Brandon Vogt

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.

Overall, I think CARA has made some misguided conclusions in their new media studies (this current report is just one in a series.)

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.

Be sure to read Matt Warner and Monsignor Pope’s insightful commentary on the survey.

  • Very fine critique! Demonstrates that this proverb applieth not unto to thee, O BV: ‘He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts—for support rather than for illumination.’ 🙂 tneal

  • Richard

    Patience needed here. We need to give New Media time to grow.

  • Mark Gray

    I am the lead researcher on the CARA study of Catholic media use. As a social scientist I have to always try to be objective and describe reality as best I can. This often puts me at odds with what I would want reality to be like. But when faced with evidence of something I personally do not like I still must report it. Sometimes CARA is described as too pessimistic (e.g., reporting on declining numbers of priests and showing projections this will likely continue) or too optimistic (e.g., showing the growth of the U.S. Catholic population and forecasting this to grow faster than the overall U.S. population). Yet, we are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. We just report the facts/data as best as we can, using scientific methods.

    I think Msgr. Charles Pope was correct in interpreting the results as such: “if you are a Catholic, reading this or other Catholic blogs for information or encouragement about your faith, you are a very rare bird.” You, me, and most of the Catholics reading this blog are really interested in following and discussing our faith online. It is part of our “narrowcasted” media interests that we seek out. There are about 3 million more Catholics like us that use Catholic blogs. But the vast majority of Catholics have different sets of media preferences and interest in news and entertainment that don’t often include Catholic blogging. Many are “good Catholics” (e.g., attending Mass weekly, being active in their parish) they just may be more interested in following Dancing with the Stars or their favorite NFL team in the media they prefer than reading Catholic blogs. It is natural to think everyone else is like us or our friends or family (the dangers of anecdotal reasoning). But sometimes we are “rare birds.”

    The Google Trends data are real and worrisome. Academics are using Google’s search trend data to quite accurately track flu outbreaks and to predict political primary results, movie box office results, and home and auto sales. We can see real world fluctuations of interest just by looking at trend data for search terms that are seasonal in nature (e.g., pumpkin, turkey, tree) or one-time events (e.g., Oprah recommending a book). It does no one any good to try to explain the trend for Catholic-related searches away. It is an unfortunate reality… but also one that may change at any moment.

    There is also a bright spot in the Google search data. Try looking for the trends on “Catholic, Lent, Advent.” You’ll find that U.S.-based searches for anything including “Lent” are on the rise and at one point rivaled searches for anything “Catholic” last year. At the time we noted the great popularity of Lent—especially among Millennials in a CARA blog post entitled “In Season: Millennials and Lent.” Here we remarked on the volume of tweets from people talking about what they were giving up.

    If I were looking for a bellwether time for new media use I would look again to Lent. There are so many indicators of this being among the most active of periods of interest and engagement for Catholics. In 2012, perhaps more Catholics will be turning to their smartphones, tablets, and apps to experience and discuss this season.

    Focusing on the future with “new” media is essential. Although the present may be less than what many hope for there are still a lot of changes ahead. I personally believe Brandon and many of the other Catholic bloggers with growing followings will be an important part of these changes.

    -Mark Gray

    • Great stuff, Mark! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll totally admit to the dangers of relying on anecdotal data. But at the same time, new media success is notoriously difficult to quantify.

      Your point about Lent is really fascinating. I’m trying to think how we can harness the rise in interest during that season. I’m guessing most people are simply searching for things like “ashes”, “meat”, and the like, but it still might be an ideal time to engage those who would otherwise never visit a Catholic website. Us online Catholics should probably see the Lenten season just as priests see marriages and baptisms–a time to re-connect with those who have been away.

      I read your Lenten report when it came out and it fascinated me, especially as a millennial. I was shocked to learn that millennials embrace Lent’s signs and sacrifices more than any other demographic. That tells me my generation hungers for both outward displays of faith–a visible Catholic identity–and, as least partly, a faith that demands something of them. Both of these facts have important ramifications for the ways we use new media.

      Finally, I share your optimism for the future of new media. And I hope more Catholics continue to use your research to orient their new media work. Thanks again!

