You don’t know me.
You may think you do. After all, if you read my blog, follow me on Twitter, friend me on Facebook, ask me a question on Quora, join my circles on Google+, you know a number of things about me. You certainly know of my devotion to theatre, my love of film, my enthusiasm for social media and my predilection for jokes and puns. You may have watched or listened to me on the podcasts I did while with the American Theatre Wing. We may have exchanged messages of varying lengths on these topics, you may have been kind enough to thank me for some of what I have done. But for the majority of you reading this, you haven’t met me and don’t truly know me.
I have a wife, but do you know her name? How many siblings do I have? Who are my closest friends? What are my political views? What are the jobs I wanted but didn’t get? Which are the employers who wanted me, but to whom I said no? Who did I date before marrying? Was my heart ever broken? What experiences have resulted in my most profound sense of loss?
Mind you, I’m not taunting anyone, nor am I trying to discount what we have together. If you if are research inclined (or stalkerish), you can find the answers to many of these questions online (in some cases, with photos, for your amusement). My point is about – like most of what I share – social media and theatre.
I have about 3100 Twitter followers and about 550 Facebook friends (hello, everyone). I have no idea how many people have watched me on “Working in the Theatre,” listened to me on “Downstage Center,” or god help me, watched me in a judicial role on Cupcake Wars. But as a result, most of you know the me I want you to see, the me I want to be. I am in control in a way I am not in face-to-face human interaction; there are many deleted tweets and blog passages that were in danger of going too far.
Social media offers us a particular opportunity to be the best version of ourselves, if we choose to use it for such a purpose. As someone who has always retained a sense of awkwardness in certain social situations (even though it may not be apparent), social media affords me the chance to say only what I want to say when I want to say it. I can edit it as necessary and, if I’m quick enough, even delete it before it really gets out. It gives me the means to gather an ever-widening circle of people with common interests, with whom I can talk, joke, or debate, if I choose to do so. And I can withdraw whenever I wish, to the insecurity of real life, ironically enough.
I have said more than once that I was drawn to theatre in high school because, while I wasn’t shy, I thrived on the experience of being in plays since I always knew what to say next. Someone else had worked out the conversation and all I needed to do was deliver the lines and if I did so with what passed for 17-year-old skill, I could achieve the desired result, particularly laughter, which is my drug of choice. As I grew older, and genuine talent was required, I stepped aside, seeking a life in which I could be of service to those who wrote the words and music, spoke and sang the lines, who could produce the desired effect.
Social media has given us all the opportunity to be on stage. What is Twitter but an ongoing play where brief thoughts must be translated to words? Isn’t it an extended improv exercise, or a perpetual, immersive Sleep No More (with much more talk but without all the running and sweating)? Aren’t blogs our monologues, rarely spoken aloud in our own voice? Perhaps they are our inner monologues, depending upon our topic, and how much we choose to share.
I often read comments from people pondering, discussing, hoping that social media and theatre will converge in a manner which produces a whole new experience, for artists and audience alike. But I think that social media is theatre already, a set of artificial worlds which we choose to enter or not. It is not cute like SimCity, it is not as visceral as L.A. Noire, it doesn’t burn calories like Wii Sports. We can choose anonymity, pseudonyms and avatars behind which to hide, but that defeats the purpose. It is a world much like our own, although we can banish those we find objectionable, by blocking or unfriending them.
To join, enjoy and benefit from the never-ending story playing out in social media, we must be some simulacrum of ourselves, always in the moment, always open to whoever may join the scene. By joining, we brand ourselves as exhibitionists, putting ourselves into the spotlight for others to enjoy or judge. But we are part of a team writing a script, billions of words every second, and though we know there are countless scenes playing out elsewhere, we are always in our own, or choosing which to observe. And it’s all being saved on hard drives around the world, perhaps to be played out again someday.
The quote under my high school yearbook photo was apt then, as the star of high school plays, and remains apt today, as a figure of minor recognition in a certain field. It is drawn from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, the story of an American spy whose true identity is never revealed, and so he lives in hiding, reviled as a Nazi sympathizer. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Vonnegut’s protagonist. “So we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
My name is @hesherman. What’s yours? Let’s play.