Why Frank Sinatra Would Fake His Feed Numbers

Frank Sinatra

What do Frank Sinatra, fake RSS feed subscribers and professional mourners all have in common? We explore how social imitation works and why it could help explain why people flock to your site or leave in their droves.

It was the screaming girls that spurred J Edgar Hoover into action. Francis Albert Sinatra was a threat. If the letter was right then the “shrill whistling sound” of those girls screaming for him was planting the idea in the minds of Americans that their very own Hitler would be ok. It was the anonymous letter about those screaming girls that brought him to the attention of the FBI chief.

Sinatra’s first solo appearance at New York’s Paramount Theatre was deemed a sensation. The young women in the crowd loved him. How was J Edgar Hoover supposed to know that a year on from starting that FBI file on Sinatra that the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would invite Sinatra to the White House for tea? Roosevelt praised Sinatra telling him, “Fainting, which once was so prevalent, has become a lost art among the ladies, I’m glad you have revived it.” How was either, the director of the FBI or the President of the United States of America supposed to know that some of those girls were actually paid to scream for Ol’ Blue Eyes? Here’s some background on the story:

In December 1942, on one of the biggest nights in the musician’s calendar, Bob Weitman, of the Paramount Theatre in New York, booked Benny Goodman’s clarinet and big band, still thought of as the best in the country. For reasons he never could explain, Bob Weitman also booked Frank Sinatra to sing with the band, despite the fact that Goodman was bringing Peggy Lee. Then George Evans made his move. He arranged for fans, young women, who were paid $10 a pop, to attend and make as much of a scene as possible. They didn’t disappoint.

When Sinatra took to the stage, a small army of girls became hysterical, yelling, ’swooning’, in a display that shocked even the tough-arsed Goodman, who’d seen a few crazes. Sinatra became the latest ‘teen sensation’ virtually overnight. He stayed at the Paramount for a couple of months. Evans coined the term ‘bobby-soxers’ to describe his nurturing fan base, and set about building Sinatra into a national force. They set up fan clubs everywhere, and ensured a loyal following at every show. Pretty soon Sinatra could write his own contracts with Columbia Records and RKO Pictures. On a return visit to the Paramount in 1944, the street ground to a halt at the mercy of screaming crowds, estimated at 25000. Monkey see; monkey do.

The Washington Post report confirmed the story that a “press agent later conceded that at least part of the Paramount hysteria was staged”. The press agent admitted:

“We hired girls to scream when he sexily rolled a note,” the agent said. “But the girls we hired to scream swooned, and hundreds more we didn’t hire swooned with them.”

Frank Sinatra mugshot

Social imitation

So why did the women who weren’t paid scream for Frank? George Evans understood that people tend to imitate one another. By paying a few women to scream it eventually lead to more screaming and a huge contract with Colombia Records. Terms, like social proof, informational cascades and bandwagon effect essentially describe the same thing – that people tend to look to others to make their own decisions. The women in the crowd that night decided copy the others who were paid to “swoon”.

In their influential paper, A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades, Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch put forward the theory of “informational cascades”. From the paper [PDF]:

“An informational cascade occurs when it is optimal for an individual, having observed the actions of those ahead of him, to follow the behavior of the proceeding individual without regard to his own information.”

People will often imitate the actions of others without thinking for themselves if they think they are learning something from others. In James S book, Wisdom of the Crowds explains information cascades happen because people “…believe they’re learning something important from others” (p.54)

Terms such as bandwagon effect, social proof and informational cascades may be relatively new, but there are examples of them occurring in the ancient world. Egyptians even hired professional mourners to cry at funerals:

A person’s status was judged by how many mourners were present at the funeral. Sometimes, families would hire professional mourners to cry hysterically at the funeral. These women would wave their arms, throw dust in their hair, and weep. The better the performance, the more they were paid!!

