As red letters scribble his words across a black screen, an anxious young male voice who calls himself Josh rhetorically addresses his best friend, Zack. Although Zack was a Christian, he never told Josh about Jesus. Now, as Josh faces the flames of eternal torment after dying in a drunken car crash, he condemns Zack for his failure to spread God's word. When Josh is dragged away into the burning sulfur and brimstone, he chillingly asks: "Why haven't you ever told me about being a Christian?"
With 540,000 hits, "A Letter from Hell" is one of the most popular videos on GodTube.com, an evangelical Christian video and social networking site that founder Chris Wyatt has framed as "the Christian answer to YouTube" and "the family-friendly answer to Facebook." Founded in summer 2007, GodTube was, in its first month, the fastest growing US site on the Internet, and today boasts over two million visitors a month. The site aims to win converts and galvanize "nominal Christians" who've slacked off on church attendance through the youth-grabbing medium of the Internet. However, its casually user-friendly interface--tricked out with viral videos and user profiles--is girded by a strict emphasis on content and user control that seeks to purify its forum of sinful images or blasphemous views.
The site's creators hope to generate a complement to--and even an eventual replacement for--the local "church family" many Christians see only on Sundays. In creating an intimate, "nonthreatening" virtual community amid the Internet's spiritual wilderness, GodTube provides users with a sense of belonging.
Rather than following YouTube's expressionistic credo of "Broadcast Yourself," GodTube unites its users under the more purposeful and restrictive banner of "Broadcast Him." But, as GodTube supplements its approved content with faith-based commercialism, its attempt at shaping what users see and say raises questions of who is broadcasting whom--and to what end.
Baby Got Book
Chris Wyatt is a 39-year-old former TV producer familiar with both attracting converts and consumers. After growing up Christian in Oklahoma, he became the youngest executive producer at CBS, where he oversaw light sports fare like Slam Dunk and Jam Central. Disillusioned with the sinful lights of Hollywood, Wyatt left to work for a small Christian DVD rental company in Lynchburg, Virginia. A pastor convinced him to resist returning to his cushier Hollywood lifestyle and instead enroll in Dallas Theological Seminary. There, he recalled his experience heading up a Christian DVD rental company, where he observed churches' struggle to attract adolescents to God's word. Drawing on his CBS-honed commercial savvy, Wyatt conjured up an idea to preach the gospel to youth through a hotter medium: the Internet.
GodTube is not the first Christian site to reach out to young Internet users. In 2006, both MyChurch and ShoutLife began offering up services in which Christians can maintain personal profiles and profiles for their church, with the ability to upload blogs, post classified ads and sermons and even collect tithes. And virtual religious networking hasn't been limited to Christians: 2006 also saw the inception of MuslimSpace, and even Hare Krishnas could connect on KrishnaFriends.com.
However, in mission, content, commercialism and size, GodTube dwarfs its rivals, combining the massive user-uploaded video database of YouTube with the vast social networking of Facebook, in addition to dozens of "featured ministries" that post videos and advertise on the site. Its 290,000 users outnumber even those of the popular MyChurch, which boasts 118,226. Jason Illian, GodTube's vice president of content and programming, told the Independent that Wyatt didn't directly take inspiration from any of these similar sites; rather, GodTube's hybrid model simply evolved out of "figuring out for ourselves what is most edifying for the community."
To ensure that users are exposed to appropriately "edifying" messages, the designers of GodTube rely on extensive content control. Here, GodTube is similar to its predecessors: MuslimSpace, for example, has rules about language and sexual content, and forbids women from posting pictures of themselves without head scarves. At GodTube, however, restrictive measures are touted as one of the site's most important features. Anyone who applies to be a member must first submit to a background check, and Wyatt claims that "every single minute of every single video is reviewed before it's posted, as are the comments."
The 14 seminary students who serve as the site's moderators are responsible for upholding the prohibited content policy, which states that no material is allowed that "is contrary to the evangelization of Jesus Christ and His teachings, or constitutes blasphemy, or is otherwise offensive to our online Christian community." Thus, Wyatt can sell the site to a family and church audience as attractively "nonthreatening," as he did in an "Early Show" interview, carving out a reassuringly safe niche removed from anything viewers might find offensive on YouTube.
Illian said that approved videos should show viewers models for a righteous life. Accordingly, many videos directly offer viewers conservative Christian guidance for their personal behavior and beliefs, such as "Marriage: Learn to Fight Fair," or "The Path to Purity with Ashley Reynolds," in which a wholesome blonde Christian singer counsels teens that sex is God's "wedding gift to you." Wyatt told the Christian Science Monitor that the site hopes to win repeat viewers looking for easily digestible guidance about "heaven and hell, and drug abuse and divorce."
