Interactive World, Passive Audiences?

It all started innocently enough.

Last weekend, I headed down to a local, free music event being held here in Vancouver. While there, I ran into a bunch of friends, and then consequently hung out with them for the next few hours. Next on the agenda: a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Bard on the Beach.

My friend Deb, whom I’d bumped into earlier in the day, tweeted me this:

To which I responded:

The idea of folks texting or tweeting during performances has become a bit of an issue lately, it seems, according to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune called The Lure of the LED Screen.

It appears that we are addicted to our smartphones. When they ring/beep/vibrate, we need, need, need to know why–who it is, what’s going on.

“I do think it’s a kind of Pavlovian response, a primitive response,” said Nicholas Carr, a writer based in Boulder, Colo., who explores this phenomenon in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “The sense that there might be a message out there for us is kind of hard to resist. In all sorts of situations people find it harder and harder not to glance at their smartphone. And what starts to happen is that things that used to be considered incredibly rude will, as more and more people start doing it, suddenly become normal. And then it just feeds on itself.”

And from later in the article:

“There are deep physiological reasons why we find it so hard to resist the temptation to not glance at our smartphones every five minutes,” according to Carr.

“There are studies about the craving we have for new information. It’s pretty clear that when we get a new little piece of information, our brains release some dopamine — which is the neurotransmitter chemical that is how the brain encourages us to do things; it’s also the chemical implicated in most addictions. And as you get rewarded by that kind of pleasure of getting a new piece of information, you want to repeat that. … There is something very deep and very primitive in our minds that wants us to gather every little bit of information around us.”


Okay, so I will admit to a certain… fondness for my iPhone 4. Okay, I feel naked without it. But it’s a smartphone! It does everything!


When I go to the theatre, I turn it off. I don’t tweet during performances, maybe at intermission, and likely afterwards, but not during performances. At the very least, the glow of the screen, I imagine, is quite distracting (although you can dim your screen on an iPhone).

Here’s what the question boils down to for me: are we change-haters? Are we simply resisting innovation? The Chicago Tribune article goes on to cite some really cool examples of how people are integrating texting and tweeting into their shows. What’s cool about that? It’s building audience engagement. People are involved in the show in a very real way, not just passively watching it.

I know, I know, I can hear you now: The theatre is sacred. You have to have respect for your fellow patrons. Etcetera, etcetera.

But what if that’s just our “old brains” talking? The same brains that lead us to say, “well, when I was a baby, I licked lead paint off of the bars of my crib, and look how I turned out!” Because change is hard. And what if the reality that we have to face is that, in order to get folks in the door of the theatre, we need to make it more accessible, more engaging?

Or maybe not.

But I do love Trisha Mead’s reaction to the Chicago Tribune article, recently published on #2amt:

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.

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.

I welcome your comments.

h/t @youvecottmail


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.



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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 11

  1. I’ve had the same question asked of me when I’ve attended plays – will I be tweeting.

    I love to live tweet, and am happy to do it when the venue/conference/event warrants it – but for me, at this point, that is not at a play, or at least, plays as they now occur.

    I know that tweeting to me IS engaging but with the current structure, I would lose my concentration. I can see the usefulness in improv for instance, or at the end of a play, to display tweets that said “bravo” on a screen.

  2. I think that (as an audience member) I would prefer to see more people shut off their smartphones – the buzzing and light are terribly distracting. As a performer – it’s my job to engage the audience and draw them away from their distraction. Tough call – but I think that shutting them off so that ALL audience members (after all, isn’t that who we’re performing for?)(especially those who are NOT using their smartphones) garner enjoyment out of the event, rather than suffering the distraction of their technology obsessed (guilty, except for when I’m an audience member) peers.

  3. It’s a very interesting conversation topic – and one that isn’t likely to be resolved soon. I fall pretty firmly in the anti-texting/tweeting camp, but am willing to accept that this may be due in part to an “old brain” mentality.

    More than politesse however, one of my major concerns regarding cell phone use during shows has to with the way we experience art.

    Now, I’m not going to as far as Artaud and claim that theatre should be experience in trance state, but I do believe that seeing a play or dance piece or concert should be an engaging and encompassing journey. I would argue that the only way to truly experience catharsis from a work is to have one’s imagination wholly engaged throughout its narrative and emotional arc.

    Commenting, texting, and tweeting throughout a performance disconnects a person, by diverting their attention from the unfolding story. It also encourages shallow analysis of art, as the commentary and dialogue then only take place around small components, rather than the entire work itself.

    I strongly believe that more conversation needs to take place around and about art; and I do also believe that new and social media create incredible opportunities for this. The use of these technologies during performances, to me however, seems contrary to the way in which we can most fully experience art.

    It seems more symptomatic of our dangerously shrinking attention spans, than of a fundamental change in the way we experience and enjoy art.

  4. I think the world (especially technology) is constantly changing at an incredible pace and people will always resist change. Social norms will change, as technology becomes an integral part of day to day-minute to minute life. We have to accept that and adopt to it or we will be left behind. At the same time we have to always examine how it is effecting people, culture, and live performance. I think the instant reaction via twitter and other means to a performance is a powerful thing. The idea of a quiet and demure audience sitting attentively is changing, but should it change completely? Thanks for this got the wheels turning! 🙂

  5. As both the article and commenters have mentioned, there is great scope for integrating technology and our evolving communication methods with art.

