October 21, 2012

The return of small-only gatherings in youth party culture

"And I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby
Every place that I checked to get that quote had a bunch of people who totally misunderstood it, so at the risk of killing the joke, here's what she means. In a large gathering, each person's spotlight of attention is diffused over so many people, that no single person feels like they're being intently focused on by most attendants, let alone by all of them.

This feeling of not being watched by most or all others lets two people take their interaction wherever it wants to go, without having to freeze in place every time someone else's spotlight jerks over toward them, anxious about how they're being perceived. Large parties make for those "I Think We're Alone Now" kind of interactions.

Small parties work the other way, where each person may be fairly focused on all the others -- on some more than on others, of course, but still there's not that feeling of being able to slip away from the watchful eye of The Group, nowhere where two people could just talk about or do whatever without being noticed by others. This puts people more on their guard at small parties.

In a healthy world, people go to both large and small parties, enjoying the good parts of each, and putting up with the bad parts as a necessary cost. But sometime over the last 20 years, we've returned to the mid-century era of relying mostly on small gatherings, unlike the earlier large-party atmosphere of the Jazz Age, and also unlike the larger-scale shindigs from the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, Animal House, and Weird Science.

The nightclub craze of the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties is also long gone. In low-trust periods, people just don't feel comfortable being surrounded by so many strangers in such an unprotected space. It's not only that people in such periods are less promiscuous and have lower sex drives, since you could always go out dancing with your steady partner or group of friends. They just feel awkward in public spaces, so nightclubbing becomes a fringe activity.

At small parties, though, there's no carnivalesque feeling that all barriers have been removed between groups and individuals, so to low-trust people it feels safer. There are probably no more than five separate little groups of friends, and since each group knows the hosts, they aren't that far apart in social distance. To the low-trust person, knowing that some unknown group comes pre-approved by mutual friends eases the interactions between strangers.

In an old post I excerpted a party scene from Time's original article on the Silent Generation, which unfortunately is no longer free online. It sounds pretty familiar, a rather small gathering where nothing too wild takes place. The attention-whoring described is not surprising given how self-conscious the average person will be in a small party, yet where there's an understanding that something unusual should happen.

It's like how everyone pretends to be fascinated by the boring game of beer pong that they're watching. If they respond to it like they should, by ignoring it and talking about or doing something fun with another person, the intense spotlight of small-party groups will train itself on them, to remind them that we're all here to watch beer pong, so don't kill the mood, bro. Kids are so conformist these days.

It's not as though young people in the good old days lacked group activities where everyone got together to pump themselves up as a group, rather than pair off and wander here, there, or anywhere. Sports games are only the most obvious example, and fans were much more rabid during the '20s and the '80s. But they also held their own events where, within an atmosphere of groupiness (those inside vs. outside the party), anyone could still find their own hidden little place, away from prying eyes. They enjoyed a healthier balance of event types.

I still stand by two older posts about how boring the typical Millennial house party is (and that episode was from Halloween, no less), and how beer pong reflects anti-social trends. And after a brief resurgence of nightclubbing during the mid-2000s, its appeal to young people keeps falling. Now, even when they do go out, it's mostly to whore for attention if they're female, and if male, to stare at "hot chicks" without making a move. No one's in any danger of making a connection.


  1. What Fitzgerald has done here, to great effect, is to continue to illustrate Jordan Baker's never-ending attempts to hide her real persona (she's "incurably dishonest"). She can hide her dishonest character at large affairs as she blends into the crowd, allowing herself to act as the observer from a safe perch from which she can indulge in two of her greatest passsions--sarcastic criticism of others and scandalous gossip.

    The small affair is much too private to allow her to hide from perceptive eyes, like those of Nick.

    She is unable to understand intimacy, confusing it with privacy. She can be intimate only with herself, so to speak, so a situation in which she finds herself with only a few people is not "private," not "intimate."

    I've always felt Fitzerald's characterization of Baker to have been his best... or at least equal to his best. There are a lot of people like her.

  2. I also think it shows narcissism and lack of risk-taking.

    At a small party, every has to pay attention to everybody, and anybody can interject themselves into an interaction.

    And when you go to a large party, with people you don't know, you run the risk that you might be ignored.


  3. At a large party, people from all kinds of backgrounds can come together. You never know who will hit it off together, and those from all cliques, and even loners, can have a shot at talking to girls.

    But the small party ensures only a select group of "cool kids"(who, actually, often aren't all that cool, just happen to have the initiative to throw a party) get to talk to girls in a party setting. I think this explains a lot of the drop in promiscuity amongst millenials. Because of the small parties, girls often don't find a guy they feel compatible with. The result is, much of the time, that nobody gets laid at all.

    Its contemptible, when you think about it. Millenial boys are too afraid to have an open competition. God forbid somebody cooler than you shows up to the party.


  4. I'd like to hear your thoughts on these things, which I consider to be precious little embers of non-self-conscious, non-ironic fun.

    -coed intramural/rec league sports: basketball, flag football, soccer, frisbee, etc. since they are coed and not really that competitive, people are more social and light-hearted. also necessarily involve bumping up against strangers.

    -true strategy board games. this is more introverted, but still it's a non-self-conscious escape into fun. there are some really great, "designer" games that you can't get at superstores (except maybe settlers of catan, which is solid). these can be anything from quirky, fast-paced assassination/bluffing games, or hard core strategy games. a particularly fun type of game is cooperative games, where, say, you and your teammates fight against a gang of murderous zombies that appear on the board.

    -also relating to games, i know youre not a fan of "video games as movies that you passively watch and collect points over time" but I went to a video game/board game convention recently for the hell of it, and it was actually really refreshing to see...people running around in their avatars, taking pictures with strangers, going to panels with creators of various games, etc. there was even a group of 30 or so people shooting each other with nerf guns nonironically as part of some large scale game.

  5. yeah, what things are actually around like that these days? i'll have to get back to you on that when i'm not inebriated...

  6. Yeah if you feel inspired for a blog post, go for it.

    It's sometimes nice to notice a few of the positives and see how they can be supported/continued.

    I wonder if the pendulum could swing back the other way...I felt a big part of the super ironic status whoring Facebook crowd for a while, but I eventually got sick of it, and just want to enjoy life.

    Part of the problem might be that with the pervasiveness of the Internet, no one really feels unique or special anymore, because of the "winner take all" nature. As a hypothetical, I may be the funniest in my group of friends, but if there's someone else only two clicks away on YouTube who is way funnier, why should I bother ... So. Have to guard my ego by layers of irony so I can always claim I don't care.


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