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Daniel Evans: It’s time to detoxify theatre’s social media culture

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It was fascinating to hear Mark Zuckerberg calling for governments and regulators to clamp down on harmful content on social media and the internet recently. There have been many times in the last few weeks when I’ve wondered whether the theatre community might need a similar body to help us with Twitter etiquette. Let’s face it: part of the culture is currently toxic.

I’ve lost count of the number of creative people who told me recently that Twitter is seriously affecting their mental health. For some, the ubiquitous self-aggrandisement and humble-bragging brings on serious status anxiety; for others, an exponential increase in FOMO (‘fear of missing out’); for a few, an overwhelming feeling of low self-esteem.

It’s no wonder. The culture of outrage we’re living through, coupled with the sound-bite nature of the platform, means that conducting a nuanced debate is nigh-on impossible.

Take the storm over the casting of an actor in a production of The Color Purple. I don’t agree with Seyi Omooba’s published views on homosexuality – far from it – but nor do I feel that the subsequent social media assassination deepened the debate in a constructive way.

Equally concerning was the reaction to the National Theatre’s latest season announcement, which was criticised for its lack of female playwrights. There seemed to be little recognition of the fact that it was weighted towards the female side in its previous announcement. Such was the fervour of the reaction that the executive felt they had to respond (and they did so with grace and calm).

And, most recently, a director even used the platform to contact a fellow director in a particularly aggressive and, to my mind, totally inappropriate way.

Do these contributions reflect well on us as a community? Do they not show us as being quick to attack and hound publicly, despite not knowing the full picture in all circumstances? And are we also revealed as being quite unconscious of the fact that the medium itself is tempting us to fall into its booby-trapped method of blunt, brutish and short communication?

It’s not all bleak. Twitter can make you laugh out loud (did you see that kitten massage the neck of its parent?). It can move you deeply (who didn’t cry at the instant reaction of the American kid to his father’s return from a war zone?). It’s also a great source of news, as well as a mobilising tool for political groups, as the recent petition to revoke Article 50 demonstrated.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that we should shy away from political debate on Twitter, nor am I calling time on calling out bullies, racists or other forms of malice, but rather that we should refrain from tweeting in anger or angst when we don’t know all the facts. Above all, we should strive to be kind.

Otherwise, in this current climate, participating in these platforms should come with a serious health warning.

Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/daniel-evans

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