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.

  • July 7, 2011
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