The rapport you’ve developed with your readership via Twitter and Facebook outstrips that of anyone else I’ve seen personally. Before we started speaking, I scrolled through your Facebook feed, because I’d thought that you mixed Post stuff and personal stuff. But I actually didn’t find that much in the way of family photos and whatnot. It seems like you’ve tasked Facebook with being an extension of your work. Is that accurate?
Not quite. I mix it up. I never tried to do too many family pictures. I don’t think you’ll find many more of them earlier – although I have started to use Instagram more for pictures. As I’ve started to develop Instagram, I put a lot of pictures that might have gone on Facebook there. But I don’t think the mix has changed that much.
The fact that Facebook drives 40 percent of Post traffic is fascinating to me, so there’s no question in my mind that Facebook is a more fertile place to do this stuff. But look, I have two thoughts on social media. First, the thing about social media is that it is social. Understanding that component is the secret to understanding social media; therefore, any account that has a mix of the personal and the professional – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever – just does better. People are interested in other people; that’s why you’re on social media.
I always say that if you’re at a party and you’re standing at a corner of the party, and whenever somebody approaches you, you scream, “I AM GIVING A CONCERT – BUY A TICKET HERE,” people will back away from you nervously. It’s really just the same thing as Facebook. A lot of people and institutions misuse Facebook as kind of, “okay, it must be a format for everything I’m thinking,” when the whole point is the give-and-take.
The great thing about Twitter for me is not that it’s solipsistic; it’s that you get these amazing conversations on Twitter. [Boston Globe critic] Zoë Madonna is really taking that and running with it; she’s trying deliberately to build that out. I would parenthetically add that I think Ann Powers is certainly a presence on Facebook, even though she’s not reviewing daily. I can think of a couple other female authors that I’ve befriended on Facebook, who use Facebook and social media very actively.
I also think there’s an evolution that’s happened – including, come to think of it, some of those authors I’ve mentioned – from blogs to social media. I had a kind of perfect storm thing where I wasn’t allowed to blog for many years, and I was very upset about it. [Note: When Midgette started writing for The New York Times, contributors were not supposed to maintain personal blogs.] I got here and started blogging, and was incredibly caught up in my blog. My blog had great discussions; I mean, I was really thrilled about how that went.
But the kind of thing I wanted to do on the blog was very ambitious and simply not sustainable, long term. That’s not just a personal thing, because look at what happened to blogs in general: they proved not sustainable in the long term for anybody. [Laughs] There’s been a total retrenchment from blogs, and the ones that have survived, like Parterre Box, are more like magazines. But the fact is those conversations migrated over to Facebook, and I’d already kind of become used to interacting with readers that way. When you’re looking at all those conversations, you don’t know who all those people are that are talking, and I don’t, either. But I’m really touched when I see a red state friend from high school weighing in on Dead Man Walking, or getting into a discussion with somebody else about it, in some cases. It really is a watering hole for all different species of people, which is what it should be.
I remember talking to [ArtsJournal founder and editor] Doug McLennan in New York a few times. Doug was really visionary about having all those blogs on ArtsJournal. I thought he was nuts; I thought you should just have one blog. And he’s like, “No, we’re going to have many blogs.” At the time, that seemed crazy – and of course, he was totally right. He used to talk about the role of a critic in today’s society as being the watering hole, the gathering place, rather than the preacher from on high. And as I was thinking about coming into the Post, which was of course a completely new situation for me, having been at the Times as a stringer for all those years, that really resonated with me. The whole point of criticism is to have a discussion: to spark a discussion, and be part of that discussion, and mark yourself as a place to have that discussion.
That’s really the point of the exercise. It’s not for me to tell you what to think. It’s not for me to tell you what I think. It’s for everybody to learn that thinking about it is why you do it. You don’t just passively accept it; you talk about it.
But what is a critic, if not a highly trained, receptive professional listener, ideally one capable of conveying an opinion that will have insight and relevance for others? Are we too quick to give up a position of attempting to lead opinion persuasively, as well as drive conversation?
No. No, I don’t think we give that up. I think you have to take that seriously, and weigh it. I think that’s a struggle with every review, especially when you’re the main critic in a town or the main paper in a town. If I’m at the Washington Post, then what I write about the Washington National Opera is going to have weight. But if you’re so hung up on “what I say is so important,” then you can become a complete equivocator. The fact is, you have to be free enough with your opinion to dare to have an opinion that’s controversial, to dare to have a personal opinion sometimes. Your role is not to formulate the bigger thought, and not simply to go against the masses, either.
I really felt it with the Dead Man Walking review, where I’ve been trying to be more supportive of the company because I feel they need more support, and yet once you start pulling your punches, you’re gone. In order to justify giving your punches, I think you have to stress: It’s one person’s opinion. To all the people that came up to me outraged because they were deeply moved by Dead Man Walking and “how could I possibly have…,” it’s like, put it in writing to me. Just the thought of that perks them right up. And that’s what you want, really. I mean, I think they’re wrong and I’m right [laughs], but that debate, and caring like that, is the most healthy thing you could have.
And I can say that without contradicting, in my own mind, the importance of my own opinion, the time and effort I spend formulating that opinion. But pretending that it’s the only opinion, or that it will be the influencer… I think only by letting go of that idea as much as you can can you really be an influencer. The fact that the Washington National Opera sold $65 thousand dollars’ worth of tickets after my Appomattox review still gives me pause. But, as I always say, if I were nice about everything, then one positive review wouldn’t have that impact.