The New Wild West

07.07.11 | 16 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, augmented reality, community, conversation starter, ideas, new technology, rabble rousing, social media, the future

or, How Meta-Conversations are Taking Over Our Theatres

Photo illustration featuring members of American Theater Company. (William DeShazer/Tribune / July 2, 2011)

My friend Briana, a brilliant arts educator and visual artist, alerted me (via a tag on Facebook) to an article about the rising phenomenon of texting in the theater and asked me, as an enthusiastic social media proponent and arts administrator, what my thoughts were on the subject. The article quoted multiple sources that implied that the rise in smartphone use during performances, movies, and live events represented a new infantilization of adults- a sensory distraction that was addictive and destructive to the social fabric and to the performances themselves.

So what do I think about that?

I think that you can’t give hundreds of millions of people a device that fits into their pocket and gives them instant access to all the information ever gathered on the planet (and everyone they’ve ever met) and expect this not to transform the way we do everything (including experience live performance). Right now, we are about 2 years past an event horizon that we will later look back at and describe as being as truly transformative as the invention of the electric lightbulb. Right now we tend to only notice when it disrupts our social norms (like the expectation that the only conversation happening in a darkened theater is happening between the speaker/actor/performer and the audience as a silent, absorbent group).

Its a kind of social wild west right now, a lawless time where disruptive technology has arrived but the social agreements that integrate that technology into our lives successfully is still emerging. The new etiquette will emerge. But it will not be the same as before smartphones existed. And the social explosion definitely privileges the visual learners and fluent writers/communicators (whether they are introverts or extroverts) over the kinesthetic and auditory communicators. An extreme introvert who is a fluid writer has a better chance of finding strong community and rising to the top socially in this new world order than the extroverted verbal communicator or the athlete for whom words are not a strong suit.

To use a high school shorthand, watch out captain of the football team, the world popularity contest might just be won these days by the D&D nerd with a wry sense of humor and a good grasp of the english language .

This is  going to create new elites and make those (like teachers, politicians and stand-up comics) who are used to dominating a one way communication channel through primarily auditory cues, extremely uncomfortable.

But here’s the thing:

The ability to have a meta-conversation with an external community while you are experiencing a primary event (through texting, twitter, facebook, etc) is a hugely useful development (we are already seeing it transform how conferences are managed,  how politics gets done, anywhere where the work is about compiling or influencing consensus opinion). It’s too useful to be suppressed from all but the most necessary aspects of daily life. It provides a feedback loop, knowledge base, basis for social cohesion and opportunity for reflection/revelation while an event is in process, rather than in the car on the ride home.

Some of that feedback loop is “shallow.” But it serves the same ends toward relationship building and social cohesion as time honored practices like small talk and coffee meetings- light touches that pave the way for more meaningful network building. And some of that feedback loop can disrupt the primary conversation in useful ways… as Alli Houseworth recently demonstrated with her conference tweets heard round the world.

A paradigm shift is coming. As primary communicators (artists/performers/speakers) we will need to let go of the expectation that silence and eyes on the front of the room means attention successfully grabbed. Instead we should  look for active meta-conversations about the topic/performance to signal successful absorption and dissemination of the experience.

For the performers/speakers who successfully make the paradigm shift there are huge opportunities to gauge the relevance, impact, popularity and success of an event in a whole new way. There’s also huge risks- you will not be able to control the message if you bomb. You will need to work harder to be more interesting than the meta-conversations you have inspired. You will need to create work that allows space for meta-conversation to unfold. That will be an uncomfortable adjustment for most people.

And, just like our brains require the occasional absence of light in order to have downtime and recharge (thus we don’t keep our lightbulbs on all night) society will ultimately evolve  safe spaces where we will, by mutual agreement, turn off our devices and be whole and complete in the moment. Will the theater be one of those spaces? I’m not so sure. Perhaps.

I know that I, avid social user that I am, give myself 10 days in the desert each year, at a place where the local cell tower can only handle 24 calls at a time, where I am forced to be disconnected, unplugged, and engaged with “meatspace” full time for a week. But I understand that respite for what it is. Not a return to a non-connected “normal” but a momentary nap from which I will awake into the meta-conversation that is the new defining normal of our lives.

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  • Uh oh, Trisha, I’d watch your back for a few days if I were you. This is sure to enrage those who think they have a monopoly on expression because they are “artists.”

  • I don’t think I have a monopoly on expression as an artist.  But I do think it’s one thing to livetweet or interact during a conference–whose purpose is conversation, after all–and another to use it during a performance.  Can we really process what we’re experiencing if we’ve only experienced it in part?

    If I’m watching “Psycho” and tweeting for the first twenty minutes about how boring this thing is, what do we care about Janet Leigh, what a mundane film, who cares about this money, what’s happened to Hitchcock…I’m not sitting back to let Hitchcock spring his surprise.  (Spoiler alert.  The movie’s not about Janet Leigh or banking.)

    Goodness knows I’m an avid user of Twitter etc.  (65,138 tweets as of this second.)  But I do think the theater needs to be one of those quiet spaces. 99% of the tweets you see from inside shows, during performances, aren’t anything that couldn’t have been shared at intermissions or after the shows.  (And, again, I’m not saying we can’t develop new ways to tell stories that incorporate Twitter during shows, just that it’s all right to put the phone down for 90 minutes to watch sometimes.)

    But yes, we do need to adapt.  We need to be able to devise work that incorporates it and at the same time produce work that does not.

    • Brandon Moore

      I believe live performance demands more of its audience than any other art form: we set all of the requirements for how, when, where, with whom – and they’re inflexible.  When we struggle with “the competition for attention”, we’re in a pretty difficult place to begin.  Factor in audiences that have also been changed by a “fast food culture” which has created an expectation that the customer experience will be as smooth and effortless  and “all about me” as possible.

