The world moves fast nowadays but Twitter moves even faster. In the constantly updated timelines of Twitter users, we are both generating content and absorbing it at a pace that’s literally unstoppable. And some users refuse to stop whatever they’re (supposed to be) doing, like watching a performance in order to keep up the constant electronic dialogue.
I suppose its an electronic version of those inveterate whisperers who seem to want to share comments with their companions throughout a show, as they no doubt do at home in front of the television, seeing no difference between the two environments and the fact that the performers are live in front of them and may be distracted by their talking, not to mention those around sitting around them.
But electronic communications can be just as disruptive to the performers: just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned here how Emily Tierney, who plays Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, tweeted afterwards, “Almost did a flying Glinda style Patti LuPone at the man in the front row who’s texting constantly! So distracting!” She then added, “Shame @ShentonStage isn’t in to give this joker a few lessons in theatre etiquette!!”
Yet still some venues are even actively encouraging live tweeting, as I previously wrote here, like at Stratford East Theatre Royal who introduced a “tweetzone” of seats for people who wanted to keep communicating throughout a performance.
A few weeks ago Will.I.Am, a judge on TV’s The Voice, was reported to have been reprimanded by the BBC, for tweeting on 16 occasions during the May 5 broadcast of the show. Will.I.Am duly protested — via Twitter naturally (where else?) — to say, “If you saw me on my phone I wasn’t being rude… TV, phone, laptop & tablet… if I don’t tweet during live TV I’m not connecting to people watching in the new way.”
And just last week he was live tweeting as he was carrying the Olympic Torch in one hand on its journey through Taunton, Somerset, with his mobile in one hand and the torch in the other. Even as he was given the honour of participating in a historic event, he couldn’t resist the urge not to live in the moment, but to live it publicly — never mind that there were TV cameras and crowds lining the streets watching him already.
In an interview in yesterday’s Guardian, Graham Linehan (creator of TV’s Father Ted and The IT Crowd, as well as the recent stage version of The Ladykillers that launches a national tour in Plymouth from September) spoke of both the creative benefits and dangers of Twitter. On the one hand, it has increased his personal profile no end; as he says, “Twitter is like - it’s like I blinked into existence. I’ve been writing comedy for 20 years, but I only got invited on to Have I Got News For You six months ago. It’s because suddenly I existed for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have known me. Twitter has made me - it’s not only brought me out as an individual, but people don’t ask me about priests any more, people don’t ask me about Ireland - two things that are a part of my life, but priests are not a big part of my life. It’s been great to be able to talk about different things because of Twitter.”
On the other hand, though, he points out that it provides a dangerous distraction. “I go up to my office and sit down in front of my computer and turn on the internet and then I don’t work - that’s the end of work for the day. I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored. There’s just so much to do - it’s funny, because I’m more creative, but I’m getting less writing done.”
He’s tackling it by forcing himself off the computer, taking himself off to a cafe with just his phone switched to Flight mode, so he can’t access the internet or receive calls. “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process. The internet has made it very difficult to experience that. I’ve noticed that in the cafe within about 20 minutes I feel like an hour has passed. I check my phone and it’s ‘oh, shit, I’ve got another hour and 10 minutes to go’.”
According to my own iPhone Tweetdeck application, I issue an average of 8.3 tweets daily, so my own tweet time doesn’t feel too bad. But that doesn’t include all the private tweeting I do by direct message — while plenty of twitter users use their public timeline to reply to people in, I don’t want the world seeing who I am talking to, so take any individual communications into a private area. That does mean that the number of people I follow grows exponentially, as I have to follow them in order for them to reply by direct message to me; but I think the privacy is worthwhile.
But my partner regularly points out that I spend more time on Twitter than I think I do. He’s forever catching me sneaking a look at it on my iPhone when we’re out, or heading straight for it on my laptop when I get home. That’s partly because I do instantly tweet mini-reviews of shows I’ve just seen, and then like to monitor the responses. But it’s also true that real writing — the sort I get paid to do — could be suffering as a result. So I’m just going to switch Twitter off for chunks of the day. If theatre news breaks, for which I routinely post updates, I can simply fire it back up again.
And I’d far rather experience things first hand than through the prism of tweeting about it, so you’ll never catch me doing it live in a performance. It’s the difference between enjoying the scenery for yourself - or watching it through a viewfinder of a camera. Last summer, flying over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter, I put the camera down. Yes, it would have been nice to have pictures from that viewpoint. But seeing it with my own eyes was even better.