Everything old is new again. But this time it’s got a hashtag

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When Stuart Piper’s first regular Agent’s Take column for The Stage website went live on Wednesday, I thought it might provoke some response. And there was a little bit overnight – but when he linked to it via his Twitter account yesterday morning, things started to explode.

At the heart of the issue was his suggestion that producers are starting to look at performers’ online presence as a way of gauging their potential impact with the public. That’s nothing too major, when you think about it. It’s quite normal for a producer to consider the impact various performers might have on production, not least so the director can concentrate on ensuring the show works as well as possible on all creative levels.

In his article, Stuart mentioned that

a prominent theatre owner/producer uses the number of Google results to quickly measure someone’s real reach with the public when considering them for West End play castings, and at West End musical auditions casting directors will often inform the panel of Twitter stats of the auditionee about to enter

I would have a problem with raw statistics being used in this way (they’re far too general – but more of that later) especially if that were the sole method of consideration. But, as Stuart stated, using online stats as a “quick measure” – for example, to differentiate between someone whose work to date had generated a lot of interest from the public and someone who’d been working for a similar period, but made little impression? More power to them. To me, that sounds like someone who’s used to looking at lots of different sources of information, and is supplementing those existing ones with a couple more gobbets of digital data.

[pullquote]Whenever a star name has been cast, there have always been others in the industry grumbling about it[/pullquote]

Very quickly on Thursday, though, these suggestions (not helped, to be honest, by some of the early comments in that thread, including Stuart’s own) transmogrified within the Twittersphere’s 140-character system of Chinese whispers, that castings were somehow being led by the number of followers an actor has – and nothing else.

I’ll be honest – and, probably, unpopular in some quarters – here: none of this reaction surprises me, in particular the more inaccurate, hostile and bitchy ones. Because, let’s be honest, the acting world (not unlike any other profession) was ever thus. Discussions like this, and the events around which they revolve, are as old as the arts themselves. Adding a hashtag after something doesn’t make it original.

Producers of theatre – commercial, subsidised, fringe, and at every level therein – have always considered the matter of box office draw. I’d be worried if the person responsible for the financial welfare of a production wasn’t thinking about it, to be honest. Similarly, whenever a star name has been cast, there have always been others in the industry grumbling about it. Sometimes those grumbles have been justified, sometimes not – and even in specific cases, there’ll rarely be a uniformity of view on the casting of a particular role.

A big difference, of course, is that decades ago the dark mutterings may have taken place in the rehearsal room of a weekly rep theatre, or in the pub to a select group of like-minded thesps. In our modern acting world, the number of roles available out there certainly feels much smaller, and actors who feel slighted will often be doing so while working at one of their “resting” jobs. If you’re weeping into your telesales headset when you dearly want to be poring over your latest script, it’s no surprise that a belief that other people may be getting an unfair advantage is felt more acutely than ever.

And so, people vent online to find sympathetic agreement from their peers. But as those frustrations spill over into a public forum like Twitter, they get amplified. And amplified. And then amplified a bit more, until the original story, and the author’s original intentions, disappear under a welter of supposition, exaggeration and unfocussed fury.

To be honest, when good people get caught up in arguments like this, it makes me feel that a person’s social media profile should become more important, not less. There are some generally sane people, whose opinions I otherwise admire and respect, who went down in my estimation yesterday by virtue of how quickly they were willing to descend into full knee-jerk mode. By reacting against an incorrect perception of Stuart’s point, they ended up making his real one for him.

Lies, damned lies, statistics – and follower counts

[pullquote]how do you judge a useful interaction? Is someone who retweets your pithiest comments twice a day better, or worse, than one who occasionally replies to you, but does so in a way that makes you think?[/pullquote]

Following on (see what I did there?) from this, I do want to say that I will personally garrotte the next person who uses a raw Twitter follower count as proof of anything meaningful. A lot of the time, it’s unintentionally inaccurate shorthand – just as talking about the amount of web traffic a server gets is still talked of in terms of “hits”, when “page views” or even “unique monthly users” are actually what’s meant.

When somebody talks about “follower counts” around me, they have two choices: either make sure it’s clear they know that there is far more to social media effectiveness than a single stat which is incredibly easy to “game”, or to move away. Very quickly.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, though. Next month, I’ll celebrate my sixth anniversary on Twitter – and nearly every week I see people anticipating their follower count edging over some number that ends with a couple of zeros. I understand that temptation, and have felt it myself. I'm currently edging up towards 3,000 followers and the closer that count gets, the instinct to regard it as a milestone can't help but increase. All the followers in the world don’t make a blind bit of difference, though, if you’re not interacting with each other.

Even then, how do you judge a useful interaction? Is someone who retweets your pithiest comments twice a day better, or worse, than one who occasionally replies to you, but does so in a way that makes you think? If you’re an organisation with your own Twitter feed, how do you compare occasional bouts of informal banter that can help bolster a feeling of customer loyalty, against tweets with sales links in them that can generate actual cash?

There is no one answer. Which also means that there’s no universal right or wrong answer either. And by extension, there cannot ever be one true, universal metric that allows you to accurately gauge one social media user against any other.

Organisations like PeerIndex, Klout, Kred and others may try and tell you otherwise. Those services (and your own common sense) may give you a guide, but that’s all. Each of those companies has made its own conclusions about which types of social media interactions, and in which frequencies they are made, are worthy of a higher ‘score’. For commercial reasons, each keeps their exact formulas secret. So you can’t know if their priorities will be the same as yours. That’s as true if you use them to assess your own social media impact as if you try to use it to assess others.

I have been asked on occasion, “How do I get more Twitter followers?” My answer has always been the same: focus on the ones you have. Your followers, audience, fan base, call it what you will, will grow more fruitfully by people realising you’re good to talk to than by over-exerting yourself. And – this is the key – it’s way more enjoyable that way.

I’m on Twitter as @scottm. Follow me if you like. Unfollow if you want. That’s how it works.

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