    Does this necessarily lead to a pro live-tweeting stance? No, I don’t think so.

    I would argue that tweeting or texting during a performance inhibits both your understanding of a piece, and your reader’s. Art, by its very nature, often takes time and concentration to fully enjoy or appreciate. Some of the finest plays, books, paintings or compositions are those that enthrall you at the time of experiencing, yes. But they also unfold further the more you ponder them. They evolve in your mind, and you can often appreciate their subtlety and genius far more after some concentrated consideration.

    There is nothing wrong with making quick observations about a work of art. I don’t suggest that those who whisper to their friend during a concert, or giddily chat about their favorite parts of a play afterwards are philistines. I don’t suggest that ‘true appreciation’ comes from an academic study of a piece.

    Yet this tendency to consistently reduce concepts to 140 characters or less, and – perhaps most importantly – to project opinions about art instantly, without consideration, is concerning. It can vastly reduce our understanding of subtle concepts, deeper meanings, or those ideas that the artist wants us to think on.

    Our concentration spans are already decreasing. We read shorter articles, turn off video clips after mere seconds, and – more and more – expect our information to be deconstructed into ‘bite-size’ chunks for us. Our brains and habits are evolving. This is fine – good, in many instances. But let’s not have this change lead to an inability to think deeply about subjects for a long period of time. It’s this concentrated thinking that has led to the works of art we speak of, not to mention our medicine, our buildings, and – oh – those smartphones we were talking about…

  6. At a micro level, I think if the artist (performers, whatever) want tweeting to happen, then by all means, go for it. Embrace it.

    At a macro social level, I think, to a large extent, it is very easy to feel a need to tweet so much that we don’t realize what we lose by living this way.

    Drive in a rush hour traffic pattern for awhile and you’ll be dulled to it and believe that “that’s just how it is” but if you get out of your car and look at it from a different point of view (such as looking at the lemmings all going the same direction), then maybe you can see how insidious what you are doing is. Spending hours of your life commuting is time you will never get back.

    Tweeting is like this except it more like an addiction. If you tweet all the time, you’re addicted. Bold statement, I know, but try NOT TWEETING for one month and see that a) you will have urges to tweet for awhile and b) life will go on and in fact, may even be better and you’ll look back at your silly self tweeting about the weather, how happy you are to be at a play, how wonderful you are, how wonderful your friends are, how depressed you are at the meal you just had…………..

    We all buy the argument (drink the koolaid) that tweeting at events such as performances or conferences are a new way of opening up and sharing. In most cases, I’d say doing so is the opposite.

    I just sound like a curmudgeon. I realize I have no valid voice because I’m 50 years old but I have tweeted more than 2,000 times and then realized what was going on. I was losing myself and warping my sense of what life could be.

    Obviously, it’s not completely black and white, but I if you’re tweeting more than a few times per day, you may have an addiction problem. Go ahead, deny, deny, deny. 🙂

  7. I don’t see why there has to be one answer. I don’t see how people can claim that tweeting will decrease the value of art to all people. There are pieces that work better if your attention stays glued to the action just as there are those projects that are created to have multiple channels of interaction. Then there’s everything in between.

    Just as there is a wide range of performances, there all types of people out there that interact with technology differently. Some people will never want to tweet during a performance. Fine. Some will want to be on their phone at every event that they’re allowed to do so. With the variety of performance types mention above, I think audiences will come to accept the conventions set up by the theatre (this is a non-tweeting event, everyone is welcome to tweet, or here is the tweeting section).

    John said above that “tweeting at events such as performances or conferences are a new way of opening up and sharing. In most cases, I’d say doing so is the opposite.” Again, many types of people out there. There are some people who update their social media statuses with what they had for lunch, and there are those that use it to engage with peers.

    We need to stay away from blanket statements such as Zoe’s “tweeting or texting during a performance inhibits […] your understanding of a piece…” I just attended a my first live tweet session and though I didn’t catch absolutely everything, certain bits stayed with me stronger because I tweeted them, or saw a fellow tweeter’s comment about a poignant or funny moment.

    My brain power is already fading as it’s quite late, but the one point I want to make is that there isn’t one answer. There can’t be. Art has always been diverse. The means of expression and connection are continually expanding and evolving, there’s little use in running away and screaming from new methods. I’d prefer to approach, explore, understand, and utilize — when appropriate, of course.

  8. Gelady – You’re absolutely right that we should stay away from blanket statements, like the one I made ““tweeting or texting during a performance inhibits […] your understanding of a piece…”

    What I should have said was that I believe this is the case unless tweeting, or direct interaction, is planned or encouraged by the artist.

    I attend (and sometimes moderate) a discussion panel and debate forum called Remixology which encourages live tweeting – in fact, it’s a big part of the discussion. I take questions from Twitter as well as the live audience, and read out comments from those who don’t want to state them verbally. In that case, tweeting does actually aide understanding. I totally agree with you. In a traditional debate, however, where the format and style is different, I would still argue that tweeting will take away from the overall experience of the event.

    The same, I would argue, goes for art. If live interaction or tweeting is included in the artistic vision or plan for how the piece will connect with the audience, then I think there’s huge potential for a shared understanding and for a conscious engagement with the piece.

    So thank you for pulling me up on that statement and sharing your experience of live tweeting – I completely agree that blanket statements about this topic should be avoided!

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