No One Knows You’re A Dog

June 8th, 2012 § 4 comments

Do we really know who’s behind that screen name?

I have occasion every so often to speak to young or aspiring theatre professionals about their careers and how social media can help, or hinder, their efforts. I tell them, in every case, that they need to think about their public profile. Not the words on their Facebook or Twitter description, though they matter, but the overall impression they give. My counsel is that on social media, they should endeavor to be the best person they can be, the best image of themselves that they want to present, to current, potential and future employers and colleagues. I don’t encourage them to lie or be false, but to remember that what may be acceptable in a circle of personal friends can come off very differently when it reaches strangers or cyber-friends, people who only know them by what they blog, post or tweet.

I describe to them a favorite New Yorker cartoon, which shows a dog, on a desk chair, at a computer, looking down at another dog, on the floor, and saying, via caption, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” I believe it illustrates my point about one’s web profile perfectly, even if my verbal retelling saps the cartoon of its humor.

I am reminded of this struggle, to present one’s best self, constantly, in my own efforts. I spend a great deal of time on Twitter trying to curate interesting content; I share links to articles that I think are worth reading, not always because I agree with them, but because I think people should know they’re out there. While I don’t post hate speech or anything close, I have been known to post articles which espouse opinions that are not necessarily commensurate with my own. Just this morning, I provided a link to what I considered a laughable column by the New York Post’s Cindy Adams – and I said so – but I also posted a critical column about the direction of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park program without any indication of my position.  A few people wrote to share in my amusement over the Adams column, but several people wrote in strong defense of Shakespeare in the Park and there was an intimation of my foolishness for propagating a specious opinion. A single word could have spun that latter post, “claptrap” perhaps, but I naively wanted people to respond on their own; I had no such compunction about ridiculing the Adams piece.  Should I always let my feelings be known on everything I post? Perhaps, but I want to spark conversations, not end them before they’ve begun. It is a tightrope.

I was also taken to task (mildly) this week for refusing to comment on the inclusion of a musical number from a cruise ship on the Tony Awards broadcast. “Aren’t you a pundit?” I was asked by tweet. I have fashioned myself as one, but a pundit whose opinions are formed by my past and future work within the theatre industry. In the case of this aspect of the Tonys, I said it wouldn’t be appropriate, but I feel the need to be more explicit. It wouldn’t be appropriate because as a former staffer of the American Theatre Wing, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make public statements about the organization’s work. I no longer work there, but I’m bound up in the organization’s history and I shouldn’t take my departure as leave to speak at will from the sidelines. My loyalty trumps my commentary, but I make no secret of it; I am neither mouthpiece nor gadfly when it comes to The Wing. I have turned down paid opportunities to write about The Tonys because I think it would be wrong of me to do so. If that undermines me as a pundit, then by all means, look elsewhere.

I had determined when I left the American Theatre Wing that I would not use my blog or Twitter feed to begin offering my opinion of shows; my connection to the Tonys had long given me cover from doing so, as it would have been inappropriate for me to praise or pan potential Tony contenders given my position. Although that rationale is not pertinent, I have chosen to sustain my position. I do not want to be a source of critical opinion about shows. There are plenty of critics; I prefer to discuss the issues of theatre, not the pros or cons of productions. Even offering only praise for shows I enjoy would carry implied criticism for all the shows I didn’t single out; after working professionally for some 30 years, I would also risk offending colleagues and friends, and so I feel I cannot go there. Did I see Timon of Athens and The Iceman Cometh in Chicago this week? Yes. Was the trip worth it? Absolutely. But that’s as far as I go.

Yesterday, I was horrified to realize that I had retweeted a funny message from my friend Laura Benanti, but in haste, working via iPhone, I had accidentally removed the indication that it was a retweet. Consequently, her brilliantly sarcastic remark about anonymous commenters on the Internet was sourced to me, as a number of people retweeted it; because I made the error before going into a five-hour show, it was too late to recall the error in any effective way when I realized it much later. Yet with each retweet, I felt like a plagiarist. I hope she will forgive me. I hope those who follow us both will not think me a thief. (The tweet in question was, “I hope to one day have the courage of anonymous bloggers/posters in comment sections. #TheyAreTheRealHeros.”)

We watch in politics, in sports, in the realm of celebrity, how our actions in social media can trip us up, and how that same media can be used to fan the flames and spread those failures. My impact is negligible compared to Ashton Kutcher, but to some small portion of theatre aficionados, I appear to hold some sway. So I must be transparent in my actions, or lack thereof, online; I must constantly consider whether my messages are the messages I want to convey. Brevity is no excuse – better to not tweet at all than to tweet ambiguously or detrimentally. After 20,000 tweets and more than 100 blog posts, I am still learning, still refining, still never quite vigilant enough. But I must be vigilant, lest I be the dog.

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  • I respect your decision to refrain from commenting on shows you’ve seen or on the Tonys and I totally understand it. And I think you do perform a valuable function in my twitter feed in terms of bringing stories and issues to my attention that I wouldn’t see otherwise. That’s one of the best uses of twitter.

  • Another excellent post Howard! A great lesson on how we should act on various social media platforms as well as for life in general. Many people do not get that what and how you post presents an image of yourself, especially in these times when many of us have never even spoken and have little idea of the posters’ voice. And forget about tone and inflection providing any clues.

    I like posts that inform and bring light to a subject that I might have missed. I can make up my own mind and don’t need punditry to do it for me. When did we become so lazy that we couldn’t make up our own minds or form our own opinions without soundbites to give it all to us?I agree with your position on the Tonys. It is your livelihood and reputation. I don’t think less because you don’t post about them given your relationship.Also, I think that there are times many of us slip up and misattribute or leave off attribution. I am sure that your apology will suffice; it was an accident after all.

    • There’s terrific irony in the fact that just after posting this, I discovered a truly funny video on responding to haters on the internet…but the language is too strong and not in keeping with how I want to present myself (and knowing I have high school followers), so I must allows others to discover and share it. Gosh darn it!

  • Sarah

    Good thoughts thanks. And of interest: while I enjoyed the anonymous dig it did seem out of character with your other tweets. Having seen Iceman as well, however, there was no hiding your admiration for that show… It came through loud and clear in your tweets…

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