    • Brad

      Mark,

      Great research and glad it’s being down. These statistics lay important groundwork for making better decisions and showing the opportunities we have. Social media uses within parishes is very new, and our efforts today will help lay the groundwork for tomorrow.

  • Pete

    Well said, Brandon. Can I ask you something? Do you stay up all night researching this stuff?

    • I actually live in an alternate universe where we have 36 hour days. You can get so much done here.

      • Pete

        Yeah, and being 25 doesn’t hurt.

  • Jennifer Mazzara

    This is great! I was going to reference you in the combox over at Msgr. Pope’s blog, but saw you were there long ago. 🙂 This all made me think about past analysis of the Latter-Day Saints’ internet presence I wonder what the difference is, culturally, between Catholics and Mormons that makes Mormon “new media” so unassailable in it’s prevalence (and effectiveness?), but Catholic new media is still, well, “meh” in a lot of ways. We’re getting there, we’ve “scratched the surface” as you say, but what is it that keeps Catholics from intentionally looking for ways to live out their faith on the internet?

    • I think the fundamental difference is that the Mormons have an ingrained missionary mindset. For most Catholics, on the other hand, faith is a personal, private thing–evangelism is a dirty word. This type of attitude is prevalent in most Catholic circles online.

      We don’t yet have the zeal of St. Paul, the panache of John Paul II, or the magnetism of Fulton Sheen.

      But we’ll get there. I think the Church is slowly realizing that God has given us the most powerful evangelistic tools in the history of the world. And with this great power comes great responsibility.

      We need digital saints to ignite the flame of online Catholicism.

      • almostnotcatholic

        Catholics aren’t missional? Brandon, I think it is important to differentiate between the zeal of a sect/cult and the zeal of the Church (1 Tim 2:2). The Catholic Church added over 250 million during the pontificate of Blessed Pope JPII–10 x’s more than the entire Mormon cult. Mormonism is tantamount to the Waco combine spread out all of the entire world. Secret jammies and eternal marriages have a way of binding the believers together in an “us” vs. “them” mentality that is impossible to inculcate in the Universal Church that has always been with “them” for 2,000 years.

        Media will always be just that: media. It is a go between, and being a saint involves–as you know–more than communication (whether it be on paper or in html). It requires action. Online “work” can never take the place of incarnated service (and I know you know this)–and this, I think, is what Catholics have always been doing well for 2,000 years. “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” -Matt 5:16

        • Sorry for the confusion. I wasn’t talking about the missionary attitude of the Church at large, extended through space and time.

          What I meant was that the average American Catholic is far less missional than the average individual Mormon. I don’t know anyone who would deny this.

          Part of the reason for this is that Mormons are trained and compelled to share what they believe. Most Catholics aren’t. Most American Catholics personally believe the Truth but aren’t zealous to share it with others.

          We need to approach the ‘digital continent’ as missionary territory just as Pope Benedict has encouraged. And this requires a new generation of missionary saints. We need a new Fulton Sheen (and I think we have some candidates), a new Francis Xavier, a new St. Paul, and a new St. Therese.

        • Micha Elyi

          “Secret jammies… ”

          Oh, like a scapular?

          • Brent

            Nothing secret about those…most of them are in plain view. Is there something offensive to you about the sacred cross?

  • Crux Mihi Lux

    Thanks for posting! Excellent response. The study did seem lacking and commentary unnecessarily pessimistic.

  • lisahendey

    Brandon, do we have a contact at CARA who could reply to your well thought out comments here? I’d love to hear their point by point analysis of what you’ve shared…

    • I’ll see what I can find. One of their staff regularly writes articles for OSV so I’ll ask them (I just copied you on an email.)

      It’s a shame that they don’t open the comment boxes on their blog. They do so many good studies that would provoke a lot of great discussion.

  • Rozann Carter

    Awesome, Brandon. Just awesome. Thank you for this.

    • I’d say the same thing about you and Word on Fire. In fact Word on Fire alone is evidence that online Catholicism is thriving.

  • Great analysis, Brandon!

    • Thanks, Nancy! As a fellow blogger, I’d love to hear your perspective.

© 2019 Brandon Vogt

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