Scholar Spotlight: Tim Hutchings

Tim Hutchings, author of Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community, and New Media, has been on the cutting edge of studying Christian Community online for a decade. Recently he has turned his attention to the study of Digital Bibles, and how such digital projects conducted a study analyzing two “digital Bibles” and how they train users to understand the text in particular ways. To conduct this study, he took ‘YouVersion’ and ‘Glo Bible’ Christian Bible apps to investigate design intentions. He does this by looking at concepts of “persuasive technology” and “procedural rhetoric.” Looking at these two case studies, Hutchings investigates the apps themselves, interviews with product designers, and official marketing material.

Both the ‘YouVersion’ and ‘GloBible’ engage readers with the text but approach it in different ways. ‘YouVersion’ emphasizes frequent reading of the Bible by providing a range of written translations and audio recordings.’Glo Bible’ on the other hand seeks to help readers understand the Bible by providing multimedia interpretive resources as an alternative to text. Hutchings describes these motivations for using digital Bible apps as follows: accessibility, comprehensibility, attraction to new audiences, increased frequency in reading, and easier to study. YouVersion focuses on accessibility and increasing reading frequency, while GloBible focuses on attracting new audiences and increasing comprehensibility. Both products engage in the fifth motivation, providing digital tools for textual analysis.

Hutchings shares that the Bibles could function as a “persuasive technology” based on design principles to encourage engagement and commitment to the text. In addition, both apply Bogost’s seven principles for procedural rhetoric: (1) reduction to simple tasks, (2) tunneling users to predetermined actions, (3) tailoring information to the user’s needs, (4) suggesting behaviors at certain moments, (5) self-monitoring progress, (6) surveillance of said progress, and (7) conditioning the user through rewards and reprimands.

“All seven of these principles can be seen at work in the case studies examined here. Both Bibles offer digital reading plans, for example, encouraging the user to engage with the text by guiding him/her through a particular series of short excerpts. A printed reading plan already demonstrates the principles of reduction and tunnelling and encourages self monitoring, but when that reading plan is digitised, the remaining four tools can also be introduced. The plan can be tailored more easily to the individual’s needs (Glo Bible offers a topical index), suggestions can be offered when appropriate (both companies send automated messages to users), progress can be monitored (both products store reading data), and rewards can be offered to reinforce the positive experience of completing tasks (like YouVersion’s badges).”

The ethics of using persuasive technology criticised by Bogost as manipulative technology. Instead, Bogost promotes procedural rhetoric instead, proposing computational processes to support users in challenging or understanding a particular way the world works. As persuasive technologies, Hutchings argues, digital Bibles can also be used as examples of procedural rhetoric. The Bible engages the user to actively take and share notes while understanding a particular worldview of the text.

Hutchings shares both products seek to engage readers by encouraging reading frequency and sharing. Both digital bibles innovate new ways to engage users that are beyond the text on the page. As Hutchings said, “These products The attempts to change user reading habits, intensify their relationship with the text, and encourage others to read as well.” The goal of promoting practices, attitudes, and understanding of the Bible is met, and Bible apps will increasingly become standard in the Christian landscape. According to Hutchings, this research has the potential to question the authority of how to read the Bible--if programmers design a mobile app, are they now authorities in Evangelical Christianity? Hutchings concludes that since the Bible software emphasizes the Bible itself, and encourages the user to overlook the designer, this is not the case.
Hutchings, T. (n.d.). Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203111093