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Novak Djokovic and the Crowd Whisperer of the U.S. Open

One man's quest to get Americans up out of their seats and cheering.

For the past day or two, a video has been making the internet rounds showing tennis star Novak Djokovic dancing himself silly after a victory at the U.S. Open:

The backstory to the clip involves a man named Cameron Hughes, the so-called "SuperFan" who makes a living as a professional riler-up of crowds at sporting venues across the globe. You see, Djokovic's impromptu dance performance wasn't actually impromptu: it was an homage to the balletic stylings that Hughes had used to entertain the crowd throughout the day. And it was followed by a post-match dance-off between the SuperFan and the Superstar:

While for many people, these clips mark their first encounter with Cameron Hughes, I've been following his (sometimes literal) body of work for a while now. Hughes has had paying gigs at close to 1,000 competitions over the past decade, serving at the pleasure and payroll of big-name, big-league clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and New Jersey Devils.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics, for example, organizers hired Hughes to whip crowds into a frenzy at the men's and women's ice hockey venue. For two weeks, his schedule was booked solid: when he wasn't cheering and clapping through one of 30 games, he was scouring drug stores for throat lozenges and websites for Finnish cheers.

In short, Hughes is an expert in the power of context, having learned over the years how to pull the strings of even the most sheepishly shy of arena fans, transforming them from quiet observers to full-fledged, dance-in-the-aisle sports fanatics.

In other words, Cameron Hughes is the crowd whisperer.

Not long ago, I spoke with Cameron at length to explore his skill for manipulating situations to shape group behavior. The details of that exclusive interview can be found in Chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Situations Matter.

I won't give away too much from the interview here–the best stuff gets saved for when you read the book! But I will tell you that the keys to Cameron's unique career as a professional crowd wrangler involve his awareness of the how the littlest aspects of ordinary context make a big difference when it comes to shaping the behavior of others.

For example, though Hughes sees himself as an entertainer, he doesn't draw self-comparisons to the sports mascots or physical comedians of the world. No, the surprising analogy he turns to is that of the symphony. That's right, Cameron Hughes is more Royal Philharmonic than Phillie Phanatic: "I've become an expert at being an orchestra leader," he explained to me. "What I do, it's... a calculated experience of how to move people to action."

Hughes has learned that it sometimes takes but a single person to set into motion this type of social influence–just one individual to alter a group's sense of what's expected or acceptable: "The phenomenon of being in a crowd is that once one person does it, you know, it becomes contagious," he told me. "It's like everybody is waiting for someone else to do something... it's like everybody is waiting for permission to cheer."

In other words, Hughes' strategy is to spring the first leak in the levee. Once he does, a tidal wave of conformity surges through behind him. And he makes following his lead as easy as possible by taking his own act to the absolute height of manic non-self-consciousness: compared to the multi-shirt striptease that's a staple of his oeuvre, a little bit of rhythmic clapping doesn't seem like such a big deal to the fan two rows down.

So enjoy watching Novak Djokovic dance himself silly via internet video tonight. But don't think it was simply some sort of spontaneous self-expression or even an example of idiosyncratic lunacy. Rather, it was a direct result of the expert work of a latter-day Wizard of Oz, pushing the buttons of human nature from behind the curtain at a sports arena.

Mr. Djokovic, you've officially been Cameron-ed. And sports fans across North America, consider yourselves warned: you may very well be next...


Like this post? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below:

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