Connected Mormonism

It has become a platitude among journalists to refer to Internet communities as echo chambers that induce confirmation bias. In the good old days, goes the reasoning, everybody had to watch the same three network news and we were all on the same page, at least, with regard to the facts.

I am sorry but the proponents of the echo chamber hypothesis suffer from nostalgia. One need only to remember the turmoil over civil rights, the riots and police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, and the culture wars to realize that Americans did not agree about the facts any more back then than today

For example, millions of Americans remained convinced that Martin Luther King was a communist, no matter how long they stared at Walter Cronkite.

In 1960, the bigots went crazy when John F. Kennedy became President without the Internet. In 2008, the bigots went crazy because Barack Obama became President with the Internet. And in 1932, the bigots lost it when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President even though there was neither TV nor the Internet.

The media have little to do with it. The problem is rather that too many people in the United States have an authoritarian mindset and will not tolerate the loss of a democratic election. The sad reality is that they view their opponents as less than citizens and on occasion, i.e. the civil rights movement, as less than human. Those people are not susceptible to fact based arguments.

The echo chamber effect of the Internet is exaggerated as well. Internet Mormonism is a case in point.

It is true that a wide variety of Mormon communities have emerged on the Internet. From traditionalist heretics celebrating the Mormon temple cult to apologists rationalizing the faith, there are a wide variety of forums and message boards for Mormons of all flavors. There are Mormon mommies, Mormons who feel they were hurt by religion, Mormons who want to enjoy the community without subscribing to the dogma, Mormons who do not want to talk about politics and those who do. There are Mormons who want to protect each other from each other. There are smart Mormons and several flavors of feminist Mormons. Of course, there are edifying and uplifting Mormons. There is even a forum for Mormons who want to say, pardon me, F*ck.

The nice thing about the Internet is that all those people can now find each other. In part, that’s probably a function of space and numbers. There aren’t that many Mormons in the first place and if you want to have a discussion about the evil and virtue of the Mormon torture memo, you might be hard pressed to find people who are willing and capable to carry on an intelligent discussion about this and other topics in your local community.

That is especially true if you harbor any kind of doubt. There might be whispered assent in the hallway or the parking lot but Mormons quite effectively police each other face to face. The Internet connected not only rare Mormons but it allowed dissidents to remain anonymous and to form the Disaffected Mormon Underground.

For the first time since New Mormon History and Sunstone had been ostracized by Mormon authorities, dissenters found that they were not alone, that they enjoyed some protection from sanction, and that they could provide the benefits of community to each other.

Even though the brethren had initially succeeded in isolating Sunstone, the symposiums have now been rejuvenated by a generation of Internet Mormons whose theological outlook is more diverse than ever. I hear that there are even discussions whether this or that Mormon authority can be properly referred to as an SOB.

The one thing that Mormons have not been able to find on the Internet is echo chambers. No matter what your cause and outlook, other kind of Mormons would run in your forum and your blogs. They had to be warded off with sticks.

Had it merely been a matter of communications technology, the Internet would have produced the most diverse Mormon community imaginable. The preservation of unity actually required good old fashioned sanctions and prohibitions. Even so the Internet has produced the most diverse Brighamite communities ever.

As for the Disaffected Mormon Underground, that is being transformed by Facebook. Disaffected Mormons are increasingly out in the open. Most of us now post under our legal names and Mormons of all flavors are friending each. Despite occasional defriendings, I would say that Internet Mormons are self-confident and more connected than ever.

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30 Responses

  1. Froggie says:

    Good observations, Hellmut. I definitely agree there is not an echo chamber. In my ten years of being in the mormon online communities, I’ve noticed the phenomena of an increasing greying of the previously well defined line separating the “good” mormon vs the “bad” or “sloppy” one. The changes are fluid and even mormon apologetics are shifting in such a way that I feel will eventually ripple into current mormon practices.

    Case in point:

    You’ll notice that while there are the traditional rigid holdouts of the mormon bottom line, subtle mental modifications are occurring.

  2. Froggie says:

    Here is yet another new change that I feel has been a result of continued vocal pressure kept alive due to the lively nature of the online community.

