We were in a jubilant mood in the Whatsonstage.com offices at the end of last week. A few days earlier, we’d launched our new multi-vendor ticketing platform, which our hard-working techie Phil had been working hard on for months; our chief critic Michael Coveney’s latest book Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, a biography of the late theatre maverick, had been released; the sun was shining; and we were thrillingly close to a social media milestone we’d been anticipating for months, reaching 10,000 followers on Twitter.

Capers & clarifications

As Michael himself has blogged, his publisher Nick Hern Books organised a superb book launch event at the Royal Court last Friday afternoon at 5pm. So we closed the office early and we all headed down to Sloane Square for a brilliant celebration of the life of Ken Campbell and, from my perspective, a brilliant celebration of the work of Michael Coveney.

Michael has been our chief critic since April 2006 and has proved himself to be incredibly loyal and supportive. I remember how pleased and excited I was when he agreed to join us. Michael has written about theatre for over three decades. Prior to Whatsonstage.com, he had long stints as the editor of Plays and Players, and as staff critic on the Financial Times, the Observer and the Daily Mail. And prior to Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, his books included a history of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre and biographies of Maggie Smith, Mike Leigh and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Michael knows more about theatre than anyone I know, and he writes about it with intelligence, enthusiasm, passion, wit and, yes, beauty. I remember the first feature he wrote for us, on the 50th anniversary of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, for the May 2006 issue of Theatregoer magazine, our monthly print publication at the time. It was a beautiful piece and, without wanting to sound crashingly over-sentimental, when the first copy of the magazine landed on my desk, I nearly wept with pride. (Annoyingly, we weren’t so disciplined then at syncing our print and online content so the piece isn’t on the website – but I promise to dig it out of the archives and rectify that soon.)

Like any critic, he has his personal likes and dislikes. And of course, I don’t always agree with everything Michael writes, and I know full well that others don’t always either. However, it dismays me the backlash – which can be very personal and vitriolic - sometimes unleashed against him, and often whipped up by individual commentators who have axes to grind and who are social media savvy – which, Michael himself would freely admit, he is not.

An example over the past week: fellow theatre critic Mark Shenton, who blogs daily on The Stage website and is a prolific tweeter, has twice picked up on some of Michael’s comments about Twitter in his blog, contrasted them against Whatsonstage.com’s own wider use of the tool and questioned our “proper journalistic practice”. Mark seems to think we’re contradicting ourselves, but I don’t see it as a contradiction and, if it is, it’s certainly not one I’m losing sleep about. (But more on that in a future blog.)

What Michael writes about Twitter or anything are his opinions and he has a right to them – as our chief critic and a blogger on the site, that’s why we pay him, to have opinions. That does not mean that his are always the same opinions as any held by myself or Whatsonstage.com, just as I’m quite certain the views that Mark expresses in his blog are not always shared by his paymasters at The Stage. And, while he’s a long-serving member of the Whatsonstage.com team and highly valued by us, Michael is a freelance writer on retainer, he’s not based at our offices, he doesn’t get involved in other aspects of the business and we don’t expect him to plan our social media strategy for us – we expect him to know and write about theatre, which he does exceedingly well.

Thanks to the Tweeps

Michael’s non-use of Twitter didn’t stop us from promoting a competition for his new book via the medium, tweeting happily from the Royal Court, or – fuelled by the sunshine and a bottle of wine – circulating amongst the launch attendees encouraging them to follow us if they weren’t already. In fact, it was at the launch event that we officially signed up our 10,000th Twitter follower, the charming Showstopper co-founder and narrator Dylan Emery, whose photo we quickly snapped and Twit-picked on the spot before raising another glass. A brilliant night all round.

Massive thanks, by the way, to all of you beautiful Tweeps who rose to the challenge last week to help us cross the 10,000 mark. Not only did your Follow Fridays get us there with time to spare – we’d set close of play on Friday as our deadline – you propelled us into our highest #FF ranking ever, number 30 in the whole UK.

As promised, we’re organising a Twitter party in Soho specifically to mark the milestone – and all of our followers are invited. This Friday, 15 April 2011, we’ll be in our local pub, the Spice of Life, next door to our offices at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue from 6pm. The first person to find us and identify themselves as an @Whatsonstage follower will win a bottle of champagne. We hope to see you there!