YouTube has produced its share of celebrities: Lonelygirl15, the lip-syncing Chinese teenagers known as the Back Dormitory Boys, and Tyson, the skateboarding bulldog, to name a few.
But no single video by any of these user-generated superstars has ever attracted as many viewings as a clip of a little girl wearing a "Princess" T-shirt, reciting the Bible's Psalm 23. That video has been viewed more than 3.7 million times — not on Google's YouTube but on Godtube.com, the site's upstart competitor.
Godtube, a user-generated content site that focuses on Christian-friendly videos and filters out profane or sexual references, became the single fastest-growing site on the Web just after launching in August, according to comScore Media Metrix. Chris Wyatt, the company's founder and chief executive, says the site attracts over 3 million unique visitors a month.
The idea for Godtube was sparked two years ago, when Wyatt read a Pew Internet survey saying that only 35% of Christians would regularly attend church in 2025, compared with 70% today. Wyatt, a former television producer who had only recently begun to practice Christianity seriously, spotted an opportunity.
"If that kind of statistic had come up in any commercial industry, it would have set off bells and whistles and fireworks," he said. "A young generation of Christians is adopting technology quickly, and they want streaming video."
Today, popular videos on Godtube include Christian parodies of Apple's "Mac vs. PC" commercials and "Baby Got Book," a Bible-focused remix of "Baby Got Back," Sir Mix-a-Lot's 1992 ode to oversized derrières. Another popular video depicts a Web user destroying his computer after he accidentally views pornographic sites.
"We apply Web technology to the gospel in a way that appeals to young people," Wyatt says. "We call it Jesus 2.0."
Other sites have also spotted the surging potential for attracting traffic from churchgoers. Mypraize.com bills itself as a Christian-focused social network. MyChurch.org mimics Facebook's model of school-based groups, but instead clusters users around the 10,000 churches that have already registered on the site. Conservapedia.com offers right-wing Christians an alternative to Wikipedia, which it sees as overly liberal and secular. And Jesus isn't the only deity going online; Muxlim.com is trying to tap into a parallel market with a site that offers file-sharing, streaming video, search and social networking, all for a Muslim audience.
Muxlim's founder, Mohamed El-Fatatry is the Muslim equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg, a fast-talking 22-year-old based in Finland with visions of tapping a largely untouched Muslim user base around the world. "If I wasn't a Mohamed, I would still want to target this market," he says. "There are 150 million Web-using Muslims that have yet to be unpacked. And the fact that I am a Muslim means I know what they need, that I have an edge."
But El-Fatatry is careful to distinguish his "Muslim" site from what he calls "Islamic" sites. Muxlim helps Muslims avoid offensive content, he says. It doesn't offer purely Muslim media targeted at religious fundamentalists. In fact, El-Fatatry says, the site is constantly policed to remove any hate speech or threats of religious violence. Other social networking sites, like Google's Orkut, have been criticized for hosting networks friendly with al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
That targeting of moderate Muslims has helped Muxlim's network of sites attract more than a million unique visitors a month, El-Fatatry says. Muxlim's streaming video sister site, Muslim.tv, and its social network, Muslimspace.com, are growing quickly, but the majority of the portal's visitors are drawn by its file-sharing service, which El-Fatatry says is largely used for sharing videos like documentaries, faith-centric lectures and ceremonies.
While Muxlim and other sites may be riding a new surge in online religion, targeting users based on their faith isn't new. Online dating site Jdate.com, for example, has been linking Jewish singles for about a decade. Jdate's 72,000 subscribers each pay around $40 a month, and that healthy revenue stream has inspired the site's creators, Spark Networks, to launch other religious singles venues for groups like Catholics, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists.
Spark Networks spokeswoman Gail Laguna argues that religion has a real power to pull together a niche market online. "When people share a faith, it means much more than when they share a love of golden retrievers or something," she says.
Stephen O'Leary, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, traces the interplay of religion back even further. In 1992, he observed a group of pagans who met and even performed rituals in Internet chat rooms. But he says that until recently, religious Web sites have been primitive attempts, mostly churches posting transcriptions of sermons or other Web 1.0 offerings. Even God.com — undoubtedly a hot piece of Web property — hosts only text and links to .pdf files.
Today's highly interactive Web offers a chance to go much further, O'Leary says, taking religion out of the hands of physical churches and making it a more democratic affair. "Gutenberg's press allowed the Bible to be distributed to everyone. It broke the Catholic Church's monopoly," he says. "Down the road, the Internet has just as much of a potential to change the way people worship."