The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century marked a new era of thinking where reason ruled rather than the archaic views of the Church. This new method of thinking transformed literature, art, architecture, even food. The progression of human beings was dramatically altered and would never be the same. Now, I’m by no means arguing that Social Media is comparable to the Age of Enlightenment, but it is however part of the overall technological revolution that has been growing over the past few years. It’s our job to start communicating with the bigger picture in mind, rather than pandering to the masses, becasue the ideas and content we create now will help shape our future.

The technological revolution has changed the way that we all live our lives. It’s not simply that cell phones were invented, it’s that we can now use them to store photos, text, or even set our home alarm system. The Internet initially was used to connect University networks and research labs within the United States. The World Wide Web, as we now know it, was developed in 1989 by Timothy Berners-Lee, an English scientist, for the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Today the world is becoming increasingly interconnected. According to Nielsen, two-thirds of the world’s Internet population visit social networking or blogging sites (full article). We are increasingly doing new things everyday with these technological innovations. The possibilities for where we go from here, and how we integrate these new changes, could dramatically alter the progression of humans forever. Don’t believe it? Google has been test-driving computer-driven cars on highways recently (full article).

As with any change, there are always questions. In the Age of Enlightenment there was worry that this new age way of thinking was actually taking a step in the wrong direction. With technology the debate often centers around “Is technology making us lazy?”, “Are we too dependent on technology?”, “Are we ruining our planet and using up all the resources?”, “Does this really make life better?”. Social Media usually has different questions associated with it; like “Is Social Media feeding a culture obsessed with pop idols, sex, and violence?” or “Is Social Media making us dumb?”.

While I love working with Social Media or communicating in the digital world, there is no denying that some popular Social Media content is just plain stupid. One of my least favorite videos is a teenage boy (possibly older, it’s hard to tell) lip synching to Katy Perry. It currently has  12,398,617 views. Read Write Web, a site which ranks YouTube videos, places Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and the “Charlie bit my finger” video in their top three with hundreds of millions of views (full article). The stupidity doesn’t end with videos either, sensationalized links promulgate through Facebook mini feeds, and celebrity tweets become headlines. Even blogs are increasingly becoming short as they are condensed into bullet points or visuals with no explanation. The internet should be entertaining, but must we sacrifice news-worthy events, educational articles, and thought-provoking discussion?

When I worked at the Smithsonian it was hard to ignore this trend in Social Media which favored pop culture over intelligent discourse. We chose the typical venues for the arts, like Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, but we still wanted to find a way to bring the value of the arts into channels with more viewers like Facebook and YouTube. The question was how to capture the younger generation’s attention without losing the professional image of the institution, while at the same time encouraging learning. Balancing these values is no small task, and many institutions never do find that balance. For the Smithsonian, their efforts started from the museum outwards. Their first successful venture was to use Live Action Role Playing both in person at the museum and online. (To me, Social Media for an organization is much more than a simple Facebook page, it’s incorporating new media tools into your business plans and services you offer, but that’s for another blog…) The venture brought in younger crowds, as well as people across the United States who learned about the Smithsonian and its art without ever having to set foot in the museum.

For institutions like the Smithsonian, don’t dumb down your content in fear that no one will care. I would argue that as the communicators of the future it’s our job to believe in our audiences, to believe that they can like videos that don’t include a dancing baby (no matter how cute it is). RSA follows this concept with their videos on YouTube

Their videos aren’t typical for YouTube, they are all usually 10 minutes in length and have absolutely nothing to do with Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. Their videos discuss complicated topics with college-level vocabulary. What makes them viral worthy? Each topic is animated along with narration. Most of the views for the videos range in the 300,000 range. One video however, has over 3 million views. Of course, it’s not all about numbers in Social Media, even if RSA’s are high for a non-profit. If you browse through the comments on the channel you will see that they are getting rave reviews for their pieces. My favorite comments (mostly because I agree) are ones like SharpStrike’s: “If textbooks at school were done like this I’d probably be on my way to Harvard.” RSA found a way to make their content relatable, easy to understand, and entertaining WITHOUT sacrificing their professional image or dumbing down the complicated subjects they specialize in as an organization. Not only are people watching, referring to friends, they are also learning. Read through the comments and you’ll see inspired, intelligent discourse without comments like “yo homie this be makin no senze to me and all ya’all are wrong as shit” (believe me I actually read a comment like that once on an article).

The next time that your organization wonders if social media or new media techniques are right for them, point them to RSA. It’s time we fill the internet with less filth and more high-quality content.

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