Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fighting my inner curmudgeon about social media

On an institutional level, I think social media is a pretty neat thing. On a personal level, I wish someone would permanently crash the servers at Facebook and Twitter.

I've been thinking a lot about social media lately. A couple of weeks ago, I attended Social Media Art Camp, a two-day conference that took a broad look at the cultural landscape and discussed how social media could become a pivotal transformation point for how arts organizations engage with their audiences. It was all very kumbaya (and predictable) as the speakers discussed how different platforms on the web can create a virtual gathering places, allowing people to share their thoughts and come together to discuss common interests, desires, thoughts on past programming, and ideas for new events.

I should like social media. It's useful and taps into a collective knowledge. It's democratized the cultural conversation, allowing anyone to participate. It's made our cultural institutions appear more transparent and customer-service oriented. Unfortunately, when practiced by hundreds of individuals as a part of their personal lives, I often find it nauseating as we all strive to prove to our friends and followers the meaningfulness of our lives and the uniqueness of our own perspective (I do recognize that I have a blog and a Facebook account and that I'm a hypocrite).

Arts institutions and individuals have different goals. Institutions are self-perpetuating machines. In the most basic Darwinian sense, they ensure their survival always. Social media might eventually be the tools that most successfully allow them to retain audiences outside of their hallowed halls. Of course, they still need to create great experiences inside those halls.

Social media makes clear an odd tension in the human psyche, both the desire to stand out and the desire to fit in. We all participate because of the herd mentality (and because some real-life people have achieved popular media fame through the great equalizer--we all are waiting to be the unique exception plucked from obscurity). What's the cost of our new interconnectedness?Is the momentary pleasure from discovering that the vain cheerleader from high school gained 50 pounds worth the now life-long commitment to having her as a "friend"? Not all people are supposed to stay in our lives forever. In fact, it's sort of freeing to leave a few behind. Moreover, do you really want to discover how self-involved your acquaintances are through their status updates? As for Twitter, boiling down observations to 140 characters doesn't make your quotidian interesting. In fact, it's sort of depressing. It's the moment when I most wish the conversation hadn't been democratized.

So, is there anyway to just have arts orgs use social media and leave everyone else behind? (I didn't think so, either).

The Snarks

This weekend, instead of watching theatrical magic, I'm actually getting to create some of my own. I'm volunteering with the Snarks, an amateur all-female theatre troupe that just celebrated it's 100th birthday. They're producing "Mornings at Seven," a 1939 comedy by Paul Osborne.

The Snarks (mostly women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s) share space with the Amateur Comedy Club, which owns an adorable carriage house on Lexington and 36th. On the first floor is a tiny stage and seating for about 75. The second floor houses the work room, dressing rooms, meeting room, and kitchen. The first time I entered I felt like I had gone home. The spirit of the place reminded me so much of Wellesley's Shakespeare Society, where women did everything and ran everything together.

Yesterday, about 20 women and a few men gathered to finish building the set. Even a simple set takes a lot of work and we had our work cut out for us. My partners and I screwed homasote to the stage floor and glued down green carpet squares for grass. Grass laying was the best part, the "lawn" areas weren't square, so we had to cut the square up as if we were making a jigsaw puzzle.

It was wonderful to be back in a theater and to get my hands dirty. It was nice to feel the sense of instant camaraderie that a show produces and to come together to create a unified artistic product. I'm really looking forward to running the lights next weekend.