There’s a book you should read sometime, or at least try to. It’s called The Sacred and the Profane, and it will most likely blow your mind. Its author was a Romanian-born immigrant that spent a large chunk of the 20th century tinkering with religion, time, and space. Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to Mircea Eliade, and more specifically, how one of his theories helps me run social media for Ithaca College.
(Warning: This is about to get deep.)
Religion, in its active form, is generally a series of rituals meant to signify and codify other things. Eliade believed that acts of ritual done in a profane (or normal, modern) setting are man’s way of reconnecting to the sacred (or God, Allah, that thing in the sky, etc). A ritual act in that case essentially breaks the concept of time, returning the actors participating in the ritual back to the origin of said ritual. To summarize, Eliade saw a dualism to the sacred and profane in which those profane rituals were basically direct links to the sacred thing they represent.
(Different version of the last paragraph: The rituals we participate in are merely “windows” to the sacred, resulting in a mirroring of the sacred through the profane.)
Now take that dualism, that idea of a “window” to the sacred, and apply it to the rituals of your life. Maybe the sacred to you is an authentic cheesesteak. You’re hundreds of miles from Philly, but you still want to continue your connection to that special feeling. The random knockoff joint in Chicago becomes your profane expression of the sacred, and in doing so, you return yourself to the origin of that ritual at Geno’s or Pat’s. The knockoff joint is your window, your little glimpse, and, in theory, it gives you the same satisfaction or recharge of the batteries (even if they happen to use the wrong cheese) that the first realization of the ritual once did. Sounds a lot like nostalgia, doesn’t it?
Let’s try another example. According to just about any cliché around, college is the best four years of our lives (or seven years if the person using the cliché is a jokester). We create millions of little memories, and become connected not just to the people around us during that transformative period, but to specific objects in their time and place. That classroom you fell asleep in during Psych 101, or the dorm room where you lost your virginity. There’s the dining hall you always met your friends at for dinner on Taco Tuesday, and the sports field where you blew out your knee playing intramural soccer. These moments are all sacred to us, immortalized in our minds as much as graduation day or our first semester on the Dean’s List.
To me, the most successful social media campaigns have always allowed for remembrance, real participation, anticipation and reflection. Remembrance for those that have been there, real participation by those physically living in that moment, anticipation from those who want to someday be in that moment, and reflection for anyone that the campaign comes in contact with. We’re creating windows, teasing the dualism of the sacred and the profane.
A great example is Ithaca College’s recent disposable camera project. It was a pretty simple idea when you boil it down; we basically just left a bunch of disposable cameras around campus for six hours and then developed the film. But in that simplicity we were able to create a window to the sacred aspects of college. And once we opened that window, human nature did the rest. Real participation came from our students, who took over 200 photos (and only four middle fingers!) with 10 different cameras. Remembrance came from our alumni, who recognized spots on campus and the irreplaceable smile of someone standing at the beginning of the rest of their life. Anticipation came from the prospectives that saw the pictures and thought that the community in those photos was one they wanted to be a part of. And reflection, well, that came from just about everyone.
Colleges are a uniquely hallowed ground, and the things that make them sacred are best defined by those contributing to the creation of new rituals every day. Give your audience a window, and let them do the rest. The results will be far from profane.