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Awestruck.tv: Not Just Another “Catholic Facebook”

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Eugene Gan - published on 01/21/15

South African film producers create Catholic social network

I must admit: when I learned that the two producers who were coming to meet me in my office are both from South Africa, my mind was stuck on films like District 9, Elysium, and the upcoming Chappie, all three of which were directed and produced by South African-born Neill Blomkamp.

But the conversation with my visitors quickly expanded my parochial thinking. My visitors – Norman Servais, film producer, writer, and director, and Cris Riego de Dios, attorney by trade and training, not only produced films that have been shown on EWTN, but they are both enthusiastic about their Catholic faith and have created Awestruck.tv, a Catholic online social networking site that is unique in more ways than one. Calling it a “Catholic Facebook” would really do it injustice, I soon learned, but I couldn’t help wonder: Do we really need another Facebook (or Google+ or LinkedIn etc.)? Why would we need a “Catholic Facebook”?"

Tell us about Awestruck.tv. What is it all about?

In essence we’re a Catholic social network targeting a niche community. So, we need to do things differently. By mimicking existing offerings on the internet we cannot add real value.

Giant social networks like Facebook, because of their necessarily inclusive approach, are, of course, not there to promote the Church; and they often contravene their own terms and conditions by tolerating and sometimes promoting content radically opposed to faith and good morals. Vimeo and Tumblr (for example) are infested with porn and repeated attempts to close a number of hate groups on Facebook have not been successful. This situation calls for a niche social network dedicated to celebrating the faith and promoting the Church — a trusted space where Catholics can feel “at home," discover trusted Catholic content and have the tools to easily share content to networks outside of Awestruck. We’re outward looking instead of inward looking.

Awestruck is headed by the Archbishop of Cape Town and president of the Southern African Bishops conference, Archbishop Stephen Brislin. We are run by a team of volunteer lay people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

That’s Awestruck in a nutshell!

I just tried it and it’s a simple log in process. If you choose to, you can use your existing Facebook account and literally make it a one-click sign in…couldn’t be easier. What can those who log in expect to experience on Awestruck.tv?

After logging into the homepage of Awestruck.tv, the new user may be surprised to arrive at a blank page. This is intentional because we want users to be able to customize the network entirely to their liking. It’s a similar approach to Facebook. You see the content you choose to see, so we encourage members to personally build a network of friends. The more effort that members put into this the more valuable the network becomes. It’s essential for our users to be able to easily discover activity going on across the network as and when they wish by viewing the public “Activity” stream. This feed has all sorts of content that may interest the user. It’s up to each user to choose to “Friend" or “Follow" feeds of other users. In this way one builds a personalized “Your Stream”.

What inspired you to create and set up Awestruck.tv?

The Catholic world, though huge, is a relatively disconnected world. There are many people doing many things, but it’s not necessarily easy for the average Catholic to discover these new initiatives going on in the Church. We want Awestruck to be a place where Catholics can get a message out to the Catholic community easily and effectively. It’s a tall order and an exciting challenge. For now we are focusing on the English speaking world, but that will change. The challenge for us was to build a network that allowed for a customized method of networking that would best serve the Church. We’ve created an intuitive social interface, similar to Facebook but which helps Catholics stay in touch with events in the Church, deepen their faith, facilitate easy sharing of media and build connections with others around the globe. The network is still a mustard seed of what we hope it will become, but we hope and pray that the concept catches fire.


How did you come up with the name “Awestruck.tv”?

Awestruck conveys a sense of our expression of appreciation for our awesome faith. We are Awestruck by many things — the splendor of the Church, God’s mercy, his amazing creation, and life in general! We need to get back a sense of amazement and awe at the fact that we actually exist in the first place. And then, on top of it, as we read in Psalm 8, we need to regain the sense that we have been created "little less than a god," "crowned with glory and honor," and that He has “given them rule over the works of your hands, put all things at their feet."

What kind of response have you been getting?

The response has been encouraging, considering that there are now literally thousands of social networks out there on the internet. But we still have a long way to go to convey the uniqueness of our offering which we feel will help us to attract many, many more members.

What is the mission of Awestruck.tv?

In short, our mission is to provide a safe and valuable social environment for Catholics to network, share and grow together in the faith. The mainstream media is, after all, not in the business of promoting the Church nor the message of the Gospel. The Catholic blogosphere is a beautiful place, but few have discovered it and make use of it. It disturbs us that many Catholics who decide to start a blog do not get the support and traffic they seek. All too often, they quickly lose heart and after a short time abandon the effort. What if there was a network that had, as one of its aims, a mission to promote their content so as to help them reach a greater audience?

We’re able to create Catholic interest groups on Facebook, so how is Awestruck.tv different from Facebook and other online social networks? What makes it unique?

Besides open and closed groups on Awestruck, we are also able to offer custom sites to trusted Catholic organizations. These sites share the social functionality of the Awestruck network, as well as the entire member user base, and every aspect of the design can be customized to the requirements of the member network. So, for example, the EWTN network on Awestruck is there to promote EWTN and comes packed with the EWTN brand.  Each of the member sites can promote content continuously served by the RSS feed of any external site. In so doing, Awestruck wants to promote and serve up good feeds across the entire network in an effort to encourage our members to visit trusted websites outside of our own.

With the distinctly Catholic identity of Awestruck.tv, and with the objective to share the true, good, and beautiful, would you say that even parents can feel safe having their kids participate on Awestruck.tv? Would you allow your own kids there?

We place great emphasis on making Awestruck a safe and friendly environment, so, as a guide we suggest that anyone from the age of 12 would be welcome on the network. I would happily allow my own kids to use the site. Obviously not all material is suitable for everyone. For example sex and abortion are sensitive topics and these discussions would mostly happen in closed groups. We also discourage people from posting graphic images of abortion. But you choose what you want to see and have full control of this content on your personalized stream.

Norm and Cris, you both reside in South Africa. Tell us something about yourselves and the Catholic faith there and how it has influenced your apostolate with Awestruck.tv.

We’re a big country but only 6 to 7% of South Africans identify themselves as Catholic. A small minority of these go to Church. So, we feel pretty isolated in terms of our faith being represented at a cultural level, despite the fact that we are probably the most progressive democracy in Africa. This could very well have contributed towards our inspiration to start the network. The disconnectedness of Catholics invites a response and the internet is a great tool to allow us to attempt the daunting but rewarding task of consolidating the efforts and initiatives of Catholics.


What’s your larger goal and vision for Awestruck.tv?

We would obviously like to grow the network, but we are under no illusion as to the challenges involved in doing so. It will take time to grow. The important message we would like to convey is that we see ourselves as a service to the Catholic community and all Catholic individuals in union with the Church. We want to provide a valuable service to foster that communion spoken of by Pope Benedict in his 47th World Communications day message “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.” Here’s an extract that we hold dear:

"These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion. If the networks are called to realize this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves."

What are the next steps for you? How can others support your work and live the mission?

At this point our priorities involve improving our infrastructure and getting key partners on board so as to offer them a valuable space to promote their movement, community or initiative to our existing members. It’s a win/win approach.

In terms of support, we invite any Catholic who identifies with our goal to log in and in turn encourage others to do so. Financial contributions to grow the infrastructure are indeed welcome but what everyone can do to support the initiative is to give some of their time by adding their own personal experience to the effort. The rich cultural and religious exchange that we see happening on Awestruck is something that needs to be experienced by many more. And the more voices we get in the choir the more beautiful the music. As yet we are only scratching the surface. The adventure has just begun but we know that Rome was not built in a day!


Dr Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.


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CatholicismFaithSocial Media
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