It is hardly possible to examine comprehensively the state of the evangelical mind today without giving careful attention to the impact of digital media. The rise of digital media1 continues to disrupt and transform communications, education, business, entertainment, politics, forms of social organization, and more.2 Roughly half the global population today uses the Internet; in Europe and North America the percentage exceeds 80 percent.3 More than 2 billion people log onto Facebook at least once per month, and almost 1.4 billion log on daily.4 Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, every sixty seconds there are tens of millions of messages sent through mobile apps, millions of Facebook posts, more than one hundred thousand emails, and millions of Google searches.5 The amount of content disseminated and consumed online is overwhelming and shows no signs of slowing down.
Earlier communications revolutions—printing, newspapers, radio, and television among them—altered the economics of information distribution in ways that had profound effects on religious communities and authorities.6 Early signs suggest social media will prove at least as consequential. It behooves us then to question how digital media shapes the evangelical mind. The following (a) examines Patheos.com in order to survey some of the dynamics of online traffic that shape the production and distribution of digital content and (b) considers three implications for the habits and qualities of evangelical thought. I will argue that digital media (a) accelerates the global distribution of information in a manner that forms communities around shared interests and beliefs instead of geographical proximity, (b) shifts authority and influence from institutions to individuals, and (c) encourages media that is instantaneous, superficial, partisan, and hyperbolic. These forces are already shaping evangelical communities and evangelical intellectual life in a manner that deserves careful attention.
The full story of Patheos.com is a long and fascinating one, with colorful characters and surprising reversals of fortune. For present purposes I can offer only an overview.7
The original intention for Patheos was to recreate online the marketplace of religious ideas and make it more elevated and informed. Readers seeking answers to humanity’s most enduring questions could find clarity on the ways in which different religious traditions addressed those questions. Before the site launched, the founders and early employees of Patheos forged relationships with faculty and departments at numerous universities. They also composed a structure for encyclopedic content on scores of religious traditions allowing website visitors to delve into progressively deeper layers of information on a single tradition or cut transversely across multiple traditions and compare their origins, histories, and teachings. Scholars wrote and peer-reviewed that content, and Patheos published it in a section of the site called the Library.
Alongside the “timeless” and more dispassionate content in the Library would be “timely” and more opinionated content on “channels.” There would be separate Evangelical, Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, Atheist, and Spirituality channels, among others.8 Each channel was permitted to have its own distinctive character, but the channel managers (who were members of those religious traditions) in the beginning generally defaulted to covering the news within their communities, interviewing newsmakers, and the occasional opinion piece.
Finally, set apart from the Library and channels, Patheos offered a Public Square, where Patheos convened multi-religious discussions around specific questions. A handful of the earliest employees were doctoral students in religion at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Most other employees came from other institutions of higher learning. The Public Square also drew the participation of scholars, public intellectuals, and religious leaders.
Patheos launched publicly in May 2009, and an article in Time magazine drove enough traffic initially to make the first month a success.9 From there, the philosophy was to fail quickly and cheaply, in order to burn away the dross and identify what worked before incurring significant cost. Patheos was a true start up, intent on testing, iterating, and optimizing.
What quickly became apparent was the enormity of the challenge of monetizing online content. While the Library built credibility and fortified the site’s search rankings, it did not attract a great deal of traffic. The Public Square attracted media attention and built relational capital with scholars and institutions, but the amount of work required was out of proportion to the amount of traffic it produced. The channels showed promise, but even there the economic challenge was daunting. To simplify, imagine a website has 1,000 visitors per month and each visitor visits the site once per month (1,000 visits), viewing a single page per visit (1,000 pageviews), and each page serves a single advertising impression (1,000 ads are served). If an advertiser is willing to pay $5 per thousand ad impressions, this is known as a $5 CPM (cost per mille) and the website will make $5 from advertising to those 1,000 visitors. Perhaps the website also attracts some revenue through partnerships or book sales or other means, which (let us say) adds an additional $5 per thousand ad impressions. This would be known as a $10 RPM (revenue per mille). The question then becomes, “What does it cost to attract those 1,000 visitors?” If a single article attracts 1,000 visitors, but it costs $100 to pay the writer for that article and another $50 to pay an editor, then the website is losing $140 per article, to say nothing of the many overhead costs and the large sums invested in the development of the platform in the first place.
