This morning (Sunday, April 15) the local media Twittersphere is buzzing over a series of tweets issued last night by the Minnesota Opera's official Twitter account, @mnopera. After warning via Facebook that "someone is sneaking in to the opening night of Butterfly to tweet her super hip interpretation of what's really going on," the opera issued a series of irreverent, slang-filled tweets about the opera as it unfolded. Example: "Oh dayummm. Pinkerton’s totes a hawtie. Would be better w/hipster glasses & less showering."
What happened? A lot of people were confused. Here's the back story: last March, I wrote a post for The Tangential called "A hipster socialite live-tweets the party in Act II, Scene 2 of La Traviata." A sample "tweet" from that post: "Flora’s showing waaaaaaaay too much leg in that dress. Put those cankles away, please. #realtalk." As I acknowledged in the footer of that post, it was "inspired by the Minnesota Opera’s production of La Traviata and by the real-life tweets of John James Wallace."
Daniel Zillman, the Minnesota Opera's communications manager, loved that post and told me so. He's been working to bring new voices into the conversation about opera, notably through the opera's blogger preview nights, where people who might not otherwise see or write about opera are invited to watch and write about dress rehearsals. Inspired by the Tangential post, Zillman told me via e-mail before Saturday's performance, he and an intern set up the opera's Twitter account to be seeming to live-tweet the Madame Butterfly opening in "hipster" fashion.
The general consensus among local media observers is that the tweeting was confusing and, many say, embarrassing. Many media observers regarded it as a misguided attempt to connect with younger audiences, and my friend Carl Atiya Swanson of Cake in 15 wrote a long post detailing his criticisms of the experiment.
But search for mnopera, and scroll back to last night. Once you get past today's bewildered media reactions, you start seeing tweets like, "Whoever is live-tweeting MBF at
@MNOPERA ; you are awesome" and "@MNOPERA ROFL!!" and " @MNOPERA wish I was there, but am so loving your tweets. Best hashtags ever!" As @jailbus tweeted, "when's the last time anyone ever gave a fuck/talked abt MNopera? i'd say they won."
I'd say so too. I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about this at the Minnesota Opera offices this week, and they probably won't live-tweet another opera in exactly this manner, but this was a huge risk for a major arts institution to take, and taking risks is what art is all about. What do you think about, say, the Minnesota Orchestra's social media presence these days? Got an opinion? No? Well, how about the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's Twitter strategy? Weren't paying attention? Nope, me either. A lot of the people following the discussion of the opera's Twitter experiment last night probably couldn't even have told you what opera was playing if not for this controversy.
@MinnesotaPlaylist tweeted that they hope the Minnesota Opera "never does anything this cynical again." Maybe the biggest bummer regarding #Hipstertweeterbutterflygate is that it came off to many observers as a cynical and condescending attempt to grab the attention of a young audience. I do see how it came off that way, but based on what I know about the motivation for the experiment and the way it came together, I would characterize it as hopeful rather than cynical: hopeful that people who don't find opera very approachable can learn to love it if someone just builds a bridge.
Whether or not this was the best bridge to build, it did work to bring the Minnesota Opera's new production to the attention of a lot of people who might otherwise have ignored or not thought much about it. Hopefully having crossed that bridge, they'll stick around for a while and issue some of their own tweets about this opera and others—and hopefully the conversation about this experiment that's now taking place will inspire other arts organizations to take more, rather than fewer, risks in their attempts to reach new audiences.
Update 4/19: Levi Weinhagen, author of the @MinnesotaPlaylist tweet mentioned above, has written a post about this incident. He says that I misinterpreted his tweet: "When I said the Minnesota Opera twitter experiment was cynical what I was objecting to was how clearly Minnesota Opera’s twitter feed demonstrated they don’t think twitter is a legitimate or worthwhile outlet."
I don't think that was the attitude of Daniel Zillman or his intern, but I think Weinhagen's on to something when he argues that the incident suggests that the Opera views Twitter as an experimental playground rather than as an important part of a coordinated marketing plan. Weinhagen observes the telling detail that the Opera has issued only an average of one tweet per day over the past three years. "That’s not a lot. That’s the kind of usage you see from an organization using twitter largely for marketing their products."
I think we're in the waning days of the "put an intern on it" philosophy that still dictates many companies' attitudes towards social media. If you take social media seriously, it should be something that your key personnel engage with directly. For a non-arts example, look how well Twitter's worked for Mayor Rybak. It's clear from his tweets that his Twitter plan is simply to be on Twitter: he shoots off-the-cuff observations, sometimes with typos, like a normal person, and everybody loves it. Arts organizations could learn from him—and from arts organizations that do it right.
First Avenue and the Electric Fetus always spring to mind for me as examples of arts organizations using Twitter well—probably because Twitter is such an important part of music-nerd culture, pop music orgs are way ahead of other arts orgs on Twitter savvy. Theater companies are, relatively speaking, in the dust—in recent memory the Guthrie has gone weeks without tweeting, and small theater companies are even more sporadic and blandly boosterish, even defensive. Good tweeting is like good sex: you have to pay attention, but don't stress out about it. That's the way to be effective, and enjoy yourself as well.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative. Photoillustration by Jay Gabler, from a photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Minnesota Opera.
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