Reflection: Come for the Atheists, Stay for the Mormons

For the past month I’ve been overdosing on YouTube clips of a show called “The Atheist Experience.” I just discovered the show, although it has been around for a few years now, operating out of Austin, Texas. It’s an hour-long program that airs on public access television that is hosted by well-read atheists who debate callers from all over the world on issues of religion, morality, history, and, of course, god–capital G optional. The primary host, Matt Dillahunty, is as fine a debater as you will ever see: a former fundamentalist Christian who read the Bible cover to cover, over and over again, in hopes of completing seminary, Matt is the common man’s Christopher Hitchens–brusque, slightly irreverent, and crazy smart.¬†Christianity takes the brunt of the beating, but really, no religion is safe–all supernatural beliefs are all denounced as equally dangerous and logically fallacious.

Anyway, I was struck recently by the fact that the Promoted Video displayed at the top of the roll next to many “Atheist Experience” YouTube clips is for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. YouTube is advertising a series of Mormon(.org) videos right next to “Atheist Experience” videos. As Matt talks about tea kettles in space or invisible dragons in garages, a link with a distinctive yellow background to make it more noticeable–YouTube’s doing–pops up to tell me to consider Mormonism. This is odd.

While YouTube seems a pretty liberal place in general, as do most social media spaces, it’s revealing that all of the top-rated comments for this video in particular, which I have seen advertised in the adjacent video roll the most, mock Mormonism. It was probably a bad idea to connect, or to even allow the connection between, people who search for videos about atheism and ads promoting religion. Clearly it’s not the same thing as “someone searching for off-roading videos see[ing] your tire store ad” or “someone watching a video about how to make cupcakes see[ing] an ad about your cooking school.”

YouTube sells its Promoted Video feature to potential organizations as a way to “reach more customers” and “boost your video’s view count” while only having to pay when the video is actually viewed. Based on the like/dislike ratio on the videos, I’m not sure many new followers are coming to the Mormon Church through YouTube. Any “boost” in view count seems irrelevant, as the votes down and negative comments indicate “more views” doesn’t mean “more popular.”

Powerful as it is, YouTube isn’t helping the Mormon movement advocate its message and agenda when it sends skeptics and non-believers to Mormon videos. Can’t blame the Mormons for taking to YouTube, though–“The Atheist Experience” broadcasts live to followers on uStream and has gained in popularity because of its YouTube clips, no Promoted Videos (that I’ve ever seen) needed. This suggests, again, that social media is naturally progressive, which means it might take more effort for conservative groups than liberal groups to reach an audience through it.

Mormons had the right idea, but YouTube (or its algorithm) isn’t executing it well.

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