When I first heard the news, I hoped there was some mistake. Perhaps someone in the Fringe office had clicked “block” accidentally, out of sheer clumsiness and without even realizing they’d done it. Surely the Minnesota Fringe would never deliberately block a user on Twitter for voicing criticism.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident; my Facebook feed was soon splattered with screenshots of the message, “You are blocked from following @mnfringe and viewing @mnfringe’s Tweets,” all from different people who had expressed doubts about the Fringe’s decision to remove Sean Neely from this year’s festival. Worse, those who then questioned the Fringe’s decision to block people on Twitter, were themselves promptly blocked.
This is unacceptable. It shows a profound disrespect for the Twin Cities independent theater community — and a complete lack of understanding of social media.
Like it or not, the Fringe is part of a community — a passionate, opinionated community of artists and audience members without whom the festival literally could not exist. Decisions about the festival affect all of us, and we are going to talk about these decisions. Obviously we don’t get a vote on festival policy, but similarly, the Fringe does not get to control our conversations.
Why would you even want to? Shouldn’t the Fringe be embracing the free expression of diverse opinions, rather than trying to sanitize or bury it? It’s perfectly understandable if you need to say, “We are unable to comment on pending lawsuits,” and stay out of the conversation yourselves, but attempting to block everyone else from talking about it in a public forum was a cowardly and petty move.
Furthermore, it was terrible PR. The community is split over Sean Neely; there is room for reasonable people to disagree. Not so with the Twitter blocking. There is no nuance here: the Fringe was clearly the bad guy.
I don’t know who was responsible, and I’m still hoping it was a clueless intern who will promptly be fired, or at least banned from ever touching the festival’s Twitter account again. It should not be the Fringe’s policy to block thoughtful criticism or dissent. In fact, it should not be anyone’s policy, but for an organization whose mission statement is to promote freedom and diversity of artistic expression, it is particularly egregious. To me it is not enough to quietly unblock the few people who have complained; this deserves a public apology and a promise going forward that it will not happen again.
The Board president wrote back to me: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The Fringe staff and board agree that blocking Twitter accounts is not a best practice, and unblocked all accounts as of yesterday when we were made aware of the issue. We are working to ensure this does not happen again.”