Thoughts about live tweeting during arts performances

I realize that I come very late to this issue, but I recently discovered that many theatrical venues are actually encouraging live tweeting of their performances, and have done so for many years. As someone who speaks professionally and encourages live tweeting, I feel somewhat conflicted about this. Granted, my speeches are more than just cultural events — or at least I would like to think so — but still, there are plenty of people in my audiences who are using their phones while I am on stage.

The key event was an article in the NY Times this week about the practice. As I said, it has been going on for many years. One of our local opera companies puts on an annual Twitter invitational performance, inviting social media influencers to attend a single performance gratis and tweet away during the show.

This is a growing trend, and theatrical companies in numerous cities such as San Francisco, Palm Beach and Sacramento have established a separate seating section in their auditoriums called tweet seats where folks are encouraged to use their phones during the performance. Some even have set up monitors in the lobby displaying the tweets during intermission. Again, this mirrors many conferences that I have been to where the collected live tweets are displayed for all to see. Part of my job as a reporter covering a conference is to live tweet the event. I have to admit that I get excited when I see my tweets are trending and liked by other attendees.

I think it is getting harder to make a distinction between live tweeting in certain venues — such as a ball game or a professional conference — and in others, which just makes the issue more complicated.

I asked a friend of mine who runs a New York theater company what he thinks of live tweeting and using devices during his performances. “This is a huge problem. People record our shows on their phones all the time, AND they are now offended that you ask them to turn OFF their phones. I pretty much felt like that was the end of civilization as I knew it.” My friend told me that he “actually has had to crawl down aisles to stop people from texting or recording.”

The Times story notes situations where many Broadway actors have taken the phones out of the hands of audience members or stopping the show to berate the phone’s owner. My friend echoes this with his own experiences.

There seem to be several issues here:

  • Should cellphones and other devices be banned completely from live performances? It used to be that devices were banned as a distraction for the cast and other audience members, either because of the lit screen or because someone was actually on the phone during the show. But now that most phones have video cameras, it is a larger issue. An artist or theater company has a right to control their recorded performance.
  • Should an artistic company encourage live tweeting? I kind of get it: especially for opera, its audience is aging rapidly, and having live tweeting is a way to show they are hip and relevant and seed interest in a younger crowd that may attend other shows. Of course, for those shows they might be forced to just watching and listening. My friend has further commentary: “To be honest, my only objection is the fact that a huge portion of the artistic process is reflection — that moment to think about what you really feel about something that was presented.  A knee-jerk reaction isn’t enough. You need to pause and really connect to a feeling. As a frequent theatergoer, I’m not sure sometimes how I feel until the next day or several days later after I have seen a performance.” He makes a good point.
  • Is this a problem just for the millennial generation? I think it is applicable to all ages. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, our focus is less in living in the moment and more about sharing it with our “audience” and “developing our brand.” Indeed, this is the plot line of a new novel I am reading (Follow Me, out in February).

I welcome your comments and thoughts about this.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts about live tweeting during arts performances

  1. Great post (as always) David. I share your concerns, but I have a couple different angles on this.

    First, I have found that recording (either with a camera or tweets) an event is very different from experiencing that same event. It puts up a barrier between the observer and the performance, and all the while an editor in your head is constantly searching for the best angle, the best quote, the best whatever that will gather the most engagement. I find this to be damaging to the individual’s experience. Report or participate, but it’s impossible to do both.

    As for protecting my intellectual property, as I get older I find that I am less and less concerned about this. Watching a concert performance on a smartphone screen is a poor substitute for the real thing and I seriously doubt that it suppresses ticket sales for future events. People who are satisfied with the recording (sanctioned or not) are not likely to be ticket buyers. But such recordings will only whet a true fan’s appetite for the real thing.

    In general, I know that video recordings and tweets and other methods cannot really steal my content effectively. A master chef can give you all the ingredients for a signature dish and even give you step by step instructions on how to recreate it, but your chances of success are still small. When you pay for a meal, you’re not just paying for the ingredients and the time to prepare them; you’re also paying for decades of experience that cannot come in a jar. In the same way, there’s something about live performances — speeches, music, theater — that cannot be captured completely in any recording.

