RSAnimates go viral

By Karuna Kumar

Some things in life are better seen than read.

RSAnimates is an initiative that was sparked off in December 2009 by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). With its new strapline, 21st century Enlightenment, the RSA seeks to enhance human capability in the modern world. Aimed at improving the quality of people’s lives, the charitable foundation has 27,000 fellows across the world and is committed to the cause of gaining from the power of cumulative minds.

As Jeremy Rifkin, President, The Foundation on Economic Trends puts it in one of his lectures at the RSA, “There is no place better than the British Royal Society for Arts because this is the place that started the discussion for the modern world.”

RSAnimates has created a furore on the video sharing website, YouTube, as it innovatively adds pictures to words. If the numbers could explain it, the RSAnimates series has witnessed 19,400,000 views of its videos and its YouTube channel qualifies for being the most subscribed not-for-profit channel on YouTube.

If that doesn’t speak enough of the accolades it has won, the RSA’s events are also the number one audio podcast in the UK on iTunes and have over 8,000 followers on Twitter and 17,200 fans on Facebook.

Curiosity about this overwhelming success led me to speak to Abi Stephenson who’s been intrinsically involved in the research, production and programming of RSAnimates. Stephenson is a researcher and programmer in the events team, which sits within the External Affairs Department of the RSA.

The idea

Director of External Affairs, RSA, Nina Bolognesi says, “The germ of the idea for RSAnimates was a moment of sheer inspiration on the part of my colleague, and 90% of the credit goes to that colleague. The other 10% should be attributed to the fact that the External Affairs team recognized it to be a great idea and put all their energies behind it to make it land.”

RSAnimates gives RSA access to a new generation who would not normally sit down and listen to lectures or event podcasts. It has opened its doors to stimulate conversations with a new audience.

Andrew Park is the man whose magical hands have been instrumental in bringing so much traction to RSAnimates. Park is a fellow of the RSA and currently Director of Cognitive Media. “We asked Andrew to draw us an illustrated analysis of one of our events for the RSA Journal. It was just a static illustration initially, but we decided to bring it to life by adding the audio track and animating all the images,” recalls Stephenson.

The success

Despite the modest expectations of Stephenson and her team, RSAnimates went viral in May 2010. “We knew that through RSAnimates we would expand our viewership gradually, but we did not remotely expect it to be this successful in such a short span of time,” Stephenson says.

The success of RSAnimates could stand evidence to how strong content when shared on social networks can make a profound impact on millions across the world. “It is overwhelming to receive emails from 14 years olds who write in to say that they would have never sat through the lecture but have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the RSAnimate series.”

RSAnimates have also been shortlisted for a Webby Award, honouring excellence on the internet including websites, interactive advertising and online film and video. RSAnimates came in second place in the People’s Choice category.

“The turning point for us was Dan Pink’s RSAnimate, ‘Drive’ which examines the interconnected ideas of creativity, motivation and purpose. It currently runs on 5,889,633 views. Another one that went viral was Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms. Both videos have been revolutionary for us,” Stephenson points out.

Content creation

While the final frame might look spotless, the efforts put behind to achieve just that are painstakingly meticulous. “It is a nerve-wracking process to pull 10 minutes out of an hour ensuring that the context and thesis are maintained and the content is visual enough for illustrating. We look for aspects of arguments that will really move people and prompt debates and conversations globally,” explains Stephenson.

Issues of accents and presentation style are some of the challenges that the team struggles with while ensuring that the content they create is universally appealing.

While millions across the world laud most of the content on RSAnimates, sensitive issues see some backlash.

To name a few, Choice by Renata Salecl and The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens. “Critiques of capitalism have seen some strong resistance. Issues that relate to ideology or that question deeply-held assumptions do tend to stimulate passionate discussion – but we consider it a success just to have got people talking,” Stephenson explains.

So how to respond? Stephenson believes that intervention would only fuel fire. Self-regulation within the online community is what RSA maintains on such occasions with exception to remarks that might be racist, sexist, homophobic or bigoted in nature. Such comments are usually deleted.

Facing challenges

Bolognesi adds, “We have learnt that there are challenges to turning a global online community into an off–line community. How do we encourage people to engage fully and actively with the ideas contained in the RSAnimates, and take action beyond simply watching and enjoying them? If we could harness the potential of those 20 million viewers we could have a very powerful movement indeed.”

What makes RSA unique?

The RSA is a completlely unique institution – it combines socially progressive research with practical action, has a diverse international fellowship, and provides a free platform for conversation around the latest world-changing ideas. We are attempting to move beyond the individualistic, ‘homo-economicus’ view of human nature and society, and toward a more cooperative, empathetic and community-centred one.

Accepting the challenges that the 21st Century brings in, Bolognesi says, “Tackling the challenges requires us to draw on the best thinking and new evidence about the world around us. Our events programme is widely recognized as one of the most exciting in the UK. However RSAnimate took us to a totally different level, and positioned the RSA as a global brand able to reach out to an audience of over 20 million worldwide.”

What’s next?

While RSAnimate series has met stupendous success, the vision to continue strengthening public debate and providing free platforms for debate, discussion and for sharing the best new thinking across a range of disciplines pushes the teams to keep itself abreast with new tools and means.

Stephenson reveals:

“We have brand new partnerships with Mixcloud, Blackberry Podcasts (for audio and podcasts), Hulu TV in America and ABC TV in Australia (videos). We are also launching an international film competition to encourage new creative talent. The competition will allow members of the public to come up with a unique short film that communicates some of the ideas from our events programme.”

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