The Strange Psychology Of Lines

The iPad is one of the only things left that people will actually queue up for — in part because the act of waiting is in itself an experience.

People wait in line to enter Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue to be amongst the first one to buy the new iPad, in New York, on March 16, 2012.

(Getty Images / EMMANUEL DUNAND)

A couple of weeks ago, I attempted — like everyone else in my Twitter feed, it seemed — to get tickets to one of Kraftwerk’s eight shows at the Museum of Modern Art. I used the atomic clock to make sure I was on the site exactly at noon, and after I chose which show I wanted to go to, the Showclix system told me I was “waiting in the queue.” And waiting. And … waiting. And then, after 45 minutes or so, the system told me I hadn’t gotten tickets.

The virtual queue was a cruel mistress, arbitrary and fickle. Twenty years ago, someone trying to get these tickets would’ve camped out outside MoMA the night before tickets went on sale. They’d be rewarded for their patience by getting tickets to one of the shows, maybe even to Trans-Europe Express, the one I most wanted to go to. But the internet has successfully replaced most line-waiting — which required patience, perseverance, and lots of time (or alternately, money to pay someone to stand in line for you) — with a system that rewards one thing only: speed. So if you didn’t order an iPad online (speed!), you could still get one today — in limited quantities — at a store, and people started lining up on Monday (patience! perseverance! time!) in some places to make sure that they got one. And even though the frenzy over the device has been muted compared to previous iPhone and iPad releases, it’s expected that there will be a line when certain Apple products come out.

No one likes waiting in line involuntarily. Pictures of people waiting in line — like, say, at a job fair — are used to illustrate their powerlessness, and highlight the distinction between waiting in line by choice and waiting in line out of need. Waiting in any kind of line implies that the line has more value than the waiter’s time.

My personal formula for voluntary line-waiting goes something like this: if anticipated line-waiting discomfort (outdoor temperature, bathrooms, will I have to stay overnight, etc.) (A) x expected time in line (T), squared < my hourly earnings (E) x desire for the object or experience (D) x anticipated fun in line (F), then it seems worth it.

But how many things can that be true for? For some people, that’s true for the Twilight premiere (not me) or Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas (me). At Franklin, which opens at 11 a.m. every day (except Mondays, when they’re closed) and doesn’t take reservations, people start lining up around 9. The Franklin line imbues its waiter with a sense of status, of being inducted into a club of fellow barbecue obsessives. If you’re crazy enough to wait in line for two hours or more for a plate of brisket, then you deserve that brisket. Besides, the line at Franklin is an equal-opportunity line. The day I was there, Anthony Bourdain was filming an episode “No Reservations.” He and his crew waited in line with everyone else. They weren’t even first.

There's one way to skip the line at Franklin: If you order at least five pounds of meat a couple days in advance, you can pick it up without waiting. But part of the whole experience of eating at Franklin is the line — in the same way that for some people, waiting in line at an Apple store the night before a new product is released is part of the experience of purchasing it; after all, they could've gone to Radio Shack or Best Buy or an AT&T or Verizon store this morning and picked one up without waiting. But where's the fun in that?


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