LOS ANGELES — It feels like ages ago, but in March of 2010, I was invited to participate in a “Twitter tour” of the Whitney Biennial. Using the hashtag #whibi, I and many other New York-based tweeter joined arts writer extraordinaire Carolina Miranda and Biennial curator Gary Carrion-Murayari on a tour of the Biennial.
But instead of nodding our heads thoughtfully to demonstrate we were paying attention, we looked down — at our smartphones. We tweeted, Twitpic’d and hashtagged our way through the hallowed halls of the Whitney, all the while relaying our experience and chatting with our followers.
It was a strange idea at the time, but as Miranda wrote, it was certainly a “#success.” Nina Meledandri, an active Twitter user and artist based in Brooklyn, captured her tweets on #Whibi, a tumblelog of images and thoughts. Addressing the unique experience of touring a museum and writing about its art, she posted a few images and wrote:
“hopefully this gives a sense of how people interact with the art from a spatial perspective … though on an average day people would presumably be looking not tweeting”
It was different, to be sure, but I loved it. I loved being able to tweet my experience of the art and engage my followers in conversation. This latter was the best part, and it continued for a while afterward. As Miranda wrote:
“A dizzying hour and a half later, our team streamed dozens of #WhiBhi tweets and pics that followers retweeted to their followers, who retweeted to their followers … and wow, we’re still reading through the comments, jokes and questions.”
It was a novel idea then but in the two years since that time I haven’t heard of many other Twitter tours like it. A tour like this gave the broader public a way to interact with an exhibition that they may not be able to visit (if not in New York). But it also gave them a way to interface directly with the curator, a rare and unique experience even for those based in the city.
#NerdinDoha: A Round Trip Twicket to Qatar
Recently, I noticed that Museum Nerd, the popular anonymous Twitter feed with over 80,000 followers, was flying to Doha, the capital of Qatar. The person behind the feed had been flown out by the Qatar Museums Authority to participate in the events around Saraab, Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang’s entree into the West Asian art world.
Noting that the Qatar Museums Authority wants to be “as progressive as what Al Jazeera has done for news with social media,” Osman Ahmed, who heads up social media for the Authority, noted that he faced little resistance when he suggested the idea of bringing Museum Nerd out from New York for the show.
“For real time engagement I believe Twitter is currently the best way for museums to have dialogue with the public who use Twitter as a source of information, news and point of contact with museums they follow. It strips away the formalities of an email and gets straight to the point with it’s 140 character limit. As with all communications in real time it happens fast and museums have to be reactive to the needs of the Twitter using public.”
Indeed, with the majority of the English-speaking world based in the UK and the US, the move seemed right from a PR perspective. Museum Nerd, who used the hashtag #NerdinDoha, was able to make an event about a Chinese artist showing in the Middle East come to life outside the region for those who chose to follow.
It’s an interesting idea, and it’s following a larger trend across organizations. The Pulitzer has opened the possibility of awarding journalists for their live coverage by social media. Naturally, the museum world is starting to understand the role of live tweeting as a form of audience engagement, just like any other publicity or, at its best, journalistic activity.
Group Interaction: Why It Matters
But while Museum Nerd proved to be effective, cases like #Whibi suggest to me that group interaction on Twitter proves to offer more lively conversation. Despite being accessible, tweeting with Museum Nerd is a very different experience from tweeting with a colleague or casual friend whom you follow on Twitter, especially with there are multiple tweeting and conversing from an event.
Recently, I was invited to attend a staging of Clybourne Park and A Raisin in the Sun, two plays that examine issues around race, class and mobility. Performed by LA’s Center Theatre Group, the themes and stories of the two different plays intersect in thrilling ways. It made a perfect venue for Tweet Seats, the Group’s Twitter-cum-theater productions.
“For me, what’s more important is the notion that theater is a communal experience,” noted Jim Halloran, who concoted the Tweet Seats idea for the Group. “It’s great to have experts, but we also want people who are experimenting with technology on a cursory level. It’s all about personal communication with friends and neighbors.”
Other organizations have used tweet seats as a feature for members, but the recent event was the first time Twitter was used to unite geographically separate audiences watching different plays. Using the hashtag #Wherewelive, audiences at a simultaneous staging of the two plays (Clybourne in the Mark Taper Forum downtown and Raising in the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City) were able to tweet with each other and organizational feeds like @ctgla and @MusicLA.
Seated so our glowing screens wouldn’t distract the non-Twitterati amongst us, we live tweeted the show and chatted during intermission. Some even tweeted with understudies and an actor who were engaging off stage. While I wondered about the possibility of being distracted, someone not at the show began tweeting with me. That’s when I realized why it mattered.
“In compiling the transcript of tweets,” Halloran explained, “we had more people that were tweeting in from home. We’ve never had that before.” Indeed, the #Wherewelive hashtag was filled with interesting historical facts about the plays, comments from the audience and comments from others not in attendance. It was truly a community, as #Whibi had been.
The use of live tweeting in the arts has been surprisingly slow to come to life, but I think these three organizations have hit on something right. In addition to simply providing a hashtag and a marquee to collect tweets, it helps to create a built-in community and invite a few art-minded Twitterati to stir things up. Then the conversation flows, both in the moment and later on.
“At what point does technology enhance the experience rather than become a barrier?” asked Halloran. “Just like tech in the 21st century is a way to form community, we’re realizing that community is a part of how we want to interact with art.”
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