Brave New World: Tweet Seats and Courtesy

I’d say I’m speechless, but I’m already several words over the line: theaters are starting to not only tolerate cell phone based activities (a’la texting and tweeting) during performances and screenings, they’re encouraging them in some cases. By now, this is probably common knowledge– stories of this nature have already been run by a number of accredited sources on the web. And by now, maybe the knee-jerk reactionary fallout to these announcements and others has settled somewhat, my own included (because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see red after reading about these initiatives myself), which means the time’s ripe for some introspection. People engage in affairs technological even when cell phone use is discouraged, so I’m both disheartened and nonplussed at the idea point-blank, but I think there’s more going on here than mere pandering.

First, there are two separate stories in play here; one regarding theater groups and the promotion of “tweet seats” (designated seating for cell phone use during performances), and one regarding the development of a theater in Bellevue, WA that’s being crafted with cell phone usage in mind. I’m not thrilled at the idea of accommodating audience members bent on chatting in the first place, but building a theater specifically design to cater to and encourage tweeting audience members feels like the first step toward something bad. From the Times blog:

“This is the wave of the future for the people we worry about attracting,” said John Haynes, the theater’s executive director. “Simply forbidding it and embarrassing people is not the way to go. So we are wiring the building in anticipation of finding ways to make it work over time.”

(Source: The New York Times.)

Turning a blind eye to bad behavior is one thing; exploiting a culture of rudeness for financial gain, which is exactly the reason behind the tweet seat concept, is yet another. But what Haynes describes reads very much like an underhanded attack on etiquette, something that’s served audiences well for nearly a hundred years because it works. “The wave of the future” could be translated as “a flash in the pan”; it’s fleeting. All of that aside, though, Haynes’ quote suggests a fear of alienating cell phone users and therefore losing their business. If that’s part of the driving force behind this idea, then I hope someone involved comes to their senses and realizes how much more detrimental it could be to their business model.

I doubt I’m alone in my belief that purchasing a ticket to a film or a play or a concert equates forfeiture of the right to plug into social networks for the duration of the show; you don’t get to remain in step with life’s passing parade. It’s not because theater establishments are at their core sinister and malicious and out for your money (well, maybe that last part’s true). It’s because when you’re in a theater you’re sharing space with other people, and courtesy should always be implied in these sorts of situations. In a social setting, you’re not an island. Other people are also trying to enjoy the services they’ve paid money for. You’re not entitled to trod on their experience for your own pleasure.

Think about restaurants or airplanes. A lifetime ago dining establishments used to have designated smoking sections; now they’re a thing of the past thanks to smoking bans. Why would a restaurant even entertain the notion of forbidding customers from smoking? Because willfully exposing non-smokers to your vice is incredibly inconsiderate. I concede freely that smoking in a restaurant poses a bona fide health concern whereas texting in a crowded theater is only rude, but they both come back to being courteous in a circumstance in which you’re all paying guests. If restaurants can control the behavior of their patrons (through not just smoking bans but dress codes), then theaters shouldn’t fear exerting influence over their audiences by nixing cell phone use.

In fairness, I understand the theaters’ worry in the matter of potentially alienating portions of their audiences. By singling out a percentage of their customers, the theaters stand to lose business as the tweeters and texters stop buying tickets– nobody wants to feel like they’re being singled out as a bad seed. That said, people who insist on keeping their devices active during a presentation are bad seeds. I’m not sure how sympathetic society should be toward the feelings of the selfish; if your fellow moviegoers are all staring at you with daggers in their eyes, it’s probably because you won’t quit your game of Angry Birds.

All the same, I get it. Theaters are businesses, businesses want to make money. Fair enough. But there’s a flaw with the approach people like Mr. Haynes are entertaining: it’s based on assumptions. I can’t imagine there are more moviegoers who feel it’s their right to freely text and tweet in a theater setting than not, and I’d be shocked to find data which indicates that people disfavor theaters instating zero tolerance policies on cell phone use during presentations. So, basically, by appeasing the tweeters and texters and talkers, theaters may actually stand to turn away a much larger portion of their patronage than intended.

Even if research proves my faith in the average moviegoer to be misplaced, any policy with the potential to polarize audiences and reduce ticket sales seems like a bad idea; viewers are staying home more and more these days as it is thanks to higher ticket prices and the increasing affordability of solid home theater systems. Allowing tweeting in theaters seems counter-intuitive when the concern lies in attracting crowds, and frankly I doubt that bans on cell phone use would keep as many people away as the reverse (and any anti-phone policies will likely be ignored by a chunk of the audience anyways– the activity’s already frowned upon and yet people still do it, so I doubt any such policies would change how people behave, though they would make it easier to penalize offenders).

