I’ve written about research on Catholicism and new media elsewhere. When writing or speaking on the topic I always note that CARA surveys and web traffic research indicate that there is no website that is drawing the attention and visits of a large number of Catholics. Instead, when it comes to faith, Catholics appear to use the Internet in a very utilitarian fashion—either for looking up Mass times or looking for a Catholic charity after a disaster. Catholics are more likely to say they have visited a site for their parish or a Catholic school than any other religious or spiritual site and even then it's only about 5% of all adults for a six month period. Only a few Catholic websites (e.g., websites for the Vatican and the U.S. bishops) typically make it into the top 4,000 most visited in the United States.
In this post we reveal some new and perhaps disturbing evidence about the intersection (or lack thereof) of faith and new media. Searchers from the United States for anything with the term “Catholic” in them have dropped significantly in the 2004 to 2011 period (e.g., Catholic school, Catholic Church, Catholic Charities). The graph below shows weekly search volumes in Google (which dominates the search industry).
The 1.0 on the vertical axis of the figure below represents the average search volume (Google does not pull the curtain back to let you see real total numbers of searches). If the trend is at 2.0 on this axis then it means search volumes for queries including the word Catholic are twice as numerous in that week compared to the average for the period measured (2004 to 2011).
There is a clear and repetitive pattern in the graph. Searches for anything Catholic reach a low point each summer and peak in two weeks each year—weeks for Ash Wednesday and Christmas. The only outlier here is the significant increase in searches surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II and the conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007, the search volumes dip below average for the period and have continued on a downward pace to date. The decline is linear. Americans are significantly less likely to search for anything Catholic than they were seven years ago.
Need some context? The figure below overlays the search pattern for the NFL and American Idol. As one can see there is not some generalized downturn in searches for anything. This figure also shows the relative likelihood that someone is searching for something Catholic and searching for two of the juggernauts of American popular culture.
Need more context? Here is anything Catholic up against the social network—Facebook. No contest as you might expect (even though one in four Americans is Catholic).
The strange thing is that this is phenomenon does not appear to be limited to the United States. The trend for the United Kingdom is shown in the figure below. A similar pattern is evident—although there is more random volatility week to week.
Switching to another language and country the figure below shows the trend in Germany. It appears Germans share a propensity to Google things Catholic (or “Katholische”) around Christmas but there is no Ash Wednesday bump as in the United States.
In France we have a decline but perhaps a hint of some renewed search interest in the short-term.
Initially, Australia seems to break the pattern until you remember that the summer months here are in December and January.
Brazil shows the steepest decline but this is in part due to a lack of search volume record in 2004.
Finally put it all together and here is a look for Google searches for anything Catholic globally in five languages. The red is Italian. Here there is the clearest visual pattern but we cannot learn much from it as the search volume appears to be strongly related to seasonal searches for the Italian resort town of Cattolica.
Without a doubt there are many Catholic web sites or blogs where traffic has increased dramatically in recent years (from foreign and/or domestic searches/visits). This is no surprise. Each Catholic website has but a small share of the overall population looking for things Catholic online. And just as individual stocks can rise even as the overall stock market falls some Catholic websites are doing well (and will continue to do so) despite the apparent fall in general interest in anything Catholic related online.
Is this cause to panic? Certainly not. Should we be concerned? Yes. These graphs represent the behavior of millions of people (Catholic and non-Catholic) online. These aren’t responses to polls or attitudes expressed in a focus group. These are real world observations. People are doing less of something and when that thing is “Catholic” online we should wonder what the future is for Catholic new media.
With the introduction and adoption of all new technologies everyone races to get a spot in the medium. With the rise of the popular news press people certainly felt the need to create a Catholic presence (where arguably it retains the broadest reach) and this dynamic repeated itself with radio and television. But looking back the Catholic faith survived just fine without establishing a significant home in radio or television (as measured by ratings). The nexus of what it means to be Catholic is still the parish (e.g., the iPhone confession app is designed to be used in the confessional). Do we need a Catholic YouTube? No. Do we need Catholics on YouTube? Yes. However, the data shown above indicates that people may be less likely to be looking for Catholic content now than in the past. Why? That remains a mystery.
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
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