Social Media in Theatre & Performance: a podcast postscript

I recently listened to the most recent episode (010) of On TAP: Theatre & Performance Studies podcast, which I co-host with Pannill Camp and Harvey Young. Listening to the last segment on social media, it occurred to me that I never answered Pannill’s central question about trends in social media use in theatre and performance studies. To address this oversight, I’ve written this post on trends in social media broadly with some thoughts and observations in social media among theatre and performance studies in particular.

For a broad overview of research and analysis on social media use, there’s no better resource than the Pew Research Center and its studies on the internet, science, and technology. The 2005-2015 report on “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015” is available here. f7w7rrirThe “Social Media Update: 2016” is available here. As Pannill noted, Facebook is by far the most commonly used social media platform with 79% of online adults (68% of all Americans) currently using Facebook. (Twitter is the least used overall at 24%.) According to Pew, social media is used more by those who have been in higher education with the most usage by those with “some college” (37%), followed by those with college degree or more (33%), and users with a high school diploma or less (27%).

More specific data are hard to come by, although researchers are able to access Pew’s raw datasets here. Most often, discussion of social media in higher education is focused on how to use social media in support of teaching, either in the classroom experience (i.e., how to integrate social media into specific assignments) or marketing strategies to attract students. That said, the Times Higher Education site has a nice overview of various digital media resources and tools for academics here.

On the theatre and performance side of things, attention has focused primarily on social media as content and context for specific theatrical productions (for example, the Guardian review of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” from 2012) or as a rival for audience eyeballs, when it is also often blamed for declining decorum in the theatre itself (cf. Patti Lupone). Patrick Lonergan recently published Theatre & Social Media in the Palgrave theatre& series. Lonergan’s book offers a helpful overview, noting the connections between social media and performance, including “social media as performance space” and “social media in theatre.”

From my entirely unscientific and largely impressionistic perspective, it seems that every theatre performer, company, and academic is using some form of social media. (Of course, looking online how would I know if they’re not?) As the Pew Center report documents, nearly 80% of Americans use social media, and I would expect that performers and academics have even higher rates of use. After all, the essence of social media is performative (I’m looking at you, Jason Farman) so performance types have a logical affinity with the overtly demonstrative platforms of Facebook, twitter, YouTube, etc. (Perhaps, too demonstrative, if you’ve been following James Harding’s or Elise Morrison’s research on surveillance and performance.) Without looking at real data, it’s hard to make claims about trends. My personal social media bubbles are dominated by theatre and performance types, as well as artists of various media. As such, my feeds are typically filled with political commentary, small children, animals, and witty GIFs. Living in the US in 2017, it’s clear that my bubble is not the only bubble out there.

Writing this post, it occurs to me that social media may have become so ubiquitous in our daily performances that analyzing social media and theatre is a bit like talking about social media and space. It’s clearly present and there are numerous important works that critically evaluate its specific role in theatre and performance. But, even when social media is not the focus of our critical analysis, it’s still a major part of what’s happening on stage and there’s no getting away from it. Maybe it’s time we added a new criterion to Peter Brook’s famous requisites for theatre: a performer, an audience, a designated space, and social media saturating the experience.