Mormon media studies and the Bloggernacle

I’ve been invited to participate in a panel at the upcoming “Mormon Media Studies” conference at BYU. The panel will discuss the Bloggernacle, and so I’ll be badmouthing all of you soon (but most especially, Chris H.).  As for my small part, I’m going to talk about some of the benefits and drawbacks of blogging about religion. Here are some preliminary thoughts, feedback is requested.

With apostolic urging following the initial surge, Mormon blogs have been multiplying and replenishing the web for about a decade now, and with the help of some monopolizing aggregatora and group blogs, a relatively tight-knit community has been established where many people recognize others by screen name. The new venues provide a place for more marginal voices on the “conservative” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum (such labels are an oversimplification). The gut interpretation of all this is that the Internet is bringing more Mormons together and creating a tight community spanning several continents. But, there’s always a but. 

This interpretation follows the “Global Village” theory Marshall McLuhan laid out in the sixties. With improving technology in the spheres of travel and communication the globe would shrink into one nice big neighborhood where we all can see Russia from our houses. This same dream was imagined decades earlier, even in Mormon circles.  Orson Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England in 1850 that the increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the two continents into one.” Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to warn the world of coming judgment and gather the elect to Zion. “The extensive circulation of the printed word,” Pratt declared, “has also given an impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation.” The gospel would sweep the earth, turning the latter-day global village into the Kingdom of God on earth (See “An Epistle of President Orson Pratt, To The Saints Throughout Great Britain,” 23 July 1850, The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star vol. XII [15 August 1850], p. 246). Pratt was writing on the tail-end of the invention of the printing press, looking to the future of telegraph and railroads. But even Pratt couldn’t anticipate a latter-day Moses wirelessly Tweeting from a new age Sinai, of course.

Media analysts continue to expect such development to break down walls between nations and cultures, they hope for the ability to create a great neighborhood from the great global village. But not all are satisfied that a global village utopia is just around the river bend. Feisal G. Mohamed, assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University, has noted how digital media aids the rise of “homegrown terrorists” like Colleen LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane” (see CNN, “Jihad Jane, American who lived on Main Street,” 10 March 2010). McLuhan believed the new global village, facilitated by miraculous intercontinental transport and communication by new media, would “put an end to parochialism,” but “quite the opposite has occurred,” Mohamed observes:

Rather than [McLuhan’s] global village, we have become a globe of villages; we live in a cacophony of hidebound parochialisms where individuals seek association only with those to whom they relate by way of primordial intuition…The liberal state, with its dependence on rational association, is dissolving into a collection of masses united by the parochialisms of “religion” and “culture” (Mohamed, “The Globe of Villages: Digital Media and the Rise of Homegrown Terrorism,” Dissent [Winter, 2007], 61-64).

The  phenomenon can be observed among Americans who, divided along political party lines, can seek out news sources that cater directly to their own prejudices. The same sort of phenomenon seems to happen in the Bloggernacle (not homegrown terrorism, but cliqueish in-gathering). Yeah?

Global Mormonism can also be viewed as a “globe of Mormonisms” with new boundaries popping up—not only from geopolitical entities and cultures—but from different  perspectives on what it means to be Mormon. We see new designations like “TBM” and “NOM” crop up online, somewhat pejorative shades of Richard Poll’s “Iron Rod/Liahona” typology. New media provides a place for people to come together—sometimes to aid our sense of isolation by finding a community more suited to our natural proclivities, sometimes to find a community that feels more like home than those in closer geographical proximity. The global village is the globe of villages for better and worse.

I’m looking for a good discussion about blogs and Mormonism, debates and agreements, sloppy humor and well-crafted photoshop images of funny paintings. Historical anaysis and navel-gazing rants. What are your thoughts on the online globe of Mormonisms?

48 Replies to “Mormon media studies and the Bloggernacle”

  1. Hodgy, some great thoughts. Anything to get “aggregatora” into the vernacular. I’ve posted my own projections on this elsewhere, but I tend to believe that the future is different than any of us are able to predict. I doubt that it will be a truly global village, but at the same time I would expect a degree of internationalism and globalism to infiltrate our online communities.

