Thinking Through Broadway's New Message Board Controversy

I like Patti Murin. I think I've written on this very site about at least one of her performances. And I am not the biggest fan of the theater message boards. So I by no means intend to put down one and exalt the other. In fact, I agree with the majority of what Ms. Murin wrote and applaud her efforts. However I see the situation as nuanced -- and I've been a tiny bit disappointed in some folks I know in the last few days.

I've been writing about theater for a long time. I worked at a major theater website to once have message boards when they had message boards. I was privy to the reasoning in the decision to eliminate these boards (not because of some altruistic sense of the good of the community, but because of financial considerations). I have had possibly a hundred people throughout the years complain to me verbally about the message boards on Broadway World and other sites, let alone what people have emailed me about. That said, I have also witnessed the rise of Broadway World from little more than a message board site to a site that really promotes the Broadway industry and Broadway stars by use of features, news and more. I have had people discuss with me using the boards to generate excitement about their shows. It's therefore not super easy to say that these boards are all bad and should be eliminated.

I'm sure everyone reading this recognizes that, and so you might wonder why I'm writing this. Well, I've been a little disturbed at the hypocrisy surrounding this controversy. Actors, producers and press representatives who use the boards and post under fake names have been tweeting condemning them. As a community, we need to take a step back and admit that the "mean" people on these boards are not all teenagers in Kansas City, but often people in the theater community. Just as producers, actors, Broadway sites, etc. are supporting violations of Equity rules by retweeting photos or posting videos taken inside theaters, members of the Broadway community have encouraged the growth of these message boards. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

I have a friend who produced a show in a tight Tony battle last year. She has had a message board name for years, occasionally using it to promote her shows. Last year she attacked the show against her show pretty hard. She was one of the first people to call me applauding Ms. Murin and her post. Of course, there are people who are solely anti-message board. I am not suggesting everyone is two-faced. I'm not even suggesting my friend is two-faced, just simply that she has selective amnesia regarding her own transgressions. (And, yes, I did call her on them.) The truth is -- I think many hate the occasionally nasty tone of some message boards, while welcoming the community they build.

Indeed almost everyone admits that they like the message boards when they say positive things about shows. But how could you have a 100% positive message board without limiting honest conversation? After all, reasonable minds disagree. Now there is a mature way to disagree and an immature way to disagree, we see that in the elections and we see it on Broadway message boards. But how can Broadway World possibly be responsible for trying to police maturity?

I've known Mr. Diamond for a good amount of years now. In that period, a handful of times a chain has popped up asking if a specific former theater journalist is dead or unwell. Each time someone at Broadway World has removed it because, well, it's not true and hurtful. These are facts -- he isn't dead or sick (at least not with a disclosed illness) -- they can be untrue. Opinions are tricky, which is why defamation law is so difficult to enforce.

Recently I strayed from my usual theater beat and wrote a political post on this site. Some of the comments were nasty. Some people found my personal email address and sent me horrible emails. (One of these emails called me a "shrew," which thrilled me because it means The Taming of the Shrew might still really resonate with people.) I wouldn't have removed the majority of them though because the world is free to disagree with me. Perhaps the personal attacks, the name-calling, maybe that should be out of bounds. I'm ensure even of that. Short of that though? They should remain if any comments are to remain. The truth is -- people have used social media and the comments on online sites as a very nasty vehicle. But they've also used them as a very positive vehicle. It's hard to have one without the other.

Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat seems to have been left out of these recent debates, perhaps because now the criticism on it tends to be more reasoned. However I remember a time when that board was more popular and too was looked at with scorn by many. That is because the more users, the more crap. BroadwayWorld's policy is essentially "attack the performance, but not the actor." There are a lot of crappy, mean things you can say about a performance.

I appreciate the efforts Mr. Diamond is undertaking to better monitor the boards. I am happy Ms. Murin and countless others are supporting the efforts. I won't miss seeing the message boards on the homepage. But is there a way to limit the conversation that comports with free speech and will alienate no one? If Broadway World does indeed eliminate the message boards -- will they just pop up somewhere else? And will that site become a new powerhouse site? After all, we should remember that the "positive" part of Broadway World came as a result of these boards and the following they engendered.

There is no way to answer these questions. But I urge everyone to realize that this isn't about teenagers in some far off place. As nice as the Broadway community is--and it is a small close-knit community--it's not all sunshine and rainbows. It's a competitive place. There is a natural vying for attention, both on the message boards and beyond.

For full disclosure: I did once write a story for Broadway World. In no means do I believe that colored any of the above views.

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