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Opinion: We no longer know how to behave in public


Opinion by Sara Stewart

(CNN) — We are officially in a Bad Audience Summer. The simultaneous arrival of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” in movie theaters has spawned a slew of hand-wringing articles about a drastic decline in people’s behavior in cinemas. More disturbingly, a number of touring musicians have had objects thrown at them onstage, in some cases causing injury, and in all cases just being completely unacceptable.

I’ve been spared the worst of the Barbenheimer offenses, but did have a scroller seated in front of me at “Oppenheimer,” for whom even an IMAX screen and Christopher Nolan’s cinematic mastery could apparently not compete with TikTok. At “Barbie,” I was treated to a loud man talking through most of the film’s latter half, perfectly embodying the entire toxic-Kens plot. (The distributor of “Barbie” and CNN share a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.)

As is often the case with cultural trend stories, none of this is actually new. People have been hurling things onstage and chattering through movies as long as there have been concerts and movies. But the aggressive apparent uptick this summer, and the ensuing media spotlight, marks an opportunity: Now that lots of us are talking about audience rudeness, what can be done?

It’s tempting to throw up your hands and say: absolutely nothing. To accept that the public’s attention span is permanently shattered, and that you’re as likely to get people to put down their phones as you are to bring back letter-writing as a hot mode of communication. People are unalterably attached to their devices, “main character” syndrome is here to stay and this summer of climate change heat and wildfire smoke has likely amped up the public’s appetite for chaos.

One of the most common reactions to this behavior is to just stay home. You can stream movies and concert documentaries on your big TV in the comfort and air conditioning of your living room. You can crank up the volume on your Spotify and Bluetooth speakers. But I’d argue this sort of holing up merely creates a vicious cycle, reinforcing the kind of solipsistic behavior that makes people annoying in public.

Then there’s the demonstrable increase in parasocial relationships via social media exposure, to which one expert has attributed the increase in weird concert behavior. “Throwing things at a performer can be considered violence, but another interpretation is that it is an act of desperation. Like, this is their one and only chance to get the attention of the performer,” communications professor Jennifer Stevens Aubrey told the Huffington Post.

It can all feel insurmountable. And given the many recent incidents in which people react angrily, sometimes lethally, when challenged, confronting our fellow attendees doesn’t seem advisable anymore. It’s time for corporations to step in: If they want us to continue handing over money for shared experiences, it’s time they made more of an effort to make those experiences worthwhile.

I have a few proposals.

Better public service announcements

There’s a reason why the Alamo Drafthouse chain’s PSAs got so much attention when they started in 2011. They’re hilarious! Not to mention, distinctive. There’s a big difference between some generic narrator saying “please don’t talk” and Melissa McCarthy telling you, “When you text, the light comes on, and you ruin every f-cking thing for every f-cking person in the theater.” If AMC has enough cash to pay for Nicole Kidman shilling the movie experience (in a theater she has all to herself, I’d like to point out), they can surely put together more engaging public service announcements, ones that actually make an impact.

Concert venues are perfectly capable of doing something similar. Given the amount of money that’s going into tours these days, why not hire musicians to create Alamo-style announcements to play before the talent takes the stage? There’s no shortage of artists who have been outspoken about wanting people to knock it off, from Billie Eilish to Tim McGraw to Miley Cyrus, who has said she isn’t touring because “there’s no safety.” (Eilish and McGraw have also both said people have been throwing things for years.) I’d love to see a profanity-laden Adele or Cardi B warning video before a concert.

Phone-free shows

Ten years ago, a trendy topic in cinema-business circles was the idea of having text-friendly showings of movies. The proposal was to “raise the lights a little and allow smartphone users to text and Tweet and web-browse to their hearts’ content while the movie plays,” Rolling Stone reported. Now that this is basically every movie, I’d like to suggest the opposite: A few movie showings every day dedicated to people who want to watch the movie in blissful silence and darkness. They’d be marked as such beforehand and enforced by a security guard who’d stay in the film and keep an eye out for violators.

Many pre-release screenings of buzzy movies demand that journalists surrender their phones beforehand, lest footage leak out. It’s a mild inconvenience that, as a fringe benefit, ensures nobody is texting even if they do manage to sneak a device in, as ushers know to keep an eye out for wayward lights. Maybe waiting in line to get our phones back at movies is a price worth paying for the peace and quiet of a phone-less movie. And just try picturing yourself at a live concert where nobody in front of you is holding up their device to shoot some pointless, terrible video. Wild, I know, but try.

Skilled security

We are no longer living in an era when it’s safe to shush your neighbor (or ring their doorbell, or turn around in their driveway). Asking rude people to stop doing something rude shouldn’t be the sole purview of movie ushers; it should now be mainly left to the professionals, i.e., security guards. You don’t need a huge force, just one or two savvy enforcement experts who have the skills to tell someone they’re out of line — and manage the outcome if their request is met with resistance.

At concerts, obviously, this is trickier: Even with dedicated task forces, stuff is still being thrown. Unfortunately, it may come down to people policing themselves, which isn’t usually a recipe for success. Audiences will either learn to be in public again, or artists may begin to put up barricades between themselves and their audiences — and rightly so.

A mass realization of the untold psychological damage being wreaked on all of us by our addiction to being very online, and a collective pulling of the plug

Ultimately, most of the current crisis comes down to social media, which has created a worldwide network of addicts with an incessant need to multitask and a never-ending challenge to go viral by any means necessary. A new book challenges this state of affairs: “The treadmill goes nowhere. It is a game that cannot be won. The answer is not to run faster. It is to unplug the machine,” writes Julio Vincent Gambuto in “Please Unsubscribe, Thanks!: How to Take Back Our Time, Attention, and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us in Bullshit.”

And if you’re reading all of this thinking indignantly, “Yeah, but I got bored for five minutes during ‘Oppenheimer’”? Well, allow yourself to experience boredom. It’s healthy. Be less self-centered. It’ll make you happier. And stop trying so hard to be the main character. As the recent career turn of Hugh Grant demonstrates, it’s the smaller roles who are having all the fun.

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