Social Media Goes ‘Avant-Bard’ at American Shakespeare Center

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The tweet-or-don’t-tweet-at-the-theater discussion will no doubt continue, as we observed at the CFR at the end of July. Despite the discussion (or maybe due to it), incidences of audience tweeting have become of increasing interest for me: During the last few weeks, I’ve scanned the twittersphere for any cases I could find and they’re more scarce than I thought in theater-heavy New York City. Are Broadway, Off-Broadway and even Off-Off-Broadway audiences chary of the local ordinance outlawing cell phone use in places of public gathering? I don’t know. But it’s hard to imagine that being the case.

What I do know is that change is inevitable: As social media becomes increasingly intertwined with the American experience, it will become increasingly part of the theatergoing experience, too. As I suggested last month, the best thing the theater as a cultural force can do is to think proactively, to leverage social media, not dismiss it as more evidence of societal dysfunction. I know not everyone sees my point.

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Then there’s the question of social media for those working behind the proverbial proscenium. While the once-creaky Broadway commercial-producing model is largely embracing social media (profit incentivizes better than subsidy?), my observation is that resident nonprofits, especially in New York City, are weaker in this area. Not unaware and not uninterested, just weaker. For one thing, everyone is not invited or authorized to tweet or Digg, etc.

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That’s where Amy Wratchford, managing director of American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., comes in. Not for any reason, apparently, but out of a carpe diem mentality, Wratchford, culling from prominent, common sense-based online sources, has compiled a list of social media do’s and don’ts for the AST “family.” What it represent is an excellent template. (Hat tip to Tom Cott’s daily e-blast for the link to the information.)

It is also a template that might benefit from a little tweaking.

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At the top of ASC’s social media guidelines, Wratchford asks a very good question — “What happens when we let our ASC family loose on Twitter, YouTube, and blogs?” — followed by an even better one: “How can we make sure that we are all representing the ASC in a way that enhances our brand and deepens the conversation with our communities?”

Then she posits a kind of mission statement for ASC-related social media endeavors:

The overarching goal of all our social media outreach is to spread the word about what a fantastic organization this is and the passionate, compelling work that goes on in the Playhouse, office, classrooms, and on the road. Also, to engage in conversation about who we are, what we do, why we do it the way we do, what we are learning, how much fun we are having, and what is going on in the industry.

Some of the guidelines are certainly applicable to professional situations beyond those of the theater. For example:

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  • Transparency is vital. Whether you are communicating on an official ASC channel or not, please know that you represent the American Shakespeare Center. It is best to include a mention of your connection in your profile and also mention it when posting comments on blogs that are related to what we do.
  • Private vs. Public. Don’t publish confidential or other proprietary information. Anything having to do with legal, internal personnel, or confidential financial matters should never be discussed outside of appropriate internal communications. Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
  • Be professional. Treat others with the utmost respect in your conversations. Ethnic slurs, personal insults, foul language, or conduct that would not be acceptable in our offices should not be used.

By the same token, some of the guidelines make assumptions that are disputable, even Pollyannish. For example:

  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Most everyone is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have. Please assume that they meant no ill will until proven otherwise and then see the next guideline.
  • Avoid the trolls. Refrain from engaging in heated discussion and use good judgment when expressing opinions that may pose a potential conflict. Do not post angry comments or attack individuals engaging in the discussion. If someone attacks you, reply politely and disengage.
  • Play nice. Do not insult or disparage ASC, its productions or offerings, or any fellow employees, even if specific names are not mentioned. The same goes for other theatres or “competitors” of any kind.

First, I don’t think it’s true that “everyone is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.” Not to get political on y’all, but the fracas over the erroneously-dubbed “Ground Zero mosque” and now the fracas over the right-wing’s promotion of the idea that President Obama is Muslim together illustrates that people will, in fact, sometimes do the worst they can with the knowledge they have. Sure, there’s a galaxy of difference between disinformation campaigns in pursuit of national political gain and what some associate marketing director in some theater somewhere might tweet about some revival of As You Like It. Still, the assumption that all people participating in social media operate truly in earnest, that no one has an axe to grind in the arts, that no one has hidden agendas, that no one thirsts for a spotlight or self-promotion or pot-stirring — that’s just idealistic thinking and not, sadly, representative of reality. People are very, very petty.

Second, what constitutes “ill will”? Is it like pornography — you know it where you see it? The answer to these questions are inexorably connected to the statement about avoiding trolls. Yes, sometimes trolls are most obvious. But is there a point — that is, is there ever a point — at which “expressing opinions that may pose a potential conflict” actually means “adhere to our artistic orthodoxy or pay the price”? I feel like this part of Wratchford’s list needs to go an extra mile and introduce the idea of nuance: tone and texture, attitude and phrasing, even punctuation.

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Third, yes, of course an employee of an organization should play nice. It seems to me that some of this stuff used to be taught in Kindergarten — well, first grade in blue-collar towns where times are tough — and maybe it isn’t anymore. It saddened me that this needed explaining, but I respect the decision to do so.

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Fourth, finally and most crucially, the verbiage referring to “what a fantastic organization this is” and the “passionate, compelling work that goes on” is very rah-rah (as one of the commenters on Wratchford’s post noted), and almost like advertising or propaganda. There’s something worrisome about blurring the line between exciting your employees, getting them jazzed, getting them enthusiastic and motivated, and subtly inculcating the notion that if you want to keep your job, you’ll salute, you’ll click your heels and you’ll unfailingly convince yourself of the perfection of the party line. No, if you don’t agree with a company policy — artistic or otherwise — you don’t tweet it out for the universe to gawk at. You have to make judgments regarding which suggestions, concerns or criticisms can be expressed publicly and which are better left for internal discussion. Indeed, “what is the right forum for this?” is another question for the social media list — sometimes social media just isn’t the right place for a topic.

That said, one must be very careful not to imply that WalMart-style blind dogma is ideal — indeed, it’s antithetical to the idea of artistic creation.

Searching for a nice quote from Shakespeare, I was reminded of this one:

Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

Most succinct. My addition sits nowhere near Shakespeare, but nevertheless:

Discussion does not mean dissension.
Debate does not mean destruction.