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Audience engagement and the “2TweetOrNot2Tweet” debate

February 7th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah in For everyone | Nonprofit Marketing

The times, they are a-changin’

My nephew, Tyler, loves nothing more than a cell phone. Mine is still pretty antiquated, but if I had a smartphone I'd earn even more points with him.

My nephew, Tyler, loves nothing more than a cell phone. Mine is still pretty antiquated, but if I had a smartphone I’d earn even more points with him.

This weekend, I spent some time with a friend and her three-year-old child. I don’t have children myself, and it has been a decade since my student years, when I babysat for extra income. It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed, yet I am struck by how different kids are now from kids ten years ago.

Kids that I meet today are tech-savvy. The ease with which my friend’s three-year-old operated her brand-new Kindle Fire — which she specifically requested for her birthday — is uncanny to me. My two and a half year old niece delights in colorful iPad apps, made just for kids, and my 18-month-old nephew covets nothing more than a cell phone. Not an old, broken one, mind you — he wants your smartphone. And, if you give it to him, the smile you’ll get in return makes the risk of damage to your expensive device seem worthwhile.

Just like the rest of us, children are drawn to the instant gratification that electronic devices offer. Why sit for hours playing with blocks or a puzzle when an iPad offers action, color, music and surprises at the touch of a finger? In a house full of games and toys, my friend’s three year old lamented the temporary lack of a wireless internet connection. “I need wireless!” she pouted, pathetically waving the inoperable Kindle in its colorful case.

Similarly, we’re addicted to social media because it affords us an instant connection to friends and family, and even people we don’t really like that much. I am part of the generation that straddles the pre- and post-social media worlds — I was a freshman in college when Facebook first came out, part of the first group of young people to be targeted by social media platforms. The children mentioned above, however, will never know a world without social media. At 1, 2 and 3 years old they don’t really have “friends” yet, per se – but you can bet that as soon as they do, their wireless devices will be networked together into a virtual playground, complete with games and gossip, practical jokes and even bullying.

The 2TweetOrNot2Tweet Debate

Nonprofit organizations around the world are looking for ways to connect with younger generations. In every discussion about how to engage youth, social media is the buzzword. How many of the teenagers that you’ve seen in the last week have not been looking at iPhones or tablets? Most nonprofit organizations recognize that to ignore social media outlets is to resign oneself to eventual irrelevance.

But what role should social media should play? Is it a tool for communicating news and updates to our supporters, or should it actually be an integral part of the work we do?

The National Endowment for the Arts recently started a lively Twitter debate about the use of social media during performances. “2TweetOrNot2Tweet” poses the question of whether live tweeting during performances is appropriate: is it the next big thing in audience engagement, or does it merely detract from our attention to the artists and their work?

The kids I know are constantly tweeting, updating their statuses on Facebook, sharing photos online and texting each other. They do it at school, at home, on the train, and out to dinner with their families at restaurants. Why should we expect them to change their behavior when they enter a theater or museum?

I’m not being sarcastic — like the NEA, I think that this is a question that organizations must wrestle with now, in the decades before audiences are made up exclusively of people born after the advent of social media. Most older people – my 28-year-old self included – believe that there are times and places where electronic devices are not appropriate. Most people I know think that texting or using a phone during a concert or performance is rude, but I don’t think that attitude will last forever.

View from the Tweet Seats: Photo by Jeff Swinger/The Cincinnati Enquirer

View from the Tweet Seats: Photo by Jeff Swinger/The Cincinnati Enquirer

There was a time when clapping between the movements of a piece of classical music was considered gauche. Actually, many older concertgoers and classically trained musicians still consider it rude, or at least a sign of cultural ignorance. But the question of “2ClapOrNot2Clap” is one that actually intimidates classical music newcomers – and one admonishing “shushing” from a habitual audience member is enough to turn someone away from the concert hall forever.

Richard Dare of the Brooklyn Philharmonic explored the “rules” of classical music as a possible explanation for its struggle to reach a broader audience. He described one of his first classical concerts:

“…had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert — if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like?”