    Even if I’m being naive about the value of live over recording, it’s a simple fact that our material is going to be taken beyond our control more than ever before. It’s just part of our current technological society, and I have come to accept that as something that I cannot change. I choose to spend my energy on other aspects of my craft.

  2. Tristan Louis writes,
    have an experience with some level of exclusivity. Much as watching a video recording of a live event is not the same as being there, watching a live stream is not the same as being there. What has increased is the number of people who are doing the recording.

    Recently (it think it was at Coachella), some artists have been fighting back politely. For example, Childish Gambino has been known to do a couple of songs and letting people stream, tweet, snap, etc but after a couple of songs, he generally asks the audience to put away their phones (and won’t start again until he can’t see phones in the audience). This strikes a balance between the people who want to “share” and the ones who are there for the “experience”. I wish more artists would do the same and maybe that will become the established social convention.

    There is an ersatz nature to living life through a screen. Much as travelers are now looking for destinations that are instagramable, audiences are now looking for events they can share with their audience. This is not about attending an event but about performing to an audience (ie. “I” was “there” and you, audience, were not). I think those performers are losing out on the experience but maybe I’m just an old foggy who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be present.

    • David, as always, you have pinpointed a great topic and struck a nerve. Short and to the point. As an event attendee, l feel l am entitled to experience it without ANY distractions. Thus l am firmly on the side of a total ban on use of cell phones in any manner. if event managers allow or worse, encourage this behavior, they will lose me and l suspect many other. Thanks, John

  3. I don’t want to be a brand with an audience. It’s so much like thinking life is your movie and everybody else are supporting actors. At the extreme, when you’re like this, as Trump has proved, there’s nobody you won’t sell out.

  4. Mark Binder writes:
    As a writer and storyteller, my vocation is to create fictions with words – printed, audio, and live.
    As you no doubt know, the term storytelling is now applied to everything from sales and marketing to business communications and teaching.

    In the live storytelling world, “True Life” open mics like and spawned by The Moth dominate.
    In the printed and audiobook world, nearly everything is owned and profited from by Amazon.
    Local book stores are reluctant to actually purchase books, instead requiring that I apply for a consignment slot, and promising to discard any books not sold (or picked up) after 90 days. One book store in MA has a $20 entry fee.

    I know that my work is powerful, entertaining, relevant and valid.

    I’ve been told to create a brand and offer free samples, to build a following, and to “engage” with my audience.
    For twenty years I’ve endeavored to do this, and have seen statistically zero results in the way of sales.
    As far as I can tell, all the sales of my work are completely random “long tale” one-offs.

    Books and stories and plays and opera are one-way interactive experiences.
    The author or theater company creates and the audience receives.

    Our society’s unintentional experiment in always-on communication and recording disrupts the old forms.
    And the old forms disrupt the current paradigm. To some extent, that’s what’s great about them.
    An immersive and intensive (or even light and breezy) audiobook or play yanks the listener out of their life and puts them into an immediate and possibly transformational moment.

    While I can imagine creating specific work designed to be simul-tweeted, it’s different than asking an audience member/reader to abandon the collective need (addiction) to sharing, and instead embrace the artist’s presentation.

    All of this becomes problematic as I have a new book coming out. How do I get readers interested when the only way they will experience it is by reading it, but they won’t read it unless they’ve heard about it, and they won’t have heard about it if I don’t tweet it, and it can’t be tweeted?

    Sigh. First world artist’s problem.

    No answers, yet. Only questions and challenges.

    You can find his wonderful stories here:

  5. Same for people talking during theatrical performances, using cellphones in (obviously darkened) movie theaters — they’re inconsiderate morons. Same for people talking during meeting presentations — if they don’t want to listen, why are they there? I’ve been called rude for asking people in presentations to be quiet so I can hear the speaker. It’s human nature we’re up against, not technology — the latter is just a tool to be stupid and rude.

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