One solution is to increase the multiples.10 If each visitor visits on average twice per month, views two pages per visit, and receives two ad impressions per page, then the same 1,000 visitors will yield 8,000 ad impressions. Optimizing the design and functionality of the site to increase these multiples dramatically improves the prospects of any online content venture. However, in order to increase the average number of visits per visitor, and pages per visit, one needs effective mechanisms for bringing first-time visitors back (such as subscriptions and loyal social media followings) and one must have more content from one’s writers. Still, one cannot afford to pay a writer $100 (much less, a writer and editor a combined $150) for an article that may yield only $50 in revenue. One needs, in other words, abundant low-cost content where editorial requirements are minimal, and the content producers can be paid an amount proportionate to the revenue they generate.
Such was the calculus that led Patheos first to experiment with blogs and then to embrace them wholeheartedly. Carefully chosen bloggers required minimal editorial oversight. They produced regular streams of content. They brought loyal readerships and significant social media followings along with them. The Evangelical Channel led the way in the recruitment of bloggers, and many of its first bloggers were academics—people such as Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, and Mark D. Roberts. Others contributed to group blogs as philosophers, historians, sociologists, and biblical scholars, such as John Mark Reynolds, Philip Jenkins, Thomas Kidd, John Fea (whose review is one of the three that opened this issue), Margarita Mooney, and Peter Enns. Others later would include scholars Roger Olson, Gene Veith, Peter Leithart, D. G. Hart, Owen Strachan, and Michael Bird. Some spoke to political issues, such as David French (now at National Review) and myself. Others wrote on the graces of everyday Christian living, such as Amy Julia Becker (now at Christianity Today) and Michelle van Loon.
Patheos today hosts nearly 500 blogs across numerous channels, and those blogs account for the vast majority of the traffic to the site.11 It was the blogging strategy that led to Patheos’s explosive growth. By November 2015, it was serving in excess of 30 million pageviews per month. It was not enough, however, merely to host blogs. Patheos also had to scrutinize the major drivers of web traffic.
The Incentive Structures of Online Content
It became apparent in the early months after Patheos’s public launch that the primary referrers of content were search engines, social media, and larger websites. With visibility into the analytics of a growing stable of writers, Patheos stood exceptionally well positioned to understand the primary drivers of traffic. We learned quickly (as have many others) that there were strategies particular to each category.
Capturing the attention of search engines required content that piggybacked on trending search phrases. When Rob Bell published Love Wins in 2011, for instance, traffic across the Evangelical Channel exploded. Our writers published posts with the names of the author and book in the title (and in other locations important to search engines) and received significant traffic from people searching those terms. Of course, some phrases are always “trending.” For example, as an experiment I published a post (on my view of pornography as a father of girls) titled “Naked Women, Naked Girls,” and reiterated common search phrases at strategic locations. The article generated more than 2 million pageviews. (If the title was misleading, it was an illuminating experiment, and I reasoned that at least I was capturing web surfers in search of pornography and supplying them with an argument for why they should not be doing so.)
To capture traffic on social media, the rules were somewhat different. While still important to capitalize on current interests and “personalize” titles (that is, to mention the names of noteworthy individuals addressed in your post), it was just as important to excite enough curiosity for readers to click on the links in their social media streams. A post titled “On the Virtues of Christian Charity: A Response” would get a small fraction of the social media traffic of “10 Things Christopher Hitchens Got Wrong about Mother Teresa.” Once readers clicked and viewed the content, of course, it was equally important that they should be inspired to share the content with their networks. Content that reinforced the readers’ sympathies as well as their antipathies—that helped them articulate already-held views to their social groups—fared particularly well.
To be clear, Patheos did not (and does not) tell its bloggers what to write about, much less instruct them to reinforce their readers’ antipathies. Doing so would have been against the spirit of the enterprise. The trends, however, were easy to see both within and beyond Patheos. Bloggers and social media personalities built massive followings on the basis of antipathies they share with their readers—whether that means castigating “the liberal media” to an evangelical audience, mocking theists to an antireligious audience, or caricaturing conservative Christians to a progressive audience. Selling scorn is one of the simplest ways to build a large and loyal following online.