  2. It seems to me, and I think a liberal like Chris is illustrative of this, that you don’t see these independent villages. Rather people frequent blogs with different views. (With a few exceptions, I confess I rarely visit no death before the fall blogs nor more feminist blogs)

    I think the more interesting distinction are more “populist” blogs verses those catering to more academic oriented stuff.

  3. Thanks for chiming in Clark. I agree that there is obvious cross-fertilization, but we also have to consider the lurker readers, as well as the attitude any given reader takes toward any given blog, even if they visit it somewhat often. Your “populist” versus “academic” distinction fits right into the idea that we frequent most what interests us. Of course we would, right? What are some strengths and weaknesses of that tendency?

  4. Blogs have provided Mormons a platform to do something that was previously hard for us to do: Argue vigorously with each other about religion. Not only religion, but politics and pop culture and other things. People need and want and like to argue with each other at times and vigorous arguing just isn’t allowed at church. I think having a place to passionately argue with each (with referees monitoring/administrating the debates) is good thing. The Bloggernacle provides that and thus it continues to thrive.

  5. “People need and want and like to argue with each other at times and vigorous arguing just isn’t allowed at church. I think having a place to passionately argue with each (with referees monitoring/administrating the debates) is good thing.”

    This describes why I blog quite well.

  6. I think that blogs allow Mormons to be Mormons all week long. There was a time when due to economic and societal pressures, Mormons had to rely on each other to make it. This often required lots of time during the week (and still does for many RS presidents, and scout masters). But for the average 20-40 year old in the church, there is the three hour block and then life is all about work and family. At the same time, the three hour block has been maximally “correlated.”

    Sure, there are many fora for engaging opposing view points, and learning new things, but I think most people do it, because they want to be connected. Connected to their faith and their fellows. This connection also has many ends – dialogue, affirmation, exploration, etc.

    The internet is also correlation-bane. As much as it is true that Christ is all that really matters; being Mormon is much, much more than anything you will find in Preach My Gospel. These online communities allow people to tap into the deeper movement.

  7. I think it would be interesting, along the lines of some of these comments, to consider the dynamic between Sunday congregations and online congregations. We’ve become accustomed as a church for our worship and study to be communal, with a steady familiarity of seeing the same members every week. I think denominations where there is more “church shopping” don’t experience the same regularity.

    But since we don’t get to choose our congregation on Sundays, we tend to do it during the week by frequenting Mormon blogs that allow us, like Chris pointed out, to argue and discuss in ways and about topics otherwise untouched in Sunday School. So I think the Bloggernacle has thrived in part b/c we like having a congregation to bat ideas around with but we want a little bit more choice in it.

  8. “… I think most people do it, because they want to be connected.”

    Of course, Stapley is right. I do this for the association with people with similar interests. I cannot get this (from an LDS angle) at work or church.

    In reading Lowell Bennion’s bio, it seems as though the early institute sought to create a similar environment.

    It is more like a group of friends coming together. I hope to hear what Aaron B has to say. I wonder whether TT will chime in.

    I also bring all of my social insecurities with me.

  9. Don’t forget to badmouth me and all the scorn that I heap on this “everybody’s seeking their own news” nonsense that liberals started peddling when the internet robbed them of control of popular media.

  10. Blair,
    Another great post! Keep ’em coming! I think that you raise an interesting point about the increased tendency for readers to self-select media/blog sources. Just two quick thoughts.
    1. It seems to me that the idea behind the global village is actual one of greater uniformity, conformity, and homogeneity, rather than simply a celebration of diversity per se. It celebrates a particular form of diversity, one which is politically inflected to favor certain kinds of ideologies and cultures which can assimilate to the new global norm. This kind of universalism in the name of diversity has, I think, become increasingly unsustainable philosophically and in practice.
    2. The claim that the actual result of the new media outlets is actually an increased balkanization and exacerbation of difference strikes me as not necessarily a negative when it comes to certain communities. Arguable, the homogeneity and conformity of Mormonism has been one of its weakest aspects, and the extent to which the internet has fostered and sustained diverse types of Mormonism seems to be one of its strengths rather than its weakenesses. If the new PR campaign points to this same problem of conformity by highlighting diverse kinds of Mormons, we can thank the internet for giving diverse Mormons that community.
    3. I think that one of the potential problems with the idea that people self-select their media and only follow their pre-disposed views is that it lacks any theory of agency. How did those views come to be shaped in the first place? Under what conditions does one change one’s mind? I have no objection to the critique of ideologically loaded media, but I think that we need to be cautious of saying that the big problem with it is that people lose their ability to make decisions.

