Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Social Media and the Marching Arts...What Did We Ever Do Without It?

I've been thinking about this post for a while. We always talk about the activity in terms of era's. We compare shows from ten years ago to now and make judgment calls on which one was more ahead of its time.  We talk about instructors and judges who have left us too early, but left an indelible mark that most will never truly get credit for as the generations move further and further into the future. There are constant debates on how the shows have changed for the better or the worse depending on how you define pageantry. The sheets have changed, the shows have changed, the judges have changed, and all the kids at some point in time grow up, but in my opinion, the most significant change we have seen in the activity is the advent of the technological era and social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest have all been infiltrated by this activity rich in creativity and history and just as it exists in all other parts of society, it's the users who are pushing the envelope in new ways, thus pushing the activity to change. 

Pew Research Center states that 95% of all U.S. teens are online daily and 74% of those kids access the internet through a mobile device. They discover new music through sites such as YouTube and Spotify. The radio is so last year. So the reality is that we just have to keep up. The technological future continues to move and we are just lucky to hang on to the coattails. 

We all know that any good business model today cannot exist without the forethought of promotion through social media. If you are not connected to the social elements of the internet, then chances are you won't have a business 5 years from now and the pageantry arts isn't dissimilar in its nature. We have followed the same path that every other industry has followed in terms of the growth of technology and how it is used to better our corner of the world--Email, websites, texting, social media. They are all in use on a daily basis and have completely transformed the way we interact with each other and share ideas in an activity where ideas at one time were only shared through videos sold after the fact and face to face conversations held at shows and board meetings. There was a time when we had conventions. I remember attending the WGI convention in New York and if I remember correctly, was on the same weekend as the Army/Navy game. Staying in the same hotel were the West Point boys in uniform  beaming with youthful football testosterone; sharing space with color guard people who convened to learn that you should not put performers in horizontal stripes. It was an interesting weekend to say the least.

I was thinking the other day how I missed the conventions and the face to face dialog. There was a time when going out to dinner with judges after a local show was common place and much of the real critiques took place over hot wings and cocktails. I remember one bar side critique many, many years ago after circuit championships and before Dayton, when a prominent judge (who wasn’t judging us in Dayton) drew his version of our ending on a cocktail napkin and told us that if we changed it, that we would easily gain a placement or two. The staff discussed it and even fought over it and  low and behold (as my grandmother would say),there we were the Wednesday night before prelims changing the ending; using a cocktail napkin as our drill chart.

Those days however are gone. I have found over the past several years that we’ve become a very “business like,” sort of group. I go back and forth on how I feel about it and to be honest, I still don't know where I stand. Sometimes I think we’ve lost the personal touch, but then there are times I feel we’ve gained nothing but, the personal touch.  I also feel at times that we’ve turned into some sort of reality tv show of over sharing our personal rehearsal stories, because to be honest, I’m not really sure if I care that a guard with a staff I’ve technically never met had 97 kids at auditions and they are all “THE BEST GROUP OF KIDS YOU HAVE EVER, EVER, EVER SEEN IN A GYM AT ONE TIME. OMG HOW WILL YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONES!!” 

Facebook has allowed all of us to connect in ways we’ve never connected before. There was a time when the only thing I really knew about my fellow competitors and the judges putting the numbers down was maybe their history in the activity. Nowadays, we know intimately about the lives of those we compete against. We see each other as human. We know each other's politics. We know where everyone is judging on any given weekend and we know scores before the judges themselves barely know them. One show last year I was judging and as a judge was not privy to the recap even during critique. I found out who won the show through Facebook as critique was ending. Facebook allows us to connect in the off season and we get a glimpse into rehearsals that were once closed to the public. We serve as witness to someone’s basic block and new phrases a person writes in their off time. Facebook has allowed us to peer into the world of our competitors, allowing us to start calling them friend. It has allowed us to see that many of our problems are very, very similar from guard to guard.

The way we judge has even turned technical. For the record, I’m the judge that gets the small little anxiety attack each season when some computer whiz kid creates a new way of inputting numbers or creating recorded dialog. I’m the person the contest staff hates to see coming, because inevitably they know they will have to send some stressed out staff person into the stands to say the phrase, “We can’t hear your dialog” or “Your numbers aren't calculating correctly.” At some point during every show it seems I say they phrase, “Well shit! This thing isn’t working right.” In the end, it’s usually what they call user error. There are judges who use Ipads to take pictures of the guards during long show days to help jog their memory 8 hours later in critique. I knew a judge who saw the same error over and over throughout a show and somewhere in the middle, took her Ipad out and took a pic of a sickled foot to show the instructor the importance of the issue later on in critique. I personally thought it was brilliant.

The way we rehearse is changing. We are using technology to not just video rehearsals, but we can slow down a motion in real time while on the field and show a performer so they may fix their error in the present moment. Last season I was Skyped into a rehearsal from another state and able to give feedback to the staff while I sat in my hotel room drinking a glass of wine. (a brilliant way to consult I might add) There are apps that allow us to experiment with drill, floor colors, uniform changes, and music well before we waste precious time and resources. Guards are setting up Facebook pages to share phrases they practice and get feedback from staff.

I think though, the funniest and most useful yet annoying technological shift has come through texting. What in God’s name did we do in Dayton before we could text each other?

“Where r u at?”
“I’m at the bar girl. Where u?”
“I’m at the arena. About to watch Pride.”
“Awesome. Enjoy. The cocktails went up by a dollar this year!”
“Pride was good.”

I mean…what was life like without that crucial dialog? How did we exist before texting each other that we were in the parking lot and will be to warm up in five minutes? How did we find our guards without some text telling us that they were warming up by the big tree near the parking lot on the west side?

The most crucial part of the technological era has come from the under currents of education that has been created. For what we have failed at on the national or local levels, individuals are taking the reins to create dialog in the sharing of information. Older instructors, designers, technicians, and administrators care deeply about the future of the activity and see how in our youth we made mistakes and desperately want to help younger generations avoid those same errors in this post Penn State, post FAMU, social media based litigious era. There are Facebook pages set up for young instructors to post questions that many of us “old folk” had forgotten was even once a concern. There are podcasts, blogs (ahem…), and a crosscurrent of conversation for the need for online classes and instructor certifications. People are talking and maybe, for the first time ever, we are really talking to each other. The dialog is happening in real time and person to person. We are starting for the first time to discuss issues related to the kids such as childhood obesity and its impact on the activity. There are people discussing issues related to females or young males who are gay and the unique problems they face. Recently an instructor posted on Facebook an issue about a performer who he thought might be suicidal. These are real issues and we are finally talking about them. It's no longer just the problem of how to create a good production design, where the only experts are the great designers of our time.

I have been lucky to be a part of many conversations had behind the scenes about the need out there for rich dialog and the desire to leave the activity better than we found it or to give back to something that gave so much to us. The greatest shift without a doubt is the shift to online communication that surprisingly, is putting many of us for the first time ever on the same page. We are able for the first time to get an idea of trends in not just shows, but trends in teaching styles. People are sharing the problems they have in their programs and others are offering solutions. Gone are the days where only a few held the power of communication. We are able to boldly discuss proposals coming out of our national organizations and we have a voice. Does it change anything? Not always. Does it put pressure on those in charge? Absolutely! 

We aren't quite where I would like to see us as an activity in terms of real dialog that creates change and education for the younger generation, but we are closer than we ever have been and I for one am looking forward to the technological future.