Social proof and your site

If people have used social proof since ancient Egypt, then there’s a reason behind it – it works. Information is costly, either in time or money spent, so it’s often rational to follow what others are doing. Visitors to a site are likely to make decisions based on what others people think. This could come from

• Testimonials
• Feed subscriber numbers
• Number of comments
• Comment count
• Number of users currently online

Depending on the browser or add-ons they use or what third party sites they visit people could also make a judgement based on:

• Votes from social news and bookmarking sites
• Incoming links
• Alexa rank
• Page rank
• AideRSS

Most of those topics have already been discussed at length and there are already a number of excellent resources for helping to increase feed subscribers, comment counts, incoming links and other social proof elements that you might like to look at. Instead, we thought it might be interesting to explore the topic from a slightly different angle and ask – is it ever worth faking social proof elements on a website?

Faking social proof?


We’ve already seen that Frank Sinatra’s manager paid for girls to scream and as far back as ancient Eygpt people were faking social proof, so is it really a surprise when the same thing happens online?

Recently, thenextweb.org found that Feedburner subscriber numbers can be artificially inflated (although this has since been fixed). Some articles I’ve read recently even suggest taking the Feedburner chicklet from successful blogs and using them on your own site.

It’s easy to see why people would be tempted to fake their feed numbers. The perception that a site is popular will almost inevitably lead to that site becoming even more popular. Like diamonds, value is based on perception.

There are also articles recommending that you pretend to be someone else to increase your comment count and various tools for sites like Youtube to make it appear that multiple people are commenting on your video. There are other examples of people faking sales to increase their rankings on sales charts.

Author, David Vise, was caught buying 20,000 copies of his own book. Some publishers claimed that it was to manipulate book charts (although Vise denies those charges). John Kremer didn’t buy his own books, but instead used email lists to get his books onto the Amazon best seller lists. He explains how manipulating these numbers can lead to more than just book sales:

People know that becoming an Amazon.com bestseller does not mean that the book is a bestseller elsewhere, but people do pay attention to such sales. Foreign rights buyers, book club buyers, larger publishers have all contacted people who have been successful at creating an Amazon.com bestseller. And for good reason. Such an achievement, while temporary, does say that the author/publisher is willing to do what is necessary to get attention and to sell a book. That is significant.

[Note: this isn’t to suggest that John Kremer has done anything underhand to get his books to the top, it his just his explanation of how perceived success on Amazon can result in more success for an author]

Personally, I think the subsequent success of the author is less about showing that one is willing to do whatever is necessary to get attention and more to do with the value of social proof. Once a book is deemed a success then more success will follow. We look to our peers to determine if something is worth our time or not.

While social proof elements undoubtedly help to increase a site’s popularity, if those aspects are faked then would you still trust the information or services that the site provides?

Frank Sinatra faked his fans initially and then turned into one of the most popular singers in the world – it also landed him on the FBI list. What do you think, would Sinatra have made it anyway?

* Update: John Carson has added his own thoughts on the post here

Article written by chris woodley

Bookmark and Share this story!

27 Readers have left their thoughts

  1. Although I don’t agree with you on faking social proof, I just wanted to say you’ve written an excellent blog post. You start with a great Sinatra story, gave some scientific background, and finished it off with a balanced evaluation. Impressive!

  2. Hi, Ernst-Jan Pfauth. Glad you liked the article, but I don’t want to give the impression that I support inflating any numbers – i don’t. I just found the Frank Sinatra story interesting and wondered what other people’s opinions were on the subject. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Hi John, thanks for the kind comment. Really liked your point “does blindly joining the sheeple give one a sense that they are not missing out on something important?”. I’ve linked your story to the post. Loved your title – much better than what I came up with.

  4. Sadly AideRSS does not work properly anymore due to the Delicious relaunch. Anyways welcome back among the living. Missed your unique voice. This one is another example of Homeric blogging.

  5. Tad, re delicious: we are tracking the delicious metrics at AideRSS, but there is a temporary divergence between the data displayed on our site and the database where it actually resides.

    In a nutshell, we have a relaunch of the AideRSS site coming up and we’ve been focusing on getting that finished (which will display up to date delicious, as well as a number of new metrics), in favor of retrofitting the old site with the latest data. (Apologies for the confusion on that!)

  6. Thanks for dropping by Tad. We’ve been silly busy for the last few months and unfortunately SMT.com didn’t get updated as often as we would have liked. We have many cool things planned for our little space on the web though :). Hope all is well over at SEO2.0.

    Thank you for the update Ilya. Much appreciated.

  7. Hi,
    The article is good and also informative. But I did not understand it properly. Be clear in the topic description.