    On a final note, i just want to say that I’ve been super busy these days but I hope to get back into things more consistently in the next few weeks!

  11. I agree that as we become a community, parochialism could become a problem. The internet must remain a tool for uniting people, not dividing them, and if we allow our pre-conceived notions of “who is who” to limit the dialogue it could be a huge wasted opportunity intellectually for us as a people. But so far I think we are doing a pretty good job of being inclusive, we just need to be aware that it is a potential problem and be on guard!

  12. From time to time people post on how blogging has impacted them (often after they have been blogging for about a year). It would be interesting to collect and compare such posts, but my impression without doing the hard work is that these posts almost always talk about the bloggernacle expanding their horizons, introducing them to a much wider spectrum of opinion, giving them an appreciation for points of view that they would never have imagined other Mormons taking, informing them on many points of history / philosophy / doctrine, and generally making them more tolerant of opposing views. I think the notion that people self-select what sites to frequent and therefore huddle together with the like-minded is way off base.

    Curiously, my observation is that this effect of broadening horizons is dramatic in the first couple of years after which people hit a steady state and even take on some new and different entrenchments. The veterans of the bloggernacle are intolerant in an entirely different way (and of different things) than the newbs.

  13. we live in a cacophony of hidebound parochialisms where individuals seek association only with those to whom they relate by way of primordial intuition

    That really captures the beginning of the in groups and out groups in the bloggernacle.

  14. I can see evidence of both a global village and a village of globes. I like to visit sites of different perspectives and viewpoints (because at some level, good writing and good personality/attitude is more important than whether I agree with the blogger or not), but I don’t deny that a part of blogging is talking with like-minded people, precisely because offline, such a community would be too far-flung/disorganized/etc.,

    and of course, to the extent that I am not welcome at other blogs, I (eventually) get the hint.

  15. I have been a ‘nacle participant for over a year and have never written one of those ‘what the ‘nacle means to me’ posts and yet there have been some ways in which blogs have influenced me.

    They have made me more optimistic and hopeful that I can find the type of thoughtful and exciting communities that are found online in my home ward. Moreover it has given me a sense of how those communities could be forged.

    Andrew S. makes a good point when he refers to the desire to seek out good writing, personality and, I would add, ideas. Primarily those three things have driven my participation both in terms of intensity and in terms of where I participate.

  16. Thinking about my blogging habits. I likely frequent and comment of a wider range of blogs than most. But there are a variety of factors.

    One is ease. I am less likely to visit and comment of Blogger/Blogspot blogs because I do not like the formatting. I also am more likely to visit blogs that have the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.” I follow much of the thing by email on my phone, this feature helps. I would likely comment more of T&S and FMH more if they had this feature (of course, I now expect this feature to disappear from BCC).

    Second: I am more likely to visit blogs of my friends. This is why I go to Keepa. It is also why I go to BCC, not because I am friends with all the permas, but because I enjoy the company of others who comment there. That said, I avoid Mormon Mentality and M* because I dislike certain people. Same principle, I guess.

    I will leave it there for now. Best get the kid to preschool.

  17. To continue:

    Third, I pick my blogs like I do my news. I am an NPR/Washington Post person. I do not read Yahoo news or the Huffington Post. It is partially ideological, but it is also style. I do not watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox because all cable news is stupid. Likewise, I am not interested in liberal Mormon blogs (in the political or religious sense) if I view it as overly-simplistic. In other words, my blogging is driven by my snobbishness as much as by my liberalism.

