Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s *Rational Ritual* for his book club

I will second the recommendation.  Michael is a political scientist at UCLA, and this volume is one of the most important social books of the last fifteen years.  He shows the importance of “common knowledge” in explaining social phenomena, namely we create rational rituals so that others can see we are acting in concert with them.  It’s all about public ceremonies, parades, dances, and meetings.  It’s also why good Super Bowl commercials can be so effective.  The work dates from 2001, but it seems more relevant each year.

Business Insider puts it well:

Chwe’s concept is readily apparent in the dynamics of social media. When a media organization posts a link to an online article on Facebook, for example, and people begin “liking” it, others will begin to assign some level of importance to the story and some will be compelled to share it and discuss it. The idea of “common knowledge” may also lend itself to thinking about advertising strategies on social media.

In this regard, by the way, the openness of the internet may make us more rather than less conformist.  Here is a good review of the book.


Conformity may be a terrible thing for economic growth which requires "dither" -- exploring the available state space ...

Princeton? I thought UCLA. Google says Center for Advanced Study at Stanford in 2015.

My bad, thanks, corrected...

Yep, UCLA. Also good to know, his last name is pronounced like “chess” without the “ss.”

He shows the importance of “common knowledge” in explaining social phenomena, namely we create rational rituals so that others can see we are acting in concert with them.

Isn't this just a re-statement of the obvious notion that bigotry and prejudice create a define a community? We know what we are by constantly sneering at those who are not?

Community does not automatically imply exclusion. People can choose to associate with each other without excluding others or defining themselves against others.

Can you name three such communities for me please?

Baseball's National League teams
Model railroad enthusiasts

But I suppose you can say that the Dodgers are 'bigoted' towards the Angels and those clearly prejudiced model train folks who despise those who build ships in bottles.

I reject your premise that I can't be a member in some cohort without sneering at those who are not. What a sad way to think.

Active dislike of other sports teams is probably the major form of openly expressed dislike in modern America. I find it hard to believe you are serious. I mean, I have some knowledge of model railway enthusiasts and I bet if I looked I could find a model-railway-linked murder.

You are confusing is and ought. I am not expressing a view about what ought to be, but what is. Community almost by definition involves defining and policing a boundary. Nor am I expressing a view about you. Maybe you can join a model railway club and not get caught up in the in-group dynamics. I sure everyone else here also thinks they are above that sort of thing. But the group as a whole needs that idea to exist.

But hey, maybe I am wrong. Maybe this is more of a Shelbyville idea.

SMFS on this one you are just taking it too far. There are definitely groups that define themselves by who they are not. But there are also definitely groups that just do their thing and don't really care that much about other groups. Bowling leagues, various sports fans, fans of different pop stars, etc. Some people just like stuff, not because they think it makes them better than others who don't. Even some nationalist sentiments aren't automatically oppositional to other nations. A person can be proud to be Australian without thinking they are therefore superior to someone not from Australia.

"... may make *us* more rather than less conformist..."

'We' (or 'us')—one of the most abused words in the English language.

I really think you are discussing nothing other than semantics.

Sounds like what Sarah Perry's been talking about for some time:

The work came out in 2001 smart ass. We are all proud of you for knowing about another obscure academic who is kind of like this somewhat less obscure academic. I bet your vinyl collection is awesome.

Christ, your status radar is set to maximum sensitivity.

And this idea, that ritual reinforces community, was a standard component of my undergraduate history classes in the 90s and subject of several theses (yes, undergrads write those back then). Glad to see PoliSci is catching on.

"In this regard, by the way, the openness of the internet may make us more rather than less conformist."

Jason Richwine
Brendan Eich
Memories Pizza

NYT column I wrote on the book when it came out:

what will the next empire look like?

The recent Cheryl's birthday logic puzzle is relevant here. The key to understand it is the common knowledge shared by Albert and Bernard.

Yeah but I bet... never did

do you get that a lot?

NPR had a commentary on a similar theme today, discussing how youtube is an example of an app that offered the promise of millions of voices with a diversity of creative expressions but today is dominated by a few dozen professional elites creating the content that makes up the majority of consumed content, rewarding the elites with money for drawing in the audience for advertisers.

"...Early predictions for video sharing focused on everyday people sharing home videos and a crowd of amateur teen creators making clips for fun. But YouTube increasingly looks like TV, a select handful of well-paid people making stuff for the masses. In this, YouTube tracks with most of the rest of the Internet. What was once a wild and largely amateur place has become professionalized. There is money to be made on YouTube now for traditional or self-made stars who can command attention. Companies large and small now pay more than a billion dollars per year to advertise on YouTube, according to the research firm eMarketer. The decentralizing force of cheap content creation tools has been more than countered by the centralization of distribution in the hands of big media and technology companies. As I write this, 14 of the 15 videos YouTube says are the most popular right now are made by professionals, not at-home amateurs. ..."

Or maybe it's what nerds do...Way... No, Way....

Thanks Tyler for mentioning my book and for your support over the years! In regard to the "Cheryl's Birthday" problem, I put up some similar problems here:

Also, thanks Virginia for your review way back in 2002!

There's a website for the book at

Do you read 5 books a day?

Yes, this is a very important book, and I speak, not as an economist or a social/behavioral scientist, but as a humanist. And if Tyler thinks it's one of the "most important social books of the last fifteen years", well, that's very interesting. You want to know why myths, movies, novels, music, art, and all that, is important. Read this book.

And if Zuckerberg recognizes its importance, that suggests he's more than a Harvard nerd who lucked onto the right idea at the right time. Maybe he actually knows something.

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