On Unintended Consequences
10 Lessons about speaking up from my Twitter fight with a BIG TIME POP STAR*
Have you ever expressed an opinion in a way that garnered way more attention than you expected?
Prologue: I had been looking forward to seeing the musical Hamilton at the Public Theater since I first started hearing about it. Years ago, I met Lin-Manuel Miranda when we both sang at a "Broadway Loves the 80’s" charity concert (actually he rapped, and I was enraptured). I’ve followed this super intelligent, ambitious, cool dude’s career ever since. I knew Hamilton was going to be great--and to say I wasn’t disappointed is a serious understatement. I’ll happily go on record saying it’s the best show I’ve ever seen. (Seriously--get tickets to the upcoming Broadway transfer before it opens and they’re harder to get than an empty seat on a rush hour 6 train.)
Little did I know what would happen next.
Hamilton has a reputation for being a celebrity magnet - FLOTUS Michelle Obama herself attended the matinee earlier that day. That evening, I spotted the very lovely Lucy Liu on my way into the building. Then a friend of ours (who works for the Public) told us **big time pop star** was expected that night. When my husband and I sat down for the show, there were 4 empty seats in front of us. I leaned over to him and whispered “Ha! What if she sits right there...” But the lights dimmed, the show started, and the seats remained empty. And then 20 minutes after the start of the musical, in she walked with another woman and a massive bodyguard. And sat right in front of us.
As enraptured as I was by the show in front of me, I was a little distracted by the blinking light emanating from that seat. At intermission, I tweeted that **pop star** was indeed sitting in front of me (although I was way more disappointed to have missed Michelle Obama. As a kid who grew up listening to Sandi Patty and Michael W Smith, I sort of missed pop star's heyday.).
Then we came back from intermission, the glorious show began its second act, and out came the queen of pop’s phone again, the glow of the screen lighting her up in the dark theater like a star in the heavens. Repeatedly. (At one point she brought out a blackberry too.) The people around me were also disgruntled, but no one was going to say anything and risk a confrontation with her or the giant bodyguard. Finally, during the quietly beautiful and emotional finale of the show, a distinguished white-haired gentleman sitting a few seats down from me leaned over and hissed “Shut it OFF”. To her credit, she did. (Of course, by then the show was nearly over.) He’s probably not on Twitter to corroborate my story, but as we exited the theater, I actually tracked him down to thank him. His wife was adorable. She laughed and said, “I was worried he’d start a duel!”**
(SIDE NOTE: Wondering why phone activity in the theater is such a big deal to me and others? See the note at the end of this post.)
During the post-bows curtain speech to raise money for the wonderful charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Lin Manuel joked that “someone texting in the audience” could afford one of the luxury items. That’s when I knew for sure that the actors had noticed it too.
Fast forward to my husband and I walking home, chatting extensively about the show. As we walked, I tweeted something I thought was very silly - calling her out for texting but mainly praising the show - to my 200 or so indifferent Twitter followers (all of whom I know in real life). Twitter is still relatively new to me. I “tweet” rarely. I certainly NEVER expected it to get any real attention.
Oh boy was I wrong.
During our 40-block walk home (gorgeous spring night, fabulous theater to discuss), my phone kept buzzing on my hip.
“I’m getting retweeted,” I said to my husband. “How weird.” I also saw that Lin-Manuel tweeted about the incident - later deleted, and I don’t blame him.
The next morning a friend of mine sent me a link - someone had screen-capped my tweet and added it to a gossip article mentioning that she had been called out by cast and audience members alike for this. They mentioned Lin-Manuel’s tweet as well, while acknowledging that it had been deleted. I hadn't realized that this pop star has a history of texting in dark theaters. (She was, in fact, banned from an entire movie chain for it - they even renewed their call for an apology after this incident became a hot press item.)
Well, the gossip column mentions - and the drama - escalated from there. Suddenly I was the face (the tweet?) of the situation, and was getting a lot of, erm, attention online.
(“How DARE you?? Who are you to call out the QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE?”)
Twenty-four hours later, when her publicist issued an official statement denying the whole situation, things got a lot worse. Suddenly I was the girl who lied about Big Time Pop Star. A lying, attention-hungry actress. A lying, ageist, sexist, pathetic, ugly, attention-hungry actress bully. Yikes.
The thing is, this stuff happens every single day to people with opinions on the internet. Particularly women with opinions. I got some hate (several unkind euphemisms for female genitalia thrown my way - and one gentle suggestion to kill myself, since deleted.). But it’s NOTHING compared to the death threats, rape threats, stalking, doxxing, psychologically damaging bile that is hurled at others. This was a silly issue of celebrity rudeness. Women who talk about real issues fear for their lives.
I have no doubt that by publishing this blog post, I am adding fuel to the fire that I did this for “attention”. But seriously, if I can help anyone learn from this bizarre experience, I will risk it.
So here they are: my analysis of what I learned about speaking out online.
1. You never know when a tweet to 237 followers is going to become a BIG DEAL. If you aren’t ready to stand by your opinion, think hard about whether or not to post it. This doesn’t mean to shut up. I’m all for using your voice for things you care about. But be ready, kids. You really NEVER KNOW.
2. The words you choose are important. I did not use sensible words in my tweet, and for that, I am a bit red-faced. I thought I was being silly and that only my friends, the people who know me and would know that I was joking, would see it. But even a joke about doing something that could be construed as violent is not consistent with the person I am. Should I have used the words “smack her upside the head”? Yeah, probably not. Would the tweet have gotten as much attention as it did had I worded my complaint in an entirely thoughtful manner? Also, probably not. Flip, snide, provocative words are rewarded in 140-character culture. There’s not much room for nuance. (I'll probably never be able to run for President because they’ll point to my history of advocating mild violence toward celebrities on Twitter. Good thing I'm not exactly itching for the job.)