  18. Chris

    I agree with your comments as per 20. I might post once on any given T&S or FMH thread, but I’ll probably never comment again, because there isn’t comment notification by email.

  19. I have the same sentiment as TT, but I’m going to ask the admins at MSP and MM (where we have successfully introduced comment subscription)…will email/post with what I find.

  20. I confess I rarely frequent blogs. Rather I go check the Mormon Archipelago site and glance at what posts look interesting. I think part of it is that I’ve been blogging so long that most of the posts I’ve just seen before in the past. At a certain point it loses its interest.

    I wonder if this is as much a big divide as any other.

  21. I can comment on my little corner of the Bloggernacle (which I’m not sure is even really a part of the Bloggernacle proper).

    Linescratchers was started in the style of Bloggernacle blogs, but the intended audience is a bit different. Obviously there is some major overlap between liberal members of the Church and musicians. The idea is that 1) Church members can go to Linescratchers to find out about LDS musicians that they might not have heard of, hear new music, read interviews with cool LDS musicians, etc. 2) The LDS musicians of the world can view Linescratchers as a kind of support group, since there are some particular challenges they face (temptations while touring, deciding what they want to do when they grow up, advice on recording and record labels, etc.).

    I don’t feel like we’ve reached our full potential however. This is probably because in the case of the Bloggernacle, it has developed over a long period of time and people know where to go depending on what views they have, and the Mormon Archipelago offers a broad overview of available material. But our niche is so esoteric that our target audience is still largely unaware that we exist. Google searches for “LDS musicians” still overwhelmingly turn up commercial crap, EFY music, and other useless material that wouldn’t help the average LDS musician at all unless they wanted to get their foot in the door of the Deseret Book market (for some awful reason). So I think the global village of LDS musicians hasn’t quite shrunk enough for us to make our purpose known to all of them yet. Though we have made some excellent inroads in some cool places (Alan Sparhawk, Gregg Hale, Scot Alexander, Ian Fowles).

    If we keep at it I think we could reach the same level as, say A Motley Vision, which gets a respectable amount of traffic and is well-known and well-liked amongst the literary types. They seem to run the same kind of model as us, but they’ve got the Whitney Awards and they’ve been doing it for longer.

    Not sure if you were looking for all that information but there it is!

  22. Yeah… in my ideal world, all Mormon musicians would be able to band together, help each other, etc. at Linescratchers in the same way that feminist Mormons can go to FMH, or literary Mormons can go to A Motley Vision.

  23. I don’t necessarily think that a globe of villages is necessarily bad, per se. The Internet has created an area where LDS scholars and thinkers across the world can share thoughts, concepts, and innuendo. It allows places for even the small voice to have a voice that would otherwise be drowned out. I can just imagine being a Democrat in Utah, surviving only because one can find other LDS Democrats on the Bloggernacle, etc.

    I know that years of Interneting has increased my knowledge of the gospel, and has caused me to review and reconsider political, religious, and social concepts not just once, but sometimes many times a year.

    My blog, which now focuses on the Old Testament lessons, has had thousands of views. I’m giving regular members a taste of the Documentary Hypothesis, the Divine Council, etc. These are not things they would normally find in a Sunday School class or in their regular lives. But the Internet provides resources for those who look.

    Perhaps the global village will be an eventual outcome of it, but it is still too new and chaotic for it to have yet united the various villages together.

  24. Interesting points, Ram. Now put on some horns and a tail for a second and think of your blog as a Tree of Knowledge. (Hypothetically speaking, not that you’re setting yourself up as a light for others to follow into a pit). Members come and taste the fruits of your tree which are delicious to their taste, then they compare it to the drab manna they get back in Sunday School. Your blog could be the fleshpots of Egypt depending on the individual receiver of the message, right? I really enjoy the type of thing you describe, I like seeking out that sort of info, but in a way it can cast a shadow on my SS experience. What’s your take on that?

  25. Good question. I believe we cannot be saved in ignorance. D&C 88 not only encourages us, but commands us to seek out knowledge “by study and by faith.” We’re to teach diligently the things we learn.