New content websites, or new writers seeking to build an audience, need time to build their social media followings and their prominence in the search engine landscape. This gives larger websites an outsized role in the early going. In the first year at Patheos, the articles that drew the most traffic were those that earned links from other sites that had already built their audiences. At the Evangelical Channel, these were generally conservative political websites. Several articles I wrote on the Tea Party movement were among the most-read at Patheos in 2009, largely because of links from aggregators and referrers like Instapundit, Powerline, and Hot Air. This, of course, makes it tempting to write in ways and on topics that are likely to be picked up in echo chambers where the post will be broadly shared and discussed.
Another way to earn traffic from referring websites (as well as prominent social media accounts) is to be the first compelling commentary available on a current event. The event itself may be an election, a scandal, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or the public debut of a new book or film. The difference between publishing something immediately and publishing something a day or two later is enormous. Be the first to publish, and readers who rush online to understand and process the event will find a link to your post on their favorite websites and in their social media feeds. Publish a day or two later, and your post gets lost in the flood.
Implications for the Evangelical Mind
The point of this examination is not to curse the darkness but to cast a light on the processes and incentive structures intrinsic to the world of digital content and social media. Let us consider, then, what the rise of digital media means for the evangelical mind.
1. Digital media accelerates the global distribution of information and forms communities around shared interests and convictions rather than geographical proximity. There are countless obvious ways in which this has been a salutary development. The global church is more interconnected than ever before. Where in the past it would have taken weeks to respond to the needs of the church across vast distances, or to the needs of people groups beset by tragedy, the church today is more informed and more equipped to respond when the need is most acute. Also, individuals who might otherwise have lacked communities of worship and encouragement, not to mention biblical guidance and theological training, can find all of them online. The consequences for the spread of the gospel and for the education of the church are profound.
The same networks that empower communities to connect and coordinate, however, can also isolate us from those unlike ourselves. Where earlier generations of evangelicals gathered in local and regional communities where there was, more often than not, diversity of opinions on social and political matters, today social media permits evangelicals together online in narrowly defined subcultures. In other words, evangelicals have been increasingly divided into self-contained media spheres where their prejudices and presuppositions are encouraged and not challenged. This is not peculiar, of course, to evangelicals. Patheos’s best efforts to encourage an exchange of views between the religious (and nonreligious) communities represented on the site generally led to disappointing results. The vast majority of visitors wished to remain within the confines of their channels. Rather than developing the sensitivities essential to meaningful social discourse or moving beyond the battlegrounds of “us” versus “them,” many evangelicals today surround themselves in the digital landscape with the like-minded, isolate themselves culturally and politically, become less gracious in tone, and get lost in hyper-partisan worldviews.
2. Digital media shifts authority and influence from institutions to individuals. Even after the advent of the printing press in Europe (ca. 1454), and well into the age of newspapers and magazines, radio and television, the means to produce and distribute content were so expensive they generally remained in the control of institutions and a small set of highly wealthy individuals.12 Yet social media, alongside other technological advances, profoundly changed the economics of content generation and dissemination. As the bar of entry has lowered, the role of mediating institutions diminished. Today’s aspiring world-changer no longer needs the platform of a magazine, publisher, or television network. She can develop her own following directly and reach a potential audience of millions or even billions, through social media tools that are entirely free to operate.
The use of the feminine pronoun here is deliberate as one of the most encouraging expressions of this development is the rise of evangelical women who might not otherwise have had a platform.13 Women bloggers such as Ann Voskamp, Lysa TerKeurst, and Jen Hatmaker provide guidance and encouragement to vast audiences.14 They have far larger social media followings than widely renowned evangelical authorities such as Tim Keller. Millions of Christian women (and men) have been well served by new voices.
