Is Catholic New Media really effective?
Not that much, according to the folks at CARA. The shrewd Catholic research group just completed an in-depth study of Catholic media. When it comes to newspapers and radio, the data was pretty much what you’d expect. Some people use these traditional forms, though not a lot and mostly older crowds.
But when it comes to new media, CARA’s study painted a surprisingly sour picture:
“The current discourse surrounding Catholic new media is often very rosy and optimistic. The data just do not match this conversation—yet. Traditional media sources continue to be more often used and preferred by Catholics for religious and spiritual content.”
“The findings from these studies suggest that the emerging picture for new media use by Catholic adults overall—and especially among the Millennials is not as promising as many hope or assume.”
Last week I highlighted this study without any commentary. But since it’s been making its rounds through the blogosphere, I thought I’d offer my own two cents.
For instance, in another recent report, CARA concluded that interest in online Catholicism is shrinking since Catholic-related Google searches are in decline. Their premise is true–they have solid data on the Google searches. But I don’t quite buy that conclusion.
For one, Google searches are not an ideal marker of online interest. It’s not bad, mind you, but it’s not great, either. As new media continues to dominate the Internet, we need to look at many other markers for a full picture. New media is grounded on dialogue which means we should focus our attention not just on searches but on conversations.
I’ve talked about Catholicism with many people through Facebook who would never search for Catholic-related terms on Google. By CARA’s criteria, these people would have no interest in Catholicism. But my interactions show the opposite.
Also, Lisa Hendey made a great point about Google searches. In one sense, the less Catholic-related Google searches we see, the better. That means people already have the knowledge they would have used Google to find.
“Does my sister need to Google “Advent traditions” when I’m linking to a great article from my Facebook page? Does my co-worker need to google “meatless recipes” when I’ve shared a whole section of them on CatholicMom.com?”
I see two major problems with the most recent study, though. First, it surveys 2,000 self-identifying Catholics, and second, it assumes seeking out religious content is a primary indicator of online engagement. CARA misses, however, that new media’s Catholic potential comes primarily through evangelization (reaching beyond self-identifying Catholics) and through dialogue, a variable difficult to quantify and survey.
CARA neglected both of these dynamics, two things we feature prominently in The Church and New Media.
Their study doesn’t answer questions like, how is new media changing perceptions of Catholicism? How is it answering what Fr. Barron calls the “YouTube heresies“, the most common intellectual barriers to God? How is new media facilitating real community, both online and offline? How is it reaching those who would never darken the doors of a Church?
For a more accurate picture of new media’s effects, we need to consider the massive anecdotal evidence. Look at Fr. Barron’s success stories; look at the impact of Catholics Come Home; look how many people have entered the Church by way of the Catholic blogosphere (including Jen Fulwiler and many commenters at Called to Communion.)
Finally, and I think this was CARA’s biggest mistake, the survey seems to explore intentional online engagement. But new media’s great power comes in part through its unintentionality.
A young secularist searching for Bob Dylan stumbles across one of Fr. Barron’s YouTube videos. That video leads him to another, then to another, and soon he finds that he’s listening to proofs for the existence of God.
A fallen-away Catholic browsing Facebook sees a religious discussion and is drawn in. First they’re just a reader, then they add a comment, but someone responds and soon enough they’re in deep discussion about faith or morals.
Of how about this shocking example. An atheist Googling “veil porn” comes across an obscure Catholic blog, and for the first time sees an attractive presentation of Christianity (this actually happened). I don’t think “veil porn” is included in CARA’s data, but it’s led more than one person to engage Catholicism online.
At least from what I hear and see, the anecdotal evidence is painting a really different picture than CARA. What I see is that Catholic new media has already been massively successful despite only scratching the surface. What I see is that young people may not be intentionally looking for Catholicism online, but it’s finding them, nonetheless. What I see is that the qualitative data does give us reason to be “rosy and optimistic.”
Yet even if CARA is right, even if the large majority of people aren’t pursuing religion online, that’s precisely why Catholics need to use these tools, the very reason why new media is necessary for the Church.
Most people are online, whether they’re looking for faith or not, and we need to meet them in the circles they frequent just as we have throughout history.
If they’re in the temple, we need to be in the temple.
If they’re on the Areopagus, we need to be on the Areopagus.
If they’re listening to the radio, we need to be on the radio.
If they’re watching television, we need to be on television.
And if they’re on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, we need to be there.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic about the current new media landscape. It only matters that Catholics continue to meet the world on its own terrain, and right now that’s the digital continent.