Blogged: When social media really is social (and not so much)

Late June saw me attend the Devoted and Disgruntled satellite event What Are We Going To Do About Theatre Criticism and followed by calls to action from other bloggers who wanted to hear more voices than just the reviewing one, I decided that I would give it a try and attempt to bring a different perspective onto certain issues that I felt I could contribute to. I had the best intentions but life has pretty much got in the way since then and I haven’t really had the time to devote to writing. But one issue has kept burbling around in my brain and it was all brought back to me in various ways last week, so here goes (apologies for the length).

The subject I decided to hold a session on at the above-mentioned event was “Should bloggers aim for/be held to a set of professional standards/code of conduct” the notes of which can be read but a quick summary was a definitive rejection of the statement and a recognition that blogging is an individual act which can’t (and shouldn’t) be policed. I have to admit to being a little surprised by this, but as the discussion progressed I realised that the issue I really wanted to delve into was an offshoot of the original question: something along the lines of ‘what value would a bloggers association have and is it desirable’, this similar idea of trying to provide some sort of structure that bloggers could rely upon if necessary.

It’s something that resonates with me as, without wishing to play the ‘woe is me’ card, I have been involved in a couple of extremely bruising online encounters which resulted in some pretty vicious commentary being flung my way and leaving me questioning whether I wanted to continue blogging at all. The first time it happened, it was genuinely upsetting to have my motivations questioned so publicly and my working practices dissected so brutally without any prior communication with the people throwing out their opinions, but I was fortunate enough to have an amazing group of fellow bloggers and Twitter buddies to keep my spirits from falling too low and keeping me going whilst I tried to regain my equilibrium.

This informal network was, and still is, invaluable to me – there’s nothing like going through something like that in order to become thick-skinned about it but not everyone has the same level of support – and so it was something that a group of us tried to establish more formally but with little success it must be said. In the end, just getting a group together for an evening was problematic enough: most of us have jobs and so theatre-going takes place in our spare time, giving up more of it to discuss other related things rather than seeing it as a rare social opportunity not in a theatre bar, thus not appealing too much. In the end, it was too hard to try and reach consensus on exactly what it was we were trying to achieve and what was actually achievable.

But this idea of networking and providing a supportive environment is something that has been picked up to great effect by Luke and Laura of Twespians, a regular meet-up of people on Twitter who like theatre, the latest instalment of which I attended on Friday night. It really is a brilliantly simple concept, as it provides the opportunity to put faces to Twitter handles and convert online chat into genuine interactions and in some case, real friendships. I have benefited greatly from meeting all sorts of people: the guy who gave me a wonderfully frank appraisal of my writing and what it meant to be a genuine paid critic, the girl who’d just started a new press job at a theatre and wanted to know how best to contact bloggers, the kind hugs of a ton of people who knew how tough a week I’d had. It is social media at its best and I couldn’t recommend signing up for the next one more.

Funnily enough, the other side of social media had reared its head just a couple of days before, as once again found myself in the middle of one of these bizarre instances of being openly questioned and discussed by others – this time on Twitter. Matt Trueman sent a simple tweet asking the question “When is a Review Not-A-Review” including a link to this piece that I wrote the previous weekend. He clearly had an issue with it, though quite what I am not sure, he didn’t make any attempt to contact me or ask directly about it.

A little background for you: I was invited as London Editor of The Public Reviews, as I am sure many others were, by the Almeida to come along to the open rehearsal of their youth play Encourage the Others and to write a piece about it; the format of the piece was discussed and agreed upon by both parties, covering the young person’s scheme and upcoming festival which included the play; and once published here, on my personal blog which is as it has always been a full record of my theatre-going, the link was retweeted by the Almeida, the Almeida Projects team and the playwright himself. So it would seem that the only person who actually has a problem is Trueman himself.

Having learned to become more sanguine about these things, I had intended to just leave it, not really seeing there being much to gain by going into the issue: my ears burned a little but it is basically the equivalent of being talked about in a crowded room with you just on the edge of the conversation. But a brief chat with the estimable Mark Shenton before heading in to see Betwixt made me realise the impact of Trueman’s tweeting had gone further than anticipated. I don’t know how much it really registered with Shenton and I am paraphrasing a little here, but he had clicked on the link and in a nutshell surmised that I had simply reviewed a show that wasn’t open to review. He’s entitled to his opinion of course, but I can’t help but feel that he had been guided by Trueman’s leading comment rather than focusing on the piece itself in which I thought I had been open and candid about exactly what it was.

It’s right there in the title, and a cursory bit of research would have told Trueman that this is a catch-all title which I have used regularly for a long time in a number of different ways: when I was invited as part of a social media trip to the Royal Opera House, a student production that was free, the one show I have walked out since starting to blog properly, various bits of the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts, some of the Vibrant readings at the Finborough, as just a few examples. Sod’s law dictates that had I kept the original title of the original post and named it a feature and we probably wouldn’t be having a discussion but no, I wanted continuity!

In any case, it feels like I am being upbraided for not observing something or other, whether it is a formal journalistic thing – in which case do these rules apply to me as a blogger/online publisher and if so, where can I get a copy – or simply this elusive code of conduct that no blogger seems to want – in which case who decided that Matt Trueman gets to define what it is. More significantly for me though, is the way in which people seem to feel free to use social media channels without taking into consideration the nominal level of respect one would have in a regular conversation. By ducking out of mentioning me in his original tweet, I can’t but feel that this is at best discourteous and yet something potentially more insidious in bringing his influence and his judgement to bear on this issue, yet making no direct attempt to address it, all-the-while his insouciance having its own impact on my reputation.

Perhaps there’s an element of naïveté here: I make no pretensions to be a great writer, I ultimately write for myself, this blog is my personal record of my theatre-going and I will continue to maintain that no matter what anyone else says as long as I want to. That said, I’m always open to ways in which to improve my writing – I cringe looking back at most of my 2009 reviews, but I know and fully recognise I am a constant work-in-progress so I really do wish that Matt Trueman could have felt able to offer me words of advice directly or at least have the decency to include me in the original discussion if he felt it was something important enough to discuss so publicly.

Social media offers a great opportunity for the sharing of advice, constructive criticism and the development of a wonderful support network that, should you wish, can be translated into the real world to great effect: [repeat Twespians plug]. But it is worth remembering that though it may feel that there’s a liberating distance from responsibility when making online comments whether on Twitter, blogs or anywhere on t’internet, do take a moment to decide whether you would actually make that comment directly to the recipient face to face, is this really the way you wish to communicate with people?

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