  8. Hi Hailee, what exactly don’t you understand about the article? Your comment and link to your site looks like some generic comment from a spam bot (apologies if this isn’t the case). I’ll leave up the comment for the next couple of days in order for you to explain what you don’t understand, otherwise I will assume that it’s a generic spam comment and delete.

  9. Great, feel free to contact me when it goes online. My mail is onreact at onreact.com

  10. You’re welcome. Hope some other great projects have been propped up instead.

  11. Hello, I have been looking for the Sinatra FBI file for a long time; thanks for posting a link! This is an excellent blog post, relevant story leads into an intelligent discussion. I also would discourage fake numbers but it seems like everyone does it, from cleaning products (i.e. kills 99.9% of germs, how is this possible?) to earnings statements (tax fraud). Thanks for posting!

  12. Religious or sectarian groups have use this method for years. A very common method that I have observed is from religious groups ‘emotionally blackmailing’ people into voting/supporting the cause.

    I at times get a text message or emails stating …’Please forward this to 5 people if you want to receive good news at the end of the day…’ or ‘…if you do not forward this message you then you will get bad news at the end of the day….’

    Sinatra created a viral buzz although it was paid, however the product needs to be of a certain quality!

    How often you see youtube videos manipulated to the top ranking which are rubbish and get shut down, but a half decent video that has views manipulated and paid comments can viral far.

  13. I think social proof is a powerful thing, and really relates to the psychology of how people love a winner, and if the majority favors something then people tend to agree because they want to be associated with the best. The digital word of mouth ties into this.

  14. This was indeed a fun read. I had not heard of the Sinatra story before. I read the title and thought, man…people must be pathetic to fake their subscriber numbers. The story gave me a new take on it, but I still wouldn’t agree with it. Great post!

  15. First off, excellent article Chris – it was well written and has certainly sparked a debate of some sort.

    If artificial inflation of any metric is to be considered, the product or service offer should to a high degree, match the story the exaggerated metric is trying to tell. The result of an artificially inflated metric and poor product would inevitably lead to a very hard crash landing (as the current credit crisis would indicate).

    Frank Sinatra was and is still a talented artiste and that along with initially faking his fan base put him in the limelight for others to pick on him and his talent.
    A bit of underhand marketing, but hey he got the attention.

  16. I really like your Frank Sinatra analogy. On a similar note, I saw something on this American Life (the HBO series, series 1) about a group of actors that were paid to pretend like they enjoyed a band’s concert. Though the actors didn’t know the band, they memorized their lyrics and acted as if it were their favorite band in the whole world. Later, the band was interviewed about that night and they felt very manipulated and rejected. A bit of marketing is one thing, but I think it’s diffcult to know what is fair and what is crossing the line.

  17. Interesting post, do you have source information for the faking? I haven’t heard of it before (though I don’t doubt it at all)

  18. An interesting article, something good to read on a Monday morning! People, as you mention, have always paid others to create a sensation, going back in time as long as you want. Professional agitators can be found throughout history, maybe if you want to even go back to biblical times, in the crowd shouting for the freedom of Barabbas ;)

  19. Interesting bit of social theory. This seems to be how a lot of businesses/products/artists become successful – people are like sheep and will follow the flock on how to behave, what to buy etc.

    As aluded to, this becomes very powerful with brand awareness on the internet. Making your name synonymous with your product or service is invaluable.

  20. An intriguing story, an interesting debate, and a well-written post. Plenty to think on here. I’m presenting on social mores on social media platforms, and figure inflation is one of the topics I’m going to touch on.

  21. Interesting connections. I think Frank Sinatra would have probably become a sensation regardless, but I do doubt the credibility of paid fans or increasing feed numbers in a similar way. If you provide quality content, or entertainment/talent in Sinatra’s case, your numbers will increase naturally.

  22. very interesting post. Monkey see; monkey do. that sums it up really. This is the way its been done for years and will continue to for many more I imagine. Look at the state of the pop charts today for example!

  23. This is an excellent post. I am amazed with the simple operation of human psychology, so I enjoyed in this post. Here is a good way to describe the functioning of the human psychic and this post should be read several times to understand exactly the point.

  24. Its very interesting theory, like much
    I will always return to give their articles!