’m author of the book by the same name and one of the writers of the television show by the same name.
DUBNER: All right, and Justin how would you then assess the importance of Twitter in your life and career?
HALPERN: I would say it is possibly the most important thing aside from my father. Uh, without Twitter, I definitely don’t think any of what has just happened in my life happens.
Here’s the blurb from Halpern’s Twitter page: “I’m 29. I live with my 74-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down s*** that he says.” The s*** Halpern’s dad says has attracted a lot of readers — nearly 3 million followers on Twitter. It was his Twitter feed that led to the book that led to the TV show. He has more Twitter followers than Arnold Schwarzenegger, J.K. Rowling and … the N.F.L. But what I wanted to know is, how many people does he follow?
HALPERN: I only follow one person.
DUBNER: Who do you follow?
HALPERN: Uh, I only follow LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow fame.
DUBNER: Reading Rainbow fame. And also, Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, Roots fame.
HALPERN: That’s true. I did not give him enough accolades.
DUBNER: And you thought, if I’m going to follow one person, LeVar Burton seems to be deserving of that honor?
HALPERN: Yeah, I did think that.
DUBNER: And, uh, at the time that you decided to follow LeVar Burton and LeVar Burton only, how many followers did you have?
HALPERN: I had zero.
DUBNER: Oh! So this was before S*** My Dad Says was S*** My Dad Says even.
HALPERN: It was. It was. This was when S*** My Dad Says was read by me and one friend, who didn’t have a Twitter account.
DUBNER: So, forgive my ignorance on this score, but I see that you generally, at least in the last year let’s say, you haven’t tweeted very much. Maybe fifty tweets in the past year. Which, look, if you can build a brand called “S*** My Dad Says” out of s*** your dad says and just do it in just fifty posts a year, that means that you are wonderfully efficient and economical, but back in the day, were you tweeting a lot more?
HALPERN: I was. When I first started, I was living with him and normally sitting next to him for like eight to ten hours a day working, so I was getting a lot of stuff, and I would tweet, like you know, one thing a day and then since I have been working and I haven’t been near him as much, it goes down.
DUBNER: Have people contacted you though over the years and said, hey, you know, you’ve become a big deal guy now with “S*** My Dad Says” and I follow you and I like it, but man, you only follow one guy and it’s another famous guy. That’s just not fair. Do people give you trouble for that?
HALPERN: Yeah, I got one. One message was, “Who do you think you are to only follow one person?” Uh, and I didn’t really have a response to that, other than I don’t think I’m anybody. I just only follow LeVar Burton.
So Justin Halpern has had incredible success on Twitter, which is a social-media ecosystem, by essentially being anti-social. Is there anything wrong with that? If people like to follow him, who are we to say that he has to reciprocate? At least he’s not what Twitter insiders call “the one-night stand” — where you sign up to follow lots of people, hoping they’ll follow you back, and then you dump them a day later. Here’s Duncan Watts again:
WATTS: I think Justin Halpern might be more the exception than the rule. I think there are sort of bona fide Twitter-generated celebrities, people who were not known beforehand who became known through their activity on Twitter. Although, even Justin Halpern probably wouldn’t be nearly as famous as he is if he hadn’t got a book deal that became a best seller, and a TV show, so you’re always sort of … One of the dangers of studying a single platform like Twitter is you see a signal on it, and you want to sort of understand the cause — why did somebody become popular? — and the answer often lies outside of the system that you’re studying. So most of, I think all of the top ten most followed people are household names. I mean these are people who were famous before people came along and they are still famous. And they’re famous not because of Twitter, but because they’re on TV all the time and they’re in all the celebrity magazines and there’s a whole sort of much, much larger media ecosystem that is sort of constantly putting them in our faces.
DUBNER: But let me ask you this, if you look at the very top Tweeters, it’s true that they are very much household names, to the n-th degree. With many millions of followers. But at least a couple of them, including our President, also follow a lot of people. He has 11.7 million followers, but he follows more than 680,000 people. Now, we assume he’s not actually reading their tweets, so what’s the point?
