Are tweet seats taking the shared experience too far?

So-called tweet seats represent the best, and worst, of what social media has to offer. From the first experiment in 2009 right up to today, the controversial policy has its fans and its foes. We look at the latest examples, the good, the bad and the ugly, then suggest how it should be done in the overall context of an event's shared experience.

Tweet Seats Timeline

If you are unfamiliar with the term, "tweet seat" refers to a venue seating area where use of mobile phones and social media apps, like Twitter, are allowed. A tweet seat policy flies in the face of established decorum that doesn't tolerate talking, let alone use of a mobile phone.

It all started back in 2009 when the National Symphony Orchestra experimented with the distribution of the conductor's note to the audience via Twitter. An example of what was tweeted by the orchestra's conductor, while on stage during a performance:

"In my score Beethoven has printed Nightingale = flute Quail = oboe Cuckoo = clarinet -- a mini concerto for woodwind/birds."

At the time, the now ubiquitous social sharing platform was still relatively unknown, so its impact upon others was minimal. In a venue that seats thousands, the lone reader of the tweet, wasn't given much thought.

Use of mobile phones in theaters, performing arts and cinema alike, steadily increased to the point where, in 2011, Maura Judkis wrote 'Turn off your phone in the theater, or you will ruin everything' which stands as a plea for decency while in attendance at cultured events. The policy of most theaters is to insist that mobile phones be turned off, yet enforcement of that courtesy is sporadic at best, often left to the patrons themselves. Judkis cites and example of "no phones" policy being enforced by actors on stage!

In the video above, actors Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig take great exception to a patron's mobile phone ringing as they perform on stage. Note the audience's approval applause of Jackman's admonishment.

Soon after the video of Jackman and Craig was broadcast by celebrity news outlet TMZ, the founder of Alamo Draft House Tim League published his personal disdain for tweeting and texting during a movie. League believes moviegoers should never have their experience diminished by mobile phone use and is quite adamant that his theater chain will never allow such a thing to occur. The Alamo Draft house is so serious about its policy that it routinely expels patrons caught using their phones in the theater. A video posted on YouTube contains the recorded telephone message left by such an outcast, purposely released by Alamo as a warning to all (The video is here, but note that it contains graphic language).

Tweet Seats 2013

The backlash to tweeting during a performance hasn't discouraged theaters from continuing to experiment. In an evolution of the National Symphony Orchestra's original 2009 experiment, two prominent theaters have announced a "tweet seat" policy of their own.

"To tweet or not to tweet is a question that many performing arts organizations have wrestled with [for] the past few years." so says Chris Pinelo of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). CSO has dedicated 25 of its venue's seats to be "tweet seats" and has amended its policy that once banned all mobile phone use. The justification, per Pinelo, is that tolerance of mobile phone use during a performance may bring in a younger audience, and thus, increased ticket sales. It isn't surprising that the new CSO policy is being met with negative backlash from long standing patrons of The Arts.

In Minneapolis Minnesota, the Guthrie Theater has more of the same in store for theater goers, announcing their "tweets seats" will be for every Thursday evening performance, a show day and time described as lacking in ticket sales.

The last word on the controversy was just recently offered by The Daily Mail in a rather cynical article that mixes teenager slang with references to stalwarts in the performing arts:

In a classic case of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em', theaters offering tweet seats make an effort to locate them in an area where smartphone glow will not distract other customers...Forward-thinking arts executives believe that social media could enrich the experience offered by the production.

Of note are the comments written by Daily Mail readers - nearly all are negative of "tweet seats" and of rude behavior in general. The reaction to "tweet seats" may have been mostly negative to date, the ticket sales data that would counter the naysayers is yet to be released.

Tweet Meets Street

An event's shared experience, that being the entire end-to-end process, from ticket purchase to waxing nostalgic post-event, can be made more meaningful through sharing when done correctly. The notion of so-called "tweet seats" may be a bit too gimmicky and lacking "big picture" vision.

An example of what may be "tweet seats" done right is the avant garde street theater being performed in New York City. The emphasis here is on the "street" prefix. As its name implies street theater occurs outside, in the hustle and bustle of a public space, a far different setting that a quiet performance theater.

The Neo Future ensemble have been successfully performing theater in the street of Manhattan for years and recently conducted a performance that, in a coarse way, included "tweet seats". The troop performs original works as well as re-envisioning the classics. A small aspect of the performances includes the acknowledgement of those nearby sharing the experience via social media. These pedestrians/patrons are encouraged to use a specific hashtag when sharing. As mentioned of in previous posts, the correct use of a hashtags can amplify the shared experience in a way that is beneficial to the patron and venue.

The jury is still out on the benefit of "tweet seats" and the debate is as heated as ever. Going forward, venues should carefully consider their current mobile phone policy against the yet-to-be-realized promise of additional ticket sales. Bringing in a new generation of patrons has its lure, but not if it is detrimental to the establish patrons who prefer their experience not include social media.

Rumor has it a national "super-multiplex" movie theater chain will soon enter the tweet seat arena by designating all seats in one theater be for mobile phone use at all times.

Cinema and the performing arts will need to make the availability of tweet seats clearly known during the ticket purchase process. Doing so can be a ticket sales accelerator the twitter addicted - or be a warning to those wishing to avoid a sea of glowing phone screens.

ThunderTix has the interactive seating charts for venues to enable tweet seats by rows and sections. Should an performance allow for all seats being "phone friendly" on a recurring date ("All seats on Monday nights are tweets seats!") ThunderTix has the tools to sequester those performances and, if needed, alter the per-ticket price to be lower or higher (hint) than the non-phone friendly shows.

What do you think? Should all theaters have tweet seats? How about dedicated performances where all seats are phone friendly? Let us know in the comments below!



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