I’d like to go so far as to suggest that tweeting could, theoretically, be considered an expression of “authentic enjoyment,” like laughing, clapping and shouting: a quick burst of emotion that communicates to others how we feel about a performance. But instead of being heard by just those in our immediate vicinity, it echoes in the virtual ears of a limitless community.

"Tweet Seats" are a new trend in some performance venues. People in the seats are allowed - and sometimes even asked - to live tweet during the performance.

“Tweet Seats” are a new trend in some performance venues. People in the seats are allowed – and sometimes even asked – to live tweet during the performance.

Does tweeting during performances prevent viewers from being completely attentive? Probably. In a blog post about using “tweet seats” at a performance — designated rows in the balcony where audience members are encouraged to live tweet — Leigh Chandler of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts reported that “most said it was a challenge to tweet and watch the performance at the same time.” But in regards to whether the use of “tweet seats” attracted a younger audience, Chandler noted that “some were one the younger side.”

I think that most people who grew up in the pre-social media era use it differently than kids who are growing up with it. For the people on the “younger side” who used Twitter during the Flynn Center performance, the experience was an exercise in trying to reconcile new technology with an old set of rules for performance etiquette. For many kids, tweeting about anything and everything that is interesting to them is second nature. They don’t conceptualize it as something that prevents them from authentically participating in the world.

The use of “tweet seats” is a good way to test the waters of allowing audience members to use mobile devices during performances. But bridging the gap between people that think public use of devices is rude and those that view it as second nature is going to be tricky. We know that harping on performance etiquette can limit the accessibility of classical art forms, as illustrated by Richard Dare’s article and many others. We need to keep this in mind as we wrestle with the 2TweetOrNot2Tweet question.

I have heard a lot of opinions on the issue from arts administrators and patrons; now, I’d like to hear more from the performers. If you’ve ever talked to somebody who started texting mid-conversation, you know it doesn’t feel great. When it happens to me, I almost always lose my train of thought. I imagine an artist who has been diligently practicing a piece of music or a role in a play for weeks, with intense focus and concentration. How must it feel for them to look out onto an audience glowing with the light of their smartphones? Does it cause them to lose their concentration, too?

We need to listen to performers’ voices in this dialogue, both now and further down the line, when many of them are also people born during the social media era. Perhaps those artists will be better equipped to make the argument against social media in performance venues, since they won’t be so quickly dismissed as old-fashioned for opposing it.

For now, lets take our cues from the artists. They are the ones under pressure to perform. I’m sure that many of them will love ideas like tweet seats. But for those that don’t, arts administrators should continue making the old “please turn off your mobile devices” announcements; that is, with the full knowledge that at least one person’s phone will ring before the night is over.

Many of us find it annoying when people use their phones during performances. But will kids today have the same attitude when they grow up?

Many of us find it annoying when people use their phones during performances. But will kids today have the same attitude when they grow up?

Resisting the urge to be a curmudgeon

This debate is troubling to many of us who know what it was like to watch TV before the advent of Facebook and Reddit and other addictive distractions. TV used to be the thing our parents worried about, when we watched it while doing our homework or instead of going outside to play. Now, I find it hard to just sit and watch TV without looking at my computer. I am distracted even from distractions, which I find pretty worrisome – and yet I do it anyways, when my willpower fails me.

If social media can distract someone from watching TV, just imagine how much it distracts us from things that require higher levels of concentration, like a live performance!

I tutor a 15-year-old girl who started high school this year. At her parent-teacher conferences, her math teacher told me that cell phones were the single biggest threat to education today. This, coming from a teacher at an inner-city Chicago public school. Pretty scary. It sort of makes me wish Facebook had never been invented.

But cell phones are here to stay. So is texting, and so is social media. And those of us who remember simpler times are going to have to adapt, just like our parents and grandparents had to adapt to things like Elvis Presley, and television, and hip hop music and video games.

I think that the NEA is smart to get this conversation started. We can begin to slowly wrap our heads around the idea of a world where tweeting during performances might be in some way acceptable. If we want the classical arts to survive among a generation accustomed to constant self-expression, we may have to lessen the focus on etiquette and increase opportunities for active participation. Even if we do so begrudgingly at first.






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