    If we cannot research, ponder, and discuss ideas, noting that there is a difference between core doctrine and such ideas, then we should basically declare ourselves “flat earthers” and settle into a life of ignorant bliss, and be ready to accept something less than exaltation.

    If it were not for Joseph Smith thinking outside the box, there would have been no Restoration. Without Spencer W. Kimball trying one last time to receive a revelation concerning the priesthood, the ban would never have been lifted. And if we do not seek out our own inspiration and personal revelation and knowledge, we will be no better than any other ignorant group of people upon the face of the earth.

    If we cannot begin to discuss ideas and differences, we will never achieve the goal of the global village, or Zion, if you will. Discussions on the Bloggernacle have allowed me to see people agreeably disagree on issues such as evolution, gay marriage, priesthood ban, etc. I do not see Zion as a people who agree on everything, but a people who are united in an overall holy endeavor. LDS writers can agree on key doctrines, while still discussing controversial issues or ideas to see if we can find workable compromises, or at least understand one another’s positions. And in doing so, I can call the liberals, moderates and conservatives, my brothers and sisters.

    But if we keep the members in ignorance (understanding that they need milk before meat), then there will be nothing worth saving.

  26. 35.Good question. I believe we cannot be saved in ignorance. D&C 88 not only encourages us, but commands us to seek out knowledge “by study and by faith.” We’re to teach diligently the things we learn.

    I keep these exact sentiments in my breast pocket like talismans, but they don’t seem to ward off the tension between my private and communal worship. I’m referring here to the Sunday School reluctance to speak outside of the manual. The things on your blog likely often do just that, so there seems a disconnect between how I follow that commandment privately (or bloggerly) versus publicly (or communally). Maybe I’ll post something on this, using Paul’s advice on tongues as a launching pad.

  27. I agree with that assessment. I teach Gospel Doctrine, and most of the stuff on my blog does not make it into the class. That said, I also understand that there are different platforms for different discussions. Sunday School is not the place to discuss the Documentary Hypothesis. There’s too much disparity between members in the class: those who are new converts, those who just graduated from YM/YW, those who have never cracked open their scriptures in 50 years of being active members, etc. It is definitely a place for milk, yet it must be nourishing milk. Too often in GD class, we get spiritual Twinkies that Elder Holland warned about in his talk “A Teacher come from God.” In this, we need to ensure we are teaching quality doctrine that inspires and motivates them, so that one day they will be ready for the Bloggernacle, as well.

    That there are various forums for different levels of discussion is not a problem. It is a benefit for the whole: it allows the milk drinkers a place to meet, while those ready for discussing raw meat can also have a place at the table (even if it isn’t on Sunday).

  28. along similar lines, i was thinking that the bloggernacle, though providing some of us with a sense of community that we are not likely to find in a local setting, may actually pose a threat to the church proper. such as in the case of the kid who more or less stops paying attention or participating in sunday meetings because they are so ‘drab,’ prefering instead virtual company and gospel discussion on the internet.

    i don’t know how to incorporate bloggernacle topics into the three hour block, or whether that would necessarily (always) be a good idea. perhaps the reason we don’t try is because we assume that our ward members don’t think the way we do or share our interests and concerns. but maybe they do or would if we tried.

    then again, maybe not.

  29. I think the village of globes rather than a global village is right on the mark. Most long term group blogs are made up of very like-minded people. There have been a few blogs started which gathered a very diverse group which fizzled out quickly. I think the blogs allow us to more-or-less find whatever it is we are seeking quickly.

  30. Good call, Chris. I like sliced bananas on a peanut butter sandwich (chunky peanut butter). It can be changed up by toasting the bread first.

    Also, I disagree with the claim that bananas don’t ever go well with meat. It’s simply false in my view (again, accounting for taste etc.) I happen to have a recipe for a delicious meal of banana meatballs with curry sauce. So, no, it isn’t true that bananas never pair well with meat (unless you have some sort of dogmatic agenda to assert otherwise, that is).

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