      That’s why I think it’s so important that we find a way to build a bridge from that kind of audience expectation that leads them to the historical pleasures David describes – sitting in silence among strangers in a darkened theatre letting a work of art take them to extraordinary places.  That’s why we need that kind of art, and why we need to be open-minded about the “intrusion” of these devices into that world.

      • I suspect that a visual artist might disagree with you… but not being a visual artist myself I shouldn’t speculate. It brings up an interesting point, though- I wonder how our painters and sculptors feel about the fact that their art is nearly always consumed in an environment of conversation (much of it unrelated to their work) rather than in an environment of contemplative silence? Our cohorts at the museums certainly seem to be racing to embrace and encourage the “meta-conversation” about the work in their spaces faster than we are.

        • Brandon Moore

          Visual art falls under the “how”: it doesn’t depend on the artist being there for the audience to be able to engage with it; once the art has been created, an audience can member can appreciate it at any time for as long as it exists.

          And perhaps, it’s because the artist “doesn’t have to be there”, that’s why they’re comfortable with the conversation happening right there?

          • Also, it’s two different things. A work of art in a museum is simply there, unchanging.  When you look up, it’s still there.  When you come back three days later, it’s still there.  If I look at the art, then tweet about it, it won’t have moved into a new position by the time I look up again.  The people on La Grande Jatte don’t move around and change their story every few minutes.  (Unless you’re watching Sondheim.)

            A few weeks back, I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was amused by a couple of kids, probably around 14-15 yr olds, who were making fun of the people wandering the museum & using their phones.  One actually said, “Why look at your phone now?  You always have your phone.”  

            It didn’t mean they were being quiet themselves.  That’s the thing I don’t understand.  Everyone who argues for the freedom to text/tweet/etc compares it to a “silent, passive audience receiving the work.”  I’m sorry, if your audience is passive and silent, you’re doing it wrong.

          • A fair point, David. An engaged audience is neither silent nor passive. I’d love to see both, actually, in a perfect world- shows that create respite from exterior community and shows that invite that community in.

  • Are we having this conversation again? Exciting!

    I am with you, Trisha. I do not believe we are likely to go backward. As I have been saying for some time now, even here on 2amt, this is not only the future but the *present* state of things. Our art will adapt. I don’t know how, but it will, and the future will favor those who are willing to experiment and fail and experiment again.

    There will always be room for theater as one of my estimable colleage Mr. Loehr’s “quiet spaces,” but theater as convener and inspirer of meta-conversations is here to stay, too. Will it become the dominant form? Time will tell, and I won’t predict. But it’s not going to die. The genie will not go fully back into the bottle.

    • The beauty of it is, there is no dominant form.  We’ve told stories and made wondrous sights and had conversations for thousands of years.  The technology shifts, that’s all.  This is just one more tool we can paint with.  Which is exciting.

      • We are, to some extent, merely apes who have added ochre to a palette of blood red and black.

        Yes, I called us apes.

  • Trisha, I’d be curious to know what learnings you got from the Portland Center Stage experiment with live tweeting Apollo. I was there as one of the live tweeters, and I found that by embracing the phenomenon, those of us in that small group understood the show on a deeper level than we might have had we been watching it with phones & laptops off.

    There was a lot to process during the show and I felt like talking about it as it happened helped a few of us get more out of it.

    • So glad you brought up our experimental twitter night at PCS. Its a great example of both the discomfort and the opportunities emerging here. The “success” of that evening varied greatly depending on the individual participant. One media person who participated abandoned it after 20 minutes- she found trying to absorb and report simultaneously to be incredibly difficult. Other fluent twitter users like yourself found the meta-conversation that arose added deeply to their understanding of the piece and helped a fairly abstract work find new resonances and connections, as people added their own historical contexts and perspectives to the conversation.

      I followed that conversation from outside the performance hall and found it fascinating- like being in the brains of 20 audience members simultaneously. As a ‘focus group’ it was extraordinary.

      However, the experiment was not popular with some of the artists in the production who noted that the meta-conversation that developed would create laugh lines where none were designed by the artists and that the “screen glow” was a distraction from them even in the balcony of the performance.

      Some of the actors followed the progress of the twitter conversation from backstage and and even contributed at times, if I remember correctly. Their reaction was fairly positive.

      So the utility of the experiment varied wildly depending on the communication style and preferences of the individual participants (on both sides of the proscenium).

      I think there is space for both kinds of performance- a sacred space model where all outside interaction is suppressed (sort of like a vahpassana silent meditation retreat) and a fully engaged model where the meta conversations are accepted as fact- not integrated into the show, exactly, but supported by the structure of the performance and perhaps participated in and guided by the organization itself from evening to evening.

      I do think, however, that preventing that meta conversation from happening and creating truly sacred space will be as difficult as inviting people to a ten day silent retreat- valuable, but an increasingly more difficult concept to explain the benefits of. And I don’t think that the meta-conversation is intrinsically antithetical to the full and deep appreciation of the work of performance. I think, like with PCS’ twitter experiment, it will depend on the intentions and personalities of the participant/audiences themselves.

      • One thought: silence is only sacred for people who come from religious traditions in which (wait for it) silence is sacred. There are many traditions in which noise of one form or another is the highest expression of divine spirit.

        Just thought that, as an atheist, I ought to point that out 🙂

  • I think someone needs to write a play about this very subject to take us into the depths of the uncomfortable space between the new and the accepted norm that may result.  The period of “change” may have been explored before, but this time, it’s personal (for the audience). ;O)

  • Anonymous