Love it or hate it, cyberspace has become a regular part of our lives. A recent study by Go-Gulf Web Technologies indicated that the average American spends 32 hours every month online, more than an hour a day. And while this digital realm lives primarily as a mental construct, technophile sociologists like SUNY Professor Kurt Reymers, uphold that space does not need a physical geographic locale to be a place. “Cyberspace is used by people as a place of congregation,” Reymers writes, “and it is in this sense that cyberspace is most closely aligned with definitions of community.” David Wiles argues that it’s people, after all, who create the meaning of space, not geography. So it seems significant then that theater artists should embrace cyberspace as a performance venue to investigate what facet of our identities find value in this new platform. How are we drawn to this space and in what ways does this new place of congregation affect the ways in which we shape our own image?
The experience of social media and Web 2.0, which has evolved past being content driven and has become interactive, is a processional one. The user is both the actor and audience, simultaneously. It is for this reason – namely the freedom of exploration and thereby expression that the web allows – that millennial, web savvy audiences find frustration with the stasis of proscenium theater. Traditional playwriting puts emphasis on singular crisis drama, focused on the individual psyche of the protagonist, with a passive audience witnessing. But psychologists increasingly argue that Millennials have a heightened awareness of collectivity even over individuality, and struggle to carve out social personae. Social media, by contrast to proscenium theater, empowers users to control their identities in the form of an avatar, which they can then use to act out social exchange. If theater can create an environment that replicates the experience of social media, allowing the audience to craft an avatar, and interact with a community, perhaps we can learn through replication what functions these truly serve, for better or worse.
But new media also challenges theater artists to define what classifies as a “live experience.” Purists will argue that the liveness of theater, or its necessity of bringing together bodies into the same physical space, creates a visceral immediacy that cannot be replicated with the sensory distancing inhibitors of technology. However, users of social media might counter that video conferencing, IM’ing, texting, tweeting, liking posts, etc isn’t completely devoid of immediacy. In these instances, one can feel the other user at the other end of the exchange. But why and how does this differ from interaction within a central geographic locale? And how do we begin to think of geography given this increased accessibility?
To look at cyberspace as a place, seriously and curiously, is to examine how we are individually and globally shaping our identities. It isn’t just an experiment in what is possible in the theater, but a reflection of the way society has begun to reorganize itself. In this moment, when democracy, relationships, and education are all evolving into a new paradigm, it is essential that the arts assist the social sciences by exploring our own cultural evolution.
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