WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Status Updates vs The Handshake

Over the last year-ish, since beginning to blog in earnest I have noticed a serious uptick in how much Boston-theatre-related information I am gathering through my social media outlets. And how much our blog has grown simply through the CoLab's presence on facebook (we have recently expanded to Twitter - follow us @colabtheatre). It is interesting to me how much my newsfeed has seemed to blow up with theatre related news, events, and anecdotes since January. And it makes me happy to see so many new and interesting things happening. But it makes me wonder how much momentum we are truly building and can we put our money where our status updates are?

Part of what made play. so exciting for us was the fact that it was promoted almost exclusively through virtual word-of-mouth. But it was also terrifying to rely completely on information we were gathering on-line. Just because someone clicks Attending on your facebook event doesn't actually mean they will show up and buy a ticket. For a lot of people it's a way to show support without actually having to back it up with an expenditure of time or money. The barrier of the internet makes it easy to skew numbers and levels of interest. Just becasue some one "likes" our link or retweets a blog post doesn't necessarily mean they are going to come see our shows, participate in a workshop, or donate to the cause.

We are truly grateful for (and I am ever impressed by) our on-line friends and followers. And sure there is a little surge of ego-boosting that runs through me when I meet someone in person for the first time and hear, oh yeah, I read your blog! And there is no doubt that I get most of my information on-line, so staying present and keeping ourselves moving forward through social media is one of the most effective ways to stay on people's minds.

But I feel like we are moving faster virtually than it is possible to do in real-life, thereby missing some of the essential steps. Networking isn't always my favorite thing to do, but when I can actually shake someone's hand and say hello, I'm Mary-Liz Murray, I'm a Co-Founding Artistic Director of The CoLab Theatre Company, what do you do? I know the impact is more likely to stick than flashing across a computer screen. The same is true when I run into friends and acquaintances and catch up on what they are doing. Personally,I am much more likely to go see a show if I commit to it verbally than virtually. If I am face to face with a friend or colleague and say, yes I'm coming to see you, not going is a much bigger deal to me. And so I wonder how true that is across a larger board, what does your physical presence and commitment mean that your virtual stamp doesn't?

I think businesses and organizations across the board are only starting to measure that. Lately there has been such a push to move everything online that I think the fallout from losing person to person contact has yet to be realized. There are other types of businesses where a bigger online presence makes more sense, and providing information and services online makes a huge impact. But theatre is about a live event, a symbiotic relationship between performers/directors/technicians and their audience. If an audience doesn't show up, does the play still happen? The actors may get up on stage and run the show, but if no one is watching it's completely irrelevant. So devaluing the in-person networking and feedback and conversation by simply putting a company's life, mission, and event online is a dangerous game.

I'm happy to be online. To have the CoLab be online. To read other theatre blogs and accept invitations to Facebook events. But if you see me out on a Friday night, come say hello, introduce yourself, tell me what you do, because that I will actually remember.


  1. I've always felt that virtual networking tools like facebook, twitter, and blogging websites get a bad rep. Maybe it's just the people who surround me (most of my friends kind of avoid any sort of internet communication, which may or may not include email, depending on their mood), but I do feel that there is this rather large sect of people who equate social networking sites with the devil. Don't get me wrong, there is definitely a lot of drivel out there--when I initially joined it, I remember one of my first thoughts was, my god, twitter is a cesspool--and the majority of the vast virtual sea is not worth exploring. However, I am always one of those people who defends social media at least for networking purposes, especially for networking purposes, because I believe it can be a very effective first step in meeting someone, and a very effective way to stay in touch.

    The story that immediately came to mind when I read this post is when I met Dawn from StageSource. We'd found each other on facebook through mutual friends and had been communicating sort of indirectly for awhile. I went to see NXR's Candyland to support Nora and one of the cast members, and I interacted with Dawn for a full 15 minutes before I realized who she was. Once we made the mental leap, however, our connection was instant; our virtual communication had made our real-life introduction exciting and engaging. We instantly had things to talk about, and our interaction was warm, friendly, and filled with conversation.

    I do think you are right, though: walking the line between virtual and in-the-flesh networking does get thorny. Perhaps, as is often true, the answer is simply "everything in moderation," a little from column A and a little from column B. I will say this, though: the closest friends I've made in the theatre community I've made through showing my physical support, actually showing up at shows and events and, as you say, shaking hands.

  2. I'm really glad that you're blogging about this! (You can read that both as "I'm really glad that YOU are blogging about this" and I'm really glad that you're BLOGGING about this;" both are equally relevant emphases in the context of this conversation!)

    The past year has been the Year of Networking in my life (as I suspect it has been for many others in our community) -- a time of making a real conscious effort at putting myself out there into the wider Boston theatre scene, using all the tools and opportunities that come to hand, digital and physical (though I guess handshakes are also digital, if you think about it etymologically). And after years of deep ambivalence about social media (especially Facebook), I've finally come to understand and appreciate its role in my life as a tool for creating, finding, and building on real-life events and potential connections.

    Best possible example: somebody or other (I don't even remember who) linked me to the CoLab blog back in its infancy, and I began reading it religiously and recommending it (both online and in person) to every other theatre person I knew. I hadn't met any of you in real life at that point, but I became a fan of your philosophy and really excited about your experiment in collaborative creation, and got to start to interact with that excitement through commenting on this blog. So when I got to meet y'all in real life, we had a preexisting connection and something of a relationship. I think you guys have pioneered something here, with your approach both to community-creation and your use of technology to serve those goals -- and if the audience at "play." was any indication, it's translating over to real-life just fine.

    I think you're right, though, to draw attention to the risks of devaluing in-person contact in favor of the "cutting edge" of social media. In the 21st century gadget-and-gizmo era, we run the risk of forgetting that these are tools we're using, not a reality in and of themselves. But I think as theatre people (or "theatre artists" or whatever the outcome of that particular semantic debate was...) we have a built-in awareness of the real-world purpose we are pursuing -- as you say, no matter how many people "like" it on Facebook, it isn't quite theatre if there's no one there to see it. And we all know that, and the energy-build that happens between show and audience is part of why we do what we do. So I would hope we're in no danger of forgetting the importance of physical presence!

    (Incidentally, one of the little things I love about live theatre is the announcement "please turn off your cell phones." There are so few places in the world these days where it is outright taboo to check one's messages, and I'm glad to live inside an art form and a community that requires one to "be here now.")

    ~ c.