Regardless of which side of the fence audiences fall on in this discussion, enacting practices of this sort isn’t going to solve anything. Concentrating all low-light from smart phone screens in one vicinity doesn’t eliminate distraction (unless you put all the tweeters in the back rows, which could open a whole other can of worms); reward discourtesy just leads to the dissolution of etiquette. Rules like “don’t talk during the movie” are in place for a reason– skirting around them becomes a slippery slope.

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8 thoughts on “Brave New World: Tweet Seats and Courtesy

  1. There are two issues going on here. One is the fact that our society has become so dependent on electronic devices that it’s inconceivable to some that they actually turn off their phones or iPods for a 2-hour period. They MUST be plugged in and communicate at all times. It’s not just the way of life, it is existence itself. People who use phones in a movie theater don’t know they’re being rude, since texting or updating statuses is no different than breathing.

    The second issue, as you pointed out, is rudeness itself. When I go into a darkened theater after paying $10 or so for a ticket, I expect to be entertained. Part of the cinematic experience is having a couple hundred people sharing the enjoyment of the movie with me and reacting as such. But when people are on their devices, not only are they separating themselves from the shared experience, they’re cutting themselves off from the entertainment that they themselves have paid for. It’s like going into a restaurant and ordering a decent meal, but instead chowing on the McDonalds fries you smuggled in. Of course, there’s also the fact that the screens on the phones are bright and tend to blind those around them.

    If theaters start accommodating phone users, they’re becoming enablers rather than teaching the practice not only that “Silence is Golden,” but that it’s proper to be conscious of what your actions are doing to others around you. Behavior is a learned thing, and if we agree that we’re going to throw away proper behavior, then we’ve given in to those who don’t bother to fit into society’s expectations.

    • I think it says a lot about us when we’re so dependent on our gadgets that we cannot suffer to put them away for a two hour period. It’s not just that people can’t put their phones away, though– they can’t even be bothered to allow a movie to engage them because they’re so focused on their tech. As a movie lover, that’s a depressing thought.

      Not as much as the idea that due to the commonplace usage of phones, the idea that using them in theaters is rude is just incomprehensible to people. That’s kind of terrifying.

  2. If people are allowed to bring in their cell phones, and use them, then I should be allowed to bring in a bludgeon, and use it. OK, that might be exaggerating a bit… but only a bit. An active cell phone during a movie is a severe distraction to anybody around it. And I find it nothing short of pathetic that some people can’t seem to get by without it for a few hours. When I had a cell phone, I only used it a few times a year. I’m sure I could come up with some use for a smart phone, but even so the fact that I’d have to come up with a use indicates it’s not really necessary. And I’m not some technological Luddite; I’m a web developer. Who are these people who can’t disconnect themselves? Cut the damn apron strings, already. You’re supposed to be the master of the machine, not the other way around.

    • I agree, Morgan. There’s no reason folks shouldn’t be able to just put their equipment down for a couple of hours and watch a movie; I think it’s a bad sign when some people can’t bring themselves to disconnect, shut down, or otherwise turn away from their electronics for even brief periods of time.

  3. If I’m in a theatre with no one around to disturb, I’ve tweeted and gotten texts, etc before.

    But it’s unfathomably rude to do with others around. Nothing takes you out of the movie so much like another light source. It’s tied with talking now for the rudest thing people can do.

    ALLOWING it sucks on a couple of levels. I sure as hell dont want some rows in front of me lighting up like a Christmas tree…. yet I dont want them to have the best seats either.

    As for losing people’s business by NOT allowing tweeting/texting? That would only potentially happen if there are two nearby theatres and one offers and the other doesn’t. I cant imagine someone ever saying, nah I dont want to go to the movies because I cant text for a couple of hours.

    • Sitting in an empty/close to empty theater is a rare treat and in cases like that yes, I don’t see much of a problem with dicking around on your phone because you’re not disturbing anyone (if you’re well positioned at least). But naturally, it’s just uncool to act entitled and tweet and text to your heart’s content while you’re elbow-to-elbow with people who paid for the privilege of seeing a movie in a peaceful, distraction-free environment.

      On the last point, I agree completely, which is why I find Haynes’ logic kind of faulty. Allowing use of smart phones during performances isn’t going to attract more of that “new wave” audience than just keeping the traditional sense of etiquette intact; it’s probably going to turn more people away than it attracts.

  4. I can’t believe we are in a time period where this is acceptable. I can barely take all of the tweeting/texting that takes place already. Add a section of it and no one will be able to hear the movie.

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