3. Social media has allowed us to really “level-up” in the culture of public shaming. I called out a well-known person for a series of actions that I found rude. In the old days, I might have talked about it with my friends and it would have gone no further. Now, I have the dubious privilege to broadcast my offended sensibilities to the world. While I stand by my opinion that this person acted rudely, did posting about it make the world a better place? Several sweet and well-meaning friends told me that I was a “hero”. All due respect to them (seriously, thanks guys), but I disagree. There are plenty of people out there whose words are TRULY heroic, who tackle real issues with bravery and fortitude against a backlash that looks like a mighty tidal wave next to my shower of ugliness. They are the heroes. I just wagged my finger.
We also equate behavior (even one incident) to a person's full humanity and worth. Again, this isn't new, but the volume gets turned up on the internet. To her fans, I was insulting the WOMAN, not the behavior, and because of that I was clearly a horrible person. (For the record, fans, I think her body of work is important, and I loved her in the Evita movie. I’m sure that she’s probably a good person.) But the people who agreed with me could be just as vicious toward her. Can we acknowledge that good people sometimes do crappy things? If the conversation is truly about the desire to change behavior on a micro ("pop star, put way your phone!") or macro ("treat all people with dignity, even in 140 characters!") level, we have to stop leveling verbal firebombs and actually TALK to each other.
4. And on that note, the separation of a screen allows us to do things and say things we would never do or say in real life. I doubt that any of the individuals who were insulting me or the pop star would actually say this stuff face to face, one on one. We still treat internet harassment and cyber-stalking like it's not "real". But it is, it's NOT the same thing as free speech, it's wrong, and it's time for both the citizens of the internet and our lawmakers to do something about the worst of it.
5. The internet puts mob mentality on display in visceral fashion. There are few things human beings like more than the warm glow of communal anger, and the internet allows us to easily find and connect with people who share our outrage. And there's nothing like the backing of a lot of strangers who agree with you to make saying horrible things feel righteous. I fully support your right to disagree with me, and to express directly to me that you disagree with me. But can we try to put the collective “kill the beast” mentality to rest, please?
6. Celebrity gossip is big business - every time I thought this not-all-that-interesting story would die, someone else revived it on a gossip site. Also - when People magazine emails you for a statement, they are probably not interested in your full, thoughtfully composed and edited thoughts about art and audience etiquette. Which is why choosing the “non-attribution” option might be really wise. So if you get an even MORE high profile opportunity to speak your opinion, you must weigh the possibility of being misquoted (she didn’t, and thanks) or not fully quoted (she was selective, because she had to write the article she was being paid to write) and possibly misunderstood, and you make an informed decision.
7. Don’t feed the trolls. It's been said before, but it bears repeating and repeating. Seriously. Please don’t. As a passionate, intelligent, feeling human being, it took a LOT of self-control not to fire back at every rude tweet I received. But I knew that if I did, it was just going to get worse.
8. Don’t get sucked in. I finally turned off twitter notifications on my phone, because in a time in my life where I have 42 huge projects a’cooking, I was spending way too much time and energy on this. You have better things to do with your life, even if the haters don’t.
9. There is no way for you to anticipate every possible reaction to a statement. No matter how much we want to exercise control over communication, YOU JUST CAN’T. It’s a dance, and sometimes someone changes the music. Or you have to tango with a different partner. Or the rug gets yanked out from under you. You do your best to keep your dignity intact, and you roll with it. Letting go of the need for control and perfect outcomes allows you to truly respond in the moment. (Or know when not to respond: see #7.)
10. Communicate anyway. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, I believe that you can't live a truly meaningful and impactful life WITHOUT making mistakes. (While also ideally learning from them.) The internet may be forever - hence my renewed dedication to “think before I tweet” - but the attention you receive isn’t. And in situations that are far and away more important than poor audience etiquette, bold speakers are required. Combine bold speech and action with respect, nuance, personal responsibility, and LISTENING, and we can actually tackle the big stuff.
*no, but seriously
**That statement was ironic because Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. Also, duels over cell phones in audiences have actually happened. Needless to say, that is NOT the right way to respond to a rude audience member.
A NOTE ON AUDIENCE ETIQUETTE:
Ever heard the term "suspension of disbelief"? That's the magic that happens when you forget you are sitting next to several dozen other humans in a dark theater in 2015 and get sucked into the world being created in front of you. That requires both dedication and commitment from the artists onstage and backstage, and a truly active engagement from the audience. This emotional and intellectual symbiosis is what makes theater, in my opinion, a truly unique art form.
Distractions from fellow audience members - unwrapping loud candy, whispering, singing along (oh the horror), and yes, being on your cell phone - work against this connection between live artists and live audience. You may think the light of your cell phone is no big deal, but from both onstage and audience member experience, it's actually not subtle at all. As I mentioned earlier, your cell phone lights you up in the darkness like a star in the heavens - as an actor, I've been able to pinpoint texters from the stage of 3000 seat houses. Texting in a movie theater is rude to your fellow audience members, but the actors and artists who collaborated to create the work on the giant screen in front of you don't care. Their work is done. That is not the case with live theater. (Also the tickets are a lot more expensive.)
I took particular issue here because, as a live performer herself, she knows the years of craft and training and the physical and emotional energy required when performing for an audience.
In an emergency, I understand. Even one incident I'd understand. But in the case of the incident I'm describing, this person was on her phone on and off for most of the second act.
Granted-as a theater performer, I'm rather passionate about this issue. :)