The problem is not with faithful bloggers such as these,15 but with the riptides of social and political movement scattered across millions of social media accounts and blogs and content sites. As evidenced in the past decade of evangelical political participation, evangelicals continue to be implicated in movements that are nationalistic, anti-intellectual, and prejudiced against certain people groups. The rise of social media overturns long-standing authority structures and threatens organizations that served as the gatekeepers of information with obsolescence. It also serves to throw the field open to demagogues and provocateurs, content makers who play to their viewers’ baser instincts.
For many of the reasons detailed in Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and in the writings of others since, contemporary evangelicalism is particularly susceptible to destabilization. It lacks deeply rooted authority structures and regards claims to intellectual or theological authority with skepticism. The shallow roots of modern American evangelical communities make them susceptible to the latest movements and trends. When digital media replaces the authority of the pastor or professor with the authority of the peer group, serious thought is needed on the best way to raise the collective evangelical mind toward its higher callings.
3. Taken together, the economics of digital media and the dynamics of traffic flow encourage media content that is instantaneous, superficial, partisan, and hyperbolic. Counterexamples are not hard to find in the evangelical sphere. Countless writers and public intellectuals, evangelical and otherwise, perform admirable work in the digital fields. Still, incentives shape behavior. When blog content that is considered, reflective, self-consciously balanced, and modest in its claims earns
$700 per month, and content that is swift, shallow, demagogic and exaggerated (or even false) earns $7,000 per month, builds a larger social media following, and even recruits book contracts and speaking engagements, the temptation will be to lean in the latter direction. Moreover, even when these incentive structures do not shape the intentions of writers, they shape the distribution of content to readers. Content that caricatures and castigates will generally travel further than content that seeks to comprehend and contextualize.
One might be tempted to say that digital media leveled the playing field, allowing all content makers (the pastor, the professor, the public intellectual, and the angry neighbor down the street) to compete on even terms for an audience. The truth is rather worse. The financial dynamics of online content, shaped overwhelmingly by the extraordinary power and pervasiveness of social media, generally mitigate against thoughtful and balanced content. The angry neighbor down the street has an advantage. Evangelical underinvestment in intellectual life has left evangelical audiences particularly susceptible to this trend. Frankly put, it is difficult to sell intellectually nuanced content to evangelicals in the social media marketplace; swift, short, angry, one-sided content sells out quickly. This puts the evangelical statesman at a decided disadvantage to the evangelical scorn merchant.
Perhaps this article can serve as an introduction (but nothing more than an introduction) to the many ways in which digital media are influencing the development of the evangelical mind. The evangelical community deserves more extended reflection and research on the topic. How is digital media best integrated into the lives of families, congregations, and communities? How does it influence evangelical views on politics, science, and culture? Who are the most influential figures in the digital media sphere for evangelical audiences? How should we think about authority and accountability in the digital age? What are better and worse ways for evangelical academics as well as their colleges, universities, and seminaries to leverage digital media?
In conclusion, the meaning of the digital revolution remains to be determined and will depend in large measure on how we interpret and respond to it. Evangelical intellectuals can and should be proactive when it comes to understanding the trends shaping the digital landscape and providing guidance to evangelical communities struggling to keep up with the rapid rate of technological change. While the rest of the world rushes forward, there is an opening here for thoughtful believers to think Christianly about the social, cultural, and intellectual impact of digital media and for thoughtful entrepreneurs to shape the technology itself in directions that are fruitful, generative, and humane.
Cite this article
- In this article I will have in mind a broad definition of “digital media” as digitized content transmitted over the Internet and computer networks. This would include “social media” (apps, blogs, and web platforms that allow users to share their own content with one another) and also media websites, online gaming, video and audio streaming services, and so on.
- Anyone living outside a cave in recent decades will have had ample opportunity to observe the truth of this statement. For those who wish to research further, a fair place to start is the work of Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee, including The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). The annual Kleiner Perkins digital trends report is also helpful, http://www.kpcb.com/ internet-trends.
- The International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency devoted to the advancement of information and communications technologies, put the number at 3.2 billion (or 43 percent of the global population) in 2015). An assessment two years later from the Miniwatts Marketing Group, June 30, 2017, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, set the figure at 3.88 billion, or 51.7 percent, with 88 percent penetration in North America and 80 percent in Europe.