However, approved videos also show "what it's like to be a Christian on a daily basis"--after all, he added, Christians "buy shoes and go to concerts and go out to eat like everybody else does." In this vein, many videos embrace the popular culture that surrounds Christians and "everybody else," winning the attention of a young audience. Many of the most-watched videos are comic riffs on secular culture, such as a video parodying the Mac/PC ads with a stuffy Sunday-morning "Christian" contrasted with the hoodie-wearing, faithful "Jesus Follower." With nearly 800,000 hits, perhaps the most popular is "Baby Got Book," a Christian take on Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" ("that book you got makes me so holy"). Biblical passages sit alongside many videos to underscore their relation to Christian edict. If lyrics like "it's worn, it's torn, and you know that girl's reborn" don't exactly get viewers speaking in tongues, "Baby Got Book" is accompanied by Hebrews 4:12.
Wyatt has compared the site to a religious "Switzerland" where people of all ideological persuasions are welcome. However, the presence of some videos that have made it past censors--such as "Mormonism exposed" or "the papacy is not biblical"--seems to belie assertions about the site's openness.
Care for a ringtone with your apocalypse?
In addition to videos that denigrate other branches of Christianity, viewers can also watch videos whose use of fear and violence is similar to that of "A Letter from Hell," such as one in which the apocalypse comes during a preacher's sermon. While some users embrace their fire and brimstone fervor, others denounce them as contrary to biblical messages of love and tolerance. If such controversial videos are approved despite the site's avowedly restrictive measures against "offensive" or "threatening" content, what does the site's purifying mission really mean?
Illian said that he doesn't think a violence-based ideology should be the site's primary evangelistic tactic, but added that the image of "Christ getting crucified on a cross" was itself violent and that "we shouldn't shy away from that." Illian noted that for every violent video on the site, viewers "didn't see the ten or twenty ones we didn't let come through."
While users may obtain some control over each other's content by choosing what to view and flagging videos as inappropriate, GodTube meanwhile directs their attention to commercial messages over which they have less control. In addition to groups, like Christian Health and Fitness, in which users can unite over shared interests, users are also enticed to join sponsored groups such as Christian Psychiatry Live.
Unlike the media-sharing and tithe-collecting on MyChurch, which is limited to churches only and is relatively isolated from corporate advertising, any group approved by GodTube can solicit users. For example, banner ads persuade users to "submit a video and win a FREE four-year scholarship" to Liberty University, the Jerry Falwell's conservative Christian school. Illian sees this constant commercial exposure as in perfect alignment with the site's emphasis on purification of content, since the site's developers "filter what [they] bring to the community" by providing ads that are as "edifying and nurturing and meaningful" as the site's other features. In the GodTube ethos, commercialism and evangelism bond together to guide users towards a Christian lifestyle. Consumers become righteous by both worshipping and shopping.
Swing Low, Sweet Cyberspace
To further its goal of creating an online community as focused and intimate as a local church, GodTube's executives plan to overhaul the site to further encourage users to engage with each other. Soon, churches and bands will have profiles. In the next two or three months, Illian said, GodTube will move away from its YouTube-mimicking model towards a more Facebook feel, allowing churches to create profiles which allow them to share "cool tools" like sermons, blogs and even event notices.
As GodTube shifts its focus from winning young converts to expanding local faith connections, its decisions about what's desirable, what's offensive, and what's just plain profitable may get even trickier to shape towards a shared ideal of wholesomeness. Tailoring content to lure the roving attention of cyberspace masses who like a heavy dose of viral pop culture with their salvation--while also catering to tighter-knit, older and more traditional audiences from local communities--is hard enough. While seeking to "edify" and commercially sway both, GodTube's mission to satisfy a variety of groups increasingly becomes a tricky ideological balancing act of entertaining all while alienating none.
But as some churchgoers feel ever more polarized from mainstream culture, and potential converts and consumers increasingly center their identities in the Internet, the site's indubitable attractions position it to surmount its mixed bag of goals and audiences. Slickly transitioning the traditional comforts of sharing faith into a sometimes alienating culture that increasingly demands the quick, the splashy and the virtual, GodTube may be the most reassuring online home for those seeking to believe, to belong and to buy.
After all, "this," Wyatt says, "is Jesus 2.0."