If social media had remained a diversion, a fun way to communicate, then it wouldn't be getting my hackles up, I would probably ignore it, but of course I can't ignore it. It has become the number one arbiter of opinion. I feel, for whatever reason, that I too have to be on it to tell the world what I think - I am just like anybody else. And that is why it annoys me so much because I have also been "had", my constant desire to leave thwarted because I keep telling myself I have no choice but to participate.
I was alarmed to agree with Will Self (not because I am inclined to disagree with him but because what he said was alarming) in a review he wrote of Mark Kermode's book on film criticism when he suggested that Twitter has supplanted the considered critical view of culture with those of a million tweeters (so I would have to give Twitter the credit for its role as a word of mouth tool - if the word is a good one and mainly for entertainment that can be experienced at the push of a button). According to Self : "the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between "better" and "worse" or "higher" and "lower" monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic."
The cultural world has fully embraced social media believing that numbers in the ether will equate to something tangible in their real world, but does it? Twitter, within a relatively tiny sliver of users at the top can be an immensely powerful tool but I wouldn't necessarily agree that the results of its power add anything worthwhile to society in general nor to classical music and opera specifically. And those celebrity "unitary perceptions", as powerfully influential as they are, actually tell us that social media sometimes shrinks the global well of nuanced opinion and experience, replacing it with the urgings of a relative few. Ironic huh? I am often assailed by eager young things who drone on interminably about Twitter and follower counts ad nauseum, as though that is ALL that matters in the arts but have no idea of how a person seeing a mention of something on their phone will be converted into a ticket sale. Yet I am as guilty as anybody in trying to get well-followed individuals to talk about us.
We in the classical music world now find ourselves shackled to Twitter and what "happens" there is almost more important than what goes on our stages. The recent twitterstorm over the "body-shaming" reviews of Rosenkavalier have highlighted to me the world into which we have stepped and the nature of the devil with whom we are dancing, not to mention confirming what such a dalliance has done to perceptions of opera and how the industry has evolved to satisfy modern media demands. If we can create a controversy or a trend on Twitter, who gives a toss whether the show was any good? Yes, of course Twitter gives you a method of communicating with your audience and in this respect has a real purpose. But it is more often than not YOUR audience who normally reads it so does Twitter add much to your growth? We have the idea that we can convert millions of people to opera or theatre through social media but we can't, because we have to get them into the bloody theatre to do that and the compulsion to even relate to people on the other side of a dinner table (let alone join the real-world, 3D emotional experience that is a theatrical performance) has been replaced by our desire to gaze constantly at our devices; people even do that in the theatre too and we seem unable to experience anything at all without gazing through our window on the world. "I am digital, therefore I am". Ironically, the massed-affront to phone use in theatres is expressed on twitter.
Plenty of shows have closed in a week having spent vast sums of money on full page advertising and digital marketing and I don't believe social media is the answer to the cultural deficits in this country. Quite the opposite in fact. Just putting it on Twitter is not enough and someone needs to come up with a really tangible way of making it actively useful. Does Twitter educate our young in the concepts of aspirational culture? Does it lead them to Tchaikovsky, Verdi or Britten? It certainly gets them to buy the latest Beiber single on iTunes and only a fool would dispute its power in this regard. This is what Will Self said;
"The young, who cannot read..for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future.....our art forms....will soon belong only to the academy and the museum." I don't know about you but that feels apocalyptic to me. I often wonder what would happen if, instead of jumping on whatever latest media craze is occupying the world, we rejected it until we saw where it was taking us. Having failed to check if anybody was driving the train, it is hard to get off once it is careening out of control. The world of social media is superficial, it demands instant gratification, it is obsessed with image, it is vacuous. Can we turn that supertanker around? Is it wise to try to mould and shape opera in order to satisfy the beast?
Why, when the world is digitising its lives and emotions (fully encouraged by the cultural world) should we expect people to even bother with real world experiences in the first place? We seem intent on supplanting the arse on a seat with a pair of eyes on a screen, as though the presentation of opera in a modern, digital format - of any sort - will validate our craft in the minds of audiences who seem increasingly to exist in virtual form only. Recent surveys have suggested that cinema, the great success of recent times, does nothing at all to encourage growth in audiences at the theatre.
No doubt I will hear from people telling me how they clicked on a link and decided as a consequence to try something new and it will of course happen from time to time but if Twitter is the big topic for arts companies, the other concern should be the wider cultural vacuity of our nations; companies, particularly in the US, are flailing and croaking their last breaths so can Twitter solve that? The Social Media and signature campaign helped stave off the closure of San Diego Opera but it is more likely the accountants will continue to scoff in derisory fashion, wondering why such instant global and virtual gnashing of teeth and concern hadn't played a greater role in encouraging more people to buy tickets - perhaps for the first time - for its performances.
I don't propose we banish social media from our marketing plans because it is clearly an information device but we need to recalibrate our perceptions of it, wean ourselves off the obsession and challenge its users to treat it with more scepticism, to promote the true idea of collective human experience. Don't ask me how -yet - because a monster has been born and I can't think of the solution. But speaking specifically of the opera and classical world, recent disasters for companies and orchestras around the world and particularly in America would suggest that to some degree the growth of social media has been a parallel, useless development.
I will still be on Twitter this time next year and Opera Holland Park will be too. I can't hold back the tide but between now and then, I will have read a million pointless tweets. With any luck, we will have produced some bloody good shows but Twitter, with a billion things to occupy itself, may have scarcely noticed. And yes, I will promote this piece on social media but I don't for a moment think anybody reading it will consequently rush off and buy a ticket for Opera Holland Park.