WATTS: Well so, again, it’s worth emphasizing again here that Twitter is not a social network. Now, social networks are characterized by very, very high levels of reciprocity. So if I say that I’m friends with you, it’s very likely that you will also say that you’re friends with me. It’s not always true, but it’s very often the case.
DUBNER: And if not, then I stop being a participant in that social network.
WATTS: It’s a funny kind of friendship if only one person thinks that it exists. Whereas, in communication networks, it’s totally different. The entire nation can watch Barack Obama give the State of the Union address, but he can’t watch everybody’s YouTube videos.
DUBNER: True enough, but what would the purpose be then, if I’m Barack Obama and I have a Twitter feed, and I, or someone around me presumably, not me myself, has come to the conclusion that we should tweet to get our message out. It makes perfect sense, we should get millions of followers because we’re communicators almost above all. But also– why do I want to follow seven hundred thousand people? What’s in it for me? Is it just the appearance of reciprocity that’s supposed to translate into some general feeling of goodwill?
WATTS: Well, I actually think that … my guess is that different kinds of users have different reasons for using Twitter.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this, there are some people then who are followed by a great, great many people and yet who follow nobody. So, for instance Stephen Colbert is followed by more than two million people, it’s a lot of Twitter followers, and follows zero. First of all, do you have a name for people like that, and what can you say about them?
WATTS: Well, putting on my amateur armchair psychologist hat here, I would say that it’s almost a status symbol to be followed by many people and follow very few. It’s sort of like having lots of followers even though you don’t tweet very much. It’s sort of like, well I’m not even trying and, you know, I’m still popular. But, you know, I’m going to again guess that, you know, these are all individual people with their own agendas and psychologies, and you know, there’s probably as many reasons for these patterns as there are people.
DUBNER: Not even trying and still popular. Wow. Is that how we want to be? I’ve seen first-hand how successful Justin Halpern is, and he only follows Geordi LaForge; I heard Duncan Watts say that you don’t necessarily have to follow to be followed … Still, is that how Freakonomics should behave on Twitter? Steve Levitt and I had a summit the other day. We talked it over.
LEVITT: Well, I would say given that neither you nor I has ever gone on Twitter other than to send out our blog posts, that, why don’t we follow everyone? Since we don’t look at what they are saying anyway, and if it makes people feel good to follow them, why not follow every single person on Twitter? That could be our claim to fame is that we follow every person on Twitter. As long as we never look at the account it won’t cost us anything.
DUBNER: I like it. I like the strategy. Or, alternately, we could follow one person. We could pick one. Dedicate ourselves to that person’s feed, and really pay attention. So if it were one, who would you want to follow?
LEVITT: Lindsay Lohan. Who would you follow?
DUBNER: Who would I follow? Tell you what I would do. I’d auction it off. I’d say, we haven’t followed anybody. It’s time for us to follow someone. What’s the highest bidder?
LEVITT: The strangest thing to me about Twitter is I’d never been on Twitter and I went on and I had a Twitter account and it had one tweet. And it had my picture and it was from me and some person faked it. I don’t know why they stopped after one. But they only did one post. They still had you know a couple thousand followers from that one post, so, maybe it’s time for that person to get busy and do some more posts as me.
DUBNER: What was the tweet that the fake Steve Levitt tweeted?
LEVITT: It was the traditional first tweet. “Here I am. Time to get going on Twitter.” Something like that.
DUBNER: So, what does that say to you though? That you have a fake Steve Levitt out there who makes one totally worthless tweet and it gets a thousand or two followers, what does that say to you about the value of time people that engage in the Twitter atmosphere?
LEVITT: Well, I’m offended that the guy didn’t do more posts. I want to see what I have to say.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC, APM: American Public Media and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Suzie Lechtenberg and Jeff Mosenkis. Our staff includes Diana Huynh, Katherine Wells, Bourree Lam and Chris Bannon. Our engineer is David Herman. Collin Campbell is our executive producer. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, subscribe to our free podcast on iTunes … and go to Freakonomics.com, where you’ll find lots of radio, a blog, the books, and more.