This is a post about how we interact online, but you’ll have to bear with me before we get there.
It’s a Friday night in early 2019, and two theatrical improvisers–I’ll rename them Candice and Marina–inhabit the stage, establishing a scene about a couple trying to negotiate two careers when they both want to adopt a dog. It’s a good opening, because they’re both very present improvisers who are comfortable throwing out a lot of details: their small apartment above an out-of-business video store, how they met at a roller derby and got tattoos together when they were both twenty-three. And then John enters the scene with a wacky character, with a vague European accent, and he hasn’t really been listening, because as he says “Animal Control! We’ve gotten complaints about some barking in here!”
If you’ve ever taken an improv class, you probably had at least one John in your class, and even the best improvisers have their own John moments. You won’t get far in most improv scenes without making your peace with the moment John throws a monkey wrench into your scene. You have three paths to deal with that arrival: Over-acceptance, Denial or Integration. Most newer improvisers will rush to embrace one of the first two directions, to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible: Over-acceptance, to allow John’s offer to win, “Oh, you’re right, silly us, we DO have a dog…”. Or denial, to defeat John’s seemingly incompatible offer: “Oh, we don’t have a dog: you want the neighbors, they’re right next door.”
Fortunately, Marina is a talented improviser who recognizes they don’t have to be in a hurry to resolve the seeming contradiction. She looks up, smiles, and says, “Oh, good, you’re here! We called you! I may… have lied about the barking…”
Candice, who has had time to take in both offers, picks it up: “See, we want… to get jobs as dog catchers!” It gets the relieved laugh you get from audience members who are happy to hear improvisers resolve a seeming mistake while remaining good-natured… but more importantly, the improvisers take the time to move from a model of dominance to a model of collaboration. By the end of the scene, Candace and Marina have discovered the possibility of giving up their careers to help find lost dogs by the end of the scene, and John has discovered his job isn’t all law-enforcement. It isn’t instant, but it’s good.
I think about these moments when I watch people negotiate having a monkey wrench thrown into their narratives, online. Social Media has turned everyone who participates into an improviser. People throw out offers in the forms of memes, links to articles they’ve only half read, hashtags and popular sentiments. And most of us humans, on the spot and faced with new information that contradicts whatever narrative we were following, tend toward either cynical defeat or ideological stubbornness.
Let’s say you’ve just posted about how you’re starting to like this Pete Buttigeg guy, and someone publicly challenges you with the time he tore down houses in a Black and Latino neighborhood in South Bend. How to react? How quickly should you react? Should you react?
Social media and 24-hour news have pushed us into making a lot of snap public pronouncements, and when we’re in a hurry, those same two choices tend to rear their heads: Cynical Defeat: “Ugh, of course, next candidate!” Or Ideological Stubbornness: “Sounds overblown to me, why are you attacking him?”
But, of course, we have all the time in the world, and despite their reputation, most humans CAN accept seeming contradictions in other humans. Publicly, we want to resolve the conflict, but privately, when we’re not on the spot, we’re much better at spending time incorporating new information, considering it through our various filters and narratives. The speed at which anyone actually changes is far slower than the time social media allows. And when we do finally incorporate the answer, we tend to arrive not so much at an answer as an understanding.
Maybe my narrative, today, is spot on. Most likely, it’s not. On a social media scale, we have all the time in the world to decide.
I’ve watched most the people I interact with get much better at this over the last few years. Maybe people adapt, or maybe those who can’t have just burned themselves out and started spending more time in the real world, but I like to think most of us have developed some resilience.
On stage, John may still not be our favorite thing to wonder into our scenes, but to experienced improvisers, he’s not the threat he used to be.
At least, for now. We’ll see how we all do in 2020.