- For regularly updated Facebook total user figures, see News Room, https://newsroom. fb.com/company-info/.
- 5Data assembled by Smart Insights from reported data by WhatsApp, Facebook, Radicati, and Google, https://www.smartinsights.com/internet-marketing-statistics/happens-online-60-seconds/.
- The development of the printing press in mid-fifteenth-century Europe made it less expensive to distribute information and opinions via letters, pamphlets, and books. Whether it was the printing of indulgences, or Reformation and Counter-Reformation pamphlets, or a variety of printed vernacular translations, the consequences for religious organization were profound. See John Man, The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History (London: Transworld, 2010). Radio made it possible to connect to preachers and congregations in new ways, and the careers of some figures, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, are hard to imagine apart from mass media. See Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 66–89. The rise of televangelists would provide another example from the television era. See Razelle Frankl, Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987).
- It should be noted for transparency’s sake that this is largely a firsthand account. I was hired by Patheos as a writer and consultant in the winter of 2008–2009. Immediately after its public launch, I became the managing editor of its Evangelical Channel; later I became director of content, supervising roughly half the site, and then vice president of business development, before leading a digital creative services arm called Patheos Labs.
- Channels were initially called gateways, then portals, and finally channels. The Mainline Protestant Channel was later renamed Progressive Christian, and the Atheist Channel was later renamed Nonreligious. Patheos later added channels defined not by the boundaries of tradition but by their subject matter, such as channels on Religion and Entertainment, Family, Politics, and Work.
- Jeninne Lee-St. John, “What Do Religions Believe?: A Website with Answers,” Time magazine (May 5, 2009), http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1895735,00.html. On the founders as well as the founding of Patheos, see Jenny An, “Let the Spirit Move You at Patheos.com,” WestWord (November 15, 2011), http://www.westword.com/content/ printView/5114701.
- There are many ways to attempt to solve the economics of online content, many of which supplement digital advertising with other sources of revenue. Among them are donations and crowd-funding, grants, sponsored content, memberships, premium content subscriptions, pay-walls for paid content, affiliate sales, packaging content into online courses and minicourses, and pairing content with live events and community gatherings.
- Some authors on the topical channels also participate in evangelical communities. To pick just one example, Dave Willis (teaching pastor at an evangelical church in Augusta, Georgia) and his wife, Ashley, attract massive audiences for their insightful commentary on marriage and parenting in the Faith & Family Channel.
- 12I am indebted here to the thoughts of social media consultant Richard Stacy, “Gutenberg and the Social Media Revolution: An Investigation of the World Where It Costs Nothing to Distribute Information,” November 20, 2008, http://richardstacy.com/2008/11/20/ gutenberg-and-the-social-media-revolution-an-investigation-of-the-world-where-it-costsnothing- to-distribute-information/. For another interesting take, see Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013).
- 13See Tish Harrison Warren, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” Christianity Today (April 2017), http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/april/whos-in-chargeof- christian-blogosphere.html; Hannah Anderson, “By Whose Authority?: Women Bloggers and the Evangelical Church,” Religion News Service (May 3, 2017), https://religionnews. com/2017/05/03/by-whose-authority-women-bloggers-and-the-evangelical-churchcommentary/.
- I do not mention here figures like Joyce Meyer, who commands an enormous following for her digital content as well as her print books and events. She is not often placed in the “blogger” category, but one might question whether this is a distinction without a difference. Major bloggers also become authors of printed books and speakers at events; writers/ speakers also repurpose content through blogs and social media. Most are content generators and distribute that content through means digital and otherwise.
- Recently there was angst over authority and accountability for bloggers when Jen Hatmaker challenged historically Christian views on same-sex relationships. See Emily McFarlan Miller, “Women Bloggers Spawn an Evangelical ‘Crisis of Authority,’” Religion News Service (May 15, 2017), https://religionnews.com/2017/05/15/women-bloggers-spawn-an-evangelicalcrisis- of-authority/. Personally I welcome the addition of thoughtful voices to these discussions and do not believe in imposing (if it were even possible) some sort of command and control over online commentary. The solution will lie in more speech, not less.