This past July, the popular mobile Bible app, YouVersion, was featured in a New York Times article, cleverly titled “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App.” The article appeared shortly after YouVersion reached 100 million downloads from Apple’s iTunes Store, placing it among the likes of other monumentally successful apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Since the NYT article, several other media outlets, including the Washington Times, Fox News, and the Huffington Post, have covered the story. Such widespread coverage of YouVersion’s success demonstrates the public’s interest (and perhaps even surprise!) that the Bible remains a focal point for many Americans. For some, 100 million downloads is a testament to the church’s global mission to share the Word of God.
Amy O’Leary, writer for the NYT, compares the innovation behind the app to the invention of the printing press and claims that YouVersion is changing how, where and when the Bible is read.
And it’s true. YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips.
But can the greater accessibility and convenience fully account for YouVersion’s unprecedented success? Digital versions of the Bible, after all, have been around for years, and although YouVersion was the first Bible app to be available on iTunes, hundreds have followed.
Nir Eyal, a writer for The Atlantic, is one of the few journalists who approach YouVersion’s success from a different angle. He asserts:
“It turns out there is much more behind the app’s success than missionary zeal. The company is a case study in how technology can change behavior when it couples the principles of consumer psychology with the latest in analytics.”
Eyal’s analysis is spot on. Like other popular apps, YouVersion collects vast amounts of behavioral data from its users and, in turn, uses this information to build customer loyalty. IP addresses, GPS locations, habits and preferences enable YouVersion to provide a “tailored experience” to the sacred text.
Bobby Gruenewald, the founder of YouVersion, claims that this data has helped identify several factors that drive engagement such as personalization, gamification, and personal investment. YouVersion tracks progress, offers structured reading plans and rewards users as they meet their scriptural goals. Notifications or “nudges” also remind users to continue using the app.
Furthermore, Gruenewald and his team have found that changing the order of the Bible and placing more interesting or popular sections up front increases time spent with the text. And now that readers are not limited to one translation, he says, it has become easier to check other translations for clarity.
This way of reading the Bible raises questions regarding canonicity, authority, and interpretation. But these are not Gruenewald’s main concerns. He simply hopes that by leveraging technology and smart communication, YouVersion will spark a revolution in Bible engagement. “The goal is to reach and engage as many people as possible with scripture. That’s all.”
What does YouVersion hope to accomplish by sparking a revolution in Bible engagement? Gruenewald has expressed concern that today’s Americans are less biblically literate than past generations, and that few hold a biblical worldview. But he believes, with YouVersion’s help, this could all change. “And if it does layers of things in society will change: divorce rates, adultery, crime, deception in corporate America . . . parenting would change.”
Here we must ask: if biblical literacy and a biblical worldview are needed to challenge today’s important social and moral issues, why is YouVersion collecting vast amounts of behavioral data to present users with what they wish to read? With hundreds of versions at your fingertips, there is no need to be challenged by a different worldview, biblical or otherwise. Simply tap until you find YourVersion.
Technological innovations have been used to share religious beliefs, ideas and stories for centuries. But with YouVersion, these religious symbols take on a life of their own, a new sort of agency, as they “nudge” us to remind us of their presence. As technology is paired with consumer psychology, the way in which we engage religious content is being transformed with the same methods advertisers use to compel us to buy and consume their products. Only in this case, these logarithms and equations are being stamped with divine authority, and what is being consumed is the Word of God.
|Author, Sara-Jo Swiatek, is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In addition to ethics and biblical hermeneutics, she is interested in religious and ethical responses to digital technology.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.