I have a confession to make. I am a lurker. But please don’t alert the authorities.
By lurker, I am using the slang term for someone who frequents internet chat rooms, following the exchanges, but rarely, if ever, engaging in them. I have done so since at least the mid-90s, and I have a pseudonym which I have, only occasionally, employed in order to tentatively enter the fray, from which I almost instantly pull back for months at a time.
It probably goes without saying that I lurk only in theatre chat spaces. I am amused, informed and at times, quite shocked by what I read there. I distinctly remember an occasion back when I worked at Goodspeed, when I read a heated discussion about some bygone musical that Martin Charnin had worked on. I knew the conversation was rooted in patently incorrect information, but I saw no point in trying to correct it – even though at that moment, Martin was in the rehearsal hall up the street, and readily accessible to me. While I had a strong desire to enact the chat room equivalent of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen shuts up a loudmouth critiquing the work of Marshall McLuhan by suddenly producing McLuhan himself from behind a stand-up sign in a movie lobby, I refrained. After all, I was pseudonymous, and in the anonymity of a chat room, the “Martin Charnin” I produced could have easily been a high school intern.
I’m reminded of this because as a blogger, any credibility I might enjoy is tied to my lack of anonymity, to my willingness to reveal my identity and my professional experience to anyone who wishes to know about it (you can do so via my bio here). My “open identity” was fostered by my Twitter experience, where I was readily identifiable by my title and company from the beginning, almost 3,000 tweets but less than two years ago.
As I have become an ever more enthusiastic tweeter, and now as I blog weekly, I have also noted that I rarely check on chat rooms anymore. Yes, lurking can be cured, but Twitter is addictive; perhaps I have traded caffeine for high fructose corn syrup.
To be sure, I very consciously cultivated my tweets as coming from the head of the American Theatre Wing, and while they reflect my thoughts and interests, I am also aware that they could be taken out of context, or misinterpreted as an official position of the organization. In fact, I was very nervous this past May, as my follower count had grown and we were in the midst of Tony Award season. From the chat rooms, I knew of the very, shall we say, passionate opinions people hold about the Tonys. I wondered whether Twitter would become a forum whereby people could barrage me directly with their criticism, even though I have repeatedly explained that I don’t tweet about the Tonys because there is an official Tony Twitter account, and I was neither going to compete with that nor risk getting enmeshed in Tony debate. I also cannot comment unilaterally on the Tonys because they are a partnership with The Broadway League, not solely the purview of ATW.
So I was pleasantly surprised when the Tonys came and went this year with no comments lobbed directly at me. While I saw conversations about the pros and cons of the awards and the broadcast, they were by and large, civil and thoughtful. I took every one to heart, even if I, by self-imposed policy, did not respond.
When I do check in on the chat rooms now and again, it seems that they are not as active as they used to be, and I can’t help but think that Facebook and Twitter have taken their toll on this form of conversation. The fact that Facebook and Twitter offer, if you wish to exercise it, control over who sees your messages and whose messages you see, has provided for a civility I often saw abrogated in chat rooms, where people were attacked for factual errors (even when they were correct), imprecise declaration of opinion, for having certain opinions, and even infractions as minor as the occasional typo.
I believe that spirited, thoughtful conversation and well-mannered debate about theatre is healthy for the form. It also benefits those who are unable to see certain productions, because it allows them to essentially triangulate opinion and arrive at their own understanding of unseen work. But while Facebook and Twitter seem to me a form of the Roman Senate, chat rooms are more akin to the Arena, and one joins the battle at one’s own risk.
A final anecdote: many years ago, I was driving the late New York Times critic Mel Gussow to see a production at Hartford Stage. The conversation turned to the work of August Wilson, then perhaps four plays into his famous cycle and still premiering his work at Yale Rep. I confided to Mel my then-held opinion that while I admired Wilson’s work, I didn’t really like it. “Well, you’re wrong,” declared the famously mild-mannered Gussow. “No I’m not,” I replied quickly. “Not liking something is my opinion, and opinion can’t be wrong. You may feel I’m missing something in the work, but my not liking it is true, and it’s my right.” Mel then promptly withdrew his statement, and we proceeded to discuss the pros and cons of Wilson’s work, which I have indeed reassessed more than two decades later, aligning myself much more with what was and is the prevailing sentiment.
In chat rooms, it seems to me, it’s very easy to be wrong, and to be told so by countless strangers. On Twitter, I may not always be right, but the people I’ve chosen to follow, and who have chosen to follow me, seem happy to ponder topics with me, with the scorn pared away by the brevity imposed on each thought.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website
October 12th, 2010 § 0 comments