I thought I had written my final words on Joshua Bell and the Metro, but it turns out there’s one final thing to say. And it’s kind of fascinating, and it tells a story about the power, and peril, of the Web.
In my last live chat, I mentioned that most people who have heard of the Joshua Bell Metro experiment picked it up not directly from my Washington Post story, but from an anonymous, supposed summary that went globally viral a few months after the story was published. It was a simply written little piece, with a helpful moral at the end, for the people in the cheap seats. (I’m not linking to it here because I want no more eyeballs on it, but I will be cutting and pasting it below, for purposes of refutation.)
As I said in the chat, this piece — most people’s only direct knowledge of the stunt and its aftermath — was filled with errors significant and trivial, but relentless in their carelessness. I just re-read it, and it is almost incomprehensible how this could have happened, unless the writer read the original piece, forgot about it, and then, months later, tried to summarize it from memory, as though it were not available in original, checkable form just a few clicks away. But why bother, it’s just for the Internet, right? Who cares?
Hardly a month goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from some priest or minister or rabbi or imam gratefully and graciously informing me that they have just delivered a sermon based on the events in my story; often, they include a copy of the sermon, and more often than not it is based on the erroneous summary. In fact, they think that WAS my story. In the beginning I gently told them of the error, but that caused only shame and distress, so I don’t anymore. I just thank them.
(I do sometimes tell them that while I have no problem with their interpretation of the story as an affirmation of the presence of God all around us in bounteous yet unappreciated beauty, I personally did not exactly intend that message inasmuch as I am a heathen.)
Anyway, after last week’s chat, several readers asked me to explain how wrong the Internet version was, which I will do below, by annotating it. But other readers wanted to know how I am aware that most people who know about this stunt read it from this thing and not the original, and that’s pretty easy. If you Google “Joshua Bell” and “metro,” you get 169,000 hits. But if you add to the search “six Bach pieces” — a phrase that exists only in the flawed summary and not in my story, since Josh did not play “six Bach pieces” at all — you get 161,000 hits.
(Google searches are imperfect, and vary oddly and dramatically with the order and syntax of the searched-for words and phrases. In some versions, the “six Bach pieces” search gets 698,000 hits, and without it, 730,000, but you get the idea. Whatever the real proportion, it’s preposterous.)
So what does this all mean? A bunch of things, I think, none of which comes as a particular shock.
1. The insidious, intelligence-challenging “TL;DR” phenomenon: The Web values concision and simplicity over subtlety and context and, uh, complex truth.
2. Remain suspicious of anonymity. Where careers are not threatened by error, standards of truth are mightily relaxed. I discovered this independently some years ago when Wikipedia and numerous other sources informed me that Howard K. Smith, the 1960s TV anchor, had witnessed the hanging of the Nuremberg convicts and written a famous account of it. It sounded wrong to me, so I did some research and discovered it was not Howard Kingsbury Smith, the TV newsman, but Kingsbury Smith, a wire service guy with an oddly similar name. Two different men, no question. I wrote this in a chat as a giant exposé several years ago, and yet there are still 50,000 references to Howard K. Smith’s fine reporting about the hangings, including several that take pains to note the stunningly careless invented factoid that Kingsbury Smith changed his byline to Howard K. Smith when he went into television.
3. Some people just don’t give a crap. See below.
A Most Interesting Story
A man sat1 at2 a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold3 January morning. He played six Bach pieces4 for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people5 went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds6 and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later7 , the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again.8 Clearly he was late for work.9
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy.10 His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist.11 Finally the mother pushed hard12 and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people13 stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it.14 No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.15
No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.
Two16 days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment …
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
1. Joshua Bell never sat. He stood the whole time.
2. He was not “at” the station. He was in an arcade outside the station, which becomes important below.
3. It was cold, but that was irrelevant to his performance; this erroneously suggests he was playing outside in the cold, which has become part of the legend entirely due to this account.
4. Wrong. Two Bach pieces, one Massenet, one Schubert, one Ponce, and a sixth that escapes me at the moment, and I didn’t mention by name in the story. Mendelssohn, I think.
5. Not “thousands” or anywhere near. Exactly 1,097.
6. This first guy never stopped, even for a second. That was the point of including him. The story says he barely altered his gait, but did turn to notice a musician. He was the first to do so.
7. A half-minute, actually, but who’s counting?
8. Nope, this guy, John David Mortensen, stayed a full three minutes against the wall.
9. Nope. He got to work on time. That is why he left when he did.
10. Well, no, not hardly. Several people paid way more attention than the child, who watched for about three seconds; one man, John Picarello, stayed nine minutes.
11. Evan didn’t stop. He wanted to, but his ma kept moving him along.
12. Evan was never “pushed hard,” or mistreated in any way. His mother simply kept him briskly moving, the way hurried mothers do.
13. Seven people, not six, but who’s counting?
14. As the story says, one woman definitely noticed it. Right at the end. She recognized Bell, watched the last two minutes of his performance, then went up to him to say hello.
15. See above. There was definitely recognition.
16. Three days, not two, but who’s counting?
I realize some of the above are small, but all of them are just phenomenally lazy. Avoidable by four minutes of work.