Traditional media does not have a fantastic track record of significant, nuanced portrayals of religious belief and practice. Stereotypes abound in the studio-model of creating blockbuster entertainment media. As online video semi-democratizes content creation, though, is there a new opportunity? Might YouTube be a rich site for religious reference? Maybe…
The best and brightest hope for an entertainment medium that substantively acknowledges and explores religion might be found in YouTube’s user-generated videos. Many of the amateur “content creators” (as YouTube calls them) are young and unencumbered by the full weight of traditional media’s old conventions. Relative to the studio ecosystem, a significant number are women (though the life of a female content creator often still has unique challenges), and the diverse creators come from all over the world, from a range of different economic, racial, sexual, and political statuses. Presumably from diverse religious statuses as well.
With such a mixed demographic, the possibilities for audible voices on religion becomes more likely.
Given the personal nature of religion, one might expect to see religious inquiry happen in the vlogs (video-blogs) of many creators. In a recent video by Joe Homes (below), a successful member of the YouTube channels TeamHypercube and WatchJobHunters, for example, Joe shares his thoughts on how to reconcile religious belief with geekdom – how to like the culty Dungeons & Dragons without worrying that it’s a sin. This content speaks directly to the self-described geek culture of YouTube viewership with an earnest voice willing to engage a religious semi-dilemma.
Vlogs are powerful, as the upcoming film “Vlogumentary” will bear out (watch the trailer HERE). Vloggers get to share their own personal opinions on matters close to them, (mostly) without a producer fretting over ad revenue and ratings. Yet vlogging about religious perspectives is not typical, at least not for YouTube’s most visible content creators.
So why isn’t religious content more abundant or salient?
Some may argue that this is a product of the generational gap in religiosity, with fewer young people being religiously affiliated. According to PEW, one quarter of all American adults under 30 claim no religious affiliation (with more unaffiliated men than women). That number is dramatically higher than in older demographics. It still means, however, that 75% of adults under 30 do claim a religious affiliation. That is a significant amount.
Perhaps a more potent reason is that even for non-studio content creators, many cultures (even the US) still resist talking about religious thoughts in public. Many fear censure for not keeping their spiritual ideas to themselves and are worried about “starting an argument.” While the empowerment of vlogging makes most private matters public, perhaps for many it does not make all things fair game.
For as much as the studio-mentality does not fully rule on YouTube, the desire for high “ratings” still does (in the form of subscribers and view counts). Becoming “YouTube famous” is a desire of many content creators, seeking to acquire the biggest possible audience at times to the expense of rich content. The ubiquity of “cinnamon challenge” and “my boyfriend does my makeup” videos speaks to this point.
Breaking in to the top, most visible echelon on YouTube is difficult (over 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute). Fear of losing one’s audience keeps some YouTubers from venturing into that presumed-risky religious territory… even if connecting on personal religious struggles actually speaks to the heart of the sort of content that makes vlogging so invaluable.
This is not to say that nobody discusses religion, or that it is absent on YouTube. That is not the case. Jefferson Bethke’s 2012 video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” (below) went viral, having over 26 million views to-date with numerous response and spin-off videos from other creators (such as a Catholic priest’s response, “Why I Love Religion, and Love Jesus”). Bethke has over 300,000 subscribers to his channel, and has written the surefire seller Jesus>Religion.
Likewise, Christian music videos command significant view counts. Matt Redman’s Grammy winning “10,000 Reasons” video, for example, has over 2 million views, not counting the song’s endless user-uploads of the audio or live-performance videos.
Finding high profile YouTubers talking about spirituality might still be a rarity, but the non-studio structure and personalized trends lend more easily to religious content than in most media. The genre of user-generated semi-democratic video creation may yet give mainstream voice to the nuanced religious struggles, beliefs, and questions that so many have.
But what do you think? What is your favorite spiritually-inclined YouTube video? Do hostile YouTube Comments make it difficult to be personal about religion? Sound off in the COMMENTS below and be sure to Share, Subscribe above, and Follow on Twitter!