  3. Hellmut says:

    That’s interesting, Froggie. It’s a good thing to admit doubt to oneself and within the culture and it is pretty exciting to see apologists talk about it.

    I had not seen Boyd Petersen’s essay yet. Thanks for showing it to me, Froggie. I will read it carefully.

  4. aerin says:

    I too applaud this trend.

  5. wry says:

    Great points, and I agree. (Echo echo echo 😉 )

  6. Seth R. says:

    If you don’t wield the moderating stick liberally, most popular forums go to hell pretty quickly. The guy with the biggest mouth ends up monopolizing the conversation, and the more reasonable people end up not wanting to say anything.

  7. Hellmut says:

    That’s definitely a danger, Seth. But big mouths tend to unreasonable and are thus vulnerable to criticism.

    The community is in a better position to deal with those people than moderators.

  8. Seth R. says:

    That’s not my experience Hellmut.

    Usually the community trashes the idiot for a while, but eventually all the reasonable people get tired of listening to him and just don’t show up anymore.

    Then the douchebag is the only one left.

    So naturally, he declares himself the winner.

  9. Seth R. says:

    Unless someone bans him/her.

  10. Chino Blanco says:

    I hadn’t thought about the huge impact that Facebook is making. I would never think to email friends and family about Mormon issues (unless I was replying to something they’d sent me), so Facebook became the first space where my non-blogging kin got exposed to what’s on my mind. And you’re right, I’m suddenly way more out in the open, w/o even really having thought about it. I guess maybe we should figure out an appropriate DAMU prize for Mark Zuckerberg. And by the way, it seems kind of remiss to bring up Facebook here and not invite readers to mention their Facebook names. Here’s mine: jason.echols

    And since everybody else has already praised Froggie’s astute comment, I’m just gonna add that every single recipe currently on the front page of Froggie’s blog looks absolutely delish.

  11. Froggie says:

    Thanks, Chino! And I am glad you brought up Facebook. It is definitely a place where it is increasingly difficult to skirt differing viewpoints. So even while the church tendency is to encourage its members to surround themselves with likeminded, faith-promoting elements, it is absolutely unavoidable bumping into differing and even paradigm changing/faith demoting information while interacting with others on Facebook.

  12. Hellmut says:

    I agree, Froggie. Members of the disaffected Mormon underground entered Facebook with their own names and connected to their family members and neighbors as well as to each other. It was inevitable that critical posts appeared on each others pages, which could be noticed by everyone connected to us.

    Proposition 8 was probably a crystallizing event in that regard. The believers would have flooded Facebook with supportive stuff no matter what the DAMU did. Most of us just couldn’t take it and joined the fray.

    Of course, everybody’s experience on Facebook will be different but, I imagine, this will be the typical story.

  13. john f. says:

    I would say that Internet Mormons are self-confident and more connected than ever.

    I think this is true.

    As to the Bloggernacle, it has succeeded remarkably in promoting high-level discussions about every aspect of Mormonism in a relatively intelligent way. The level of discourse, overall, in my opinion, is very high in the Bloggernacle, especially compared to a lot of other aggregated blog communities in the blogosphere. Of course there is always tension and flame wars but even in these things usually stay relatively on topic and the discussions turn out to be productive.

    I am not so sure about your observations on echo chambers though. Some of the Forums you mention have that exact effect and in some cases they even prevent faithful Mormons from having a say or making an argument, etc.

  14. chanson says:

    some cases they even prevent faithful Mormons from having a say or making an argument, etc.

    “some?” You’re just talking about RfM, right?

    As far as RfM is concerned, I would like to keep things civil with them as well, and avoid starting a cross-forum war with them. That said, we here have no clout with them nor any way of influencing their policies. As Chino has mentioned, he once made a sincere and well-meaning offer of help there (to help them upgrade their software), and his comment was deleted. I’m tired of having to apologize for RfM and of having people come here and hold them up as an example of some bad thing or other about exmos. We, frankly, can’t answer for them here. The only thing I can say is that the natural dynamic of the Internet routes around places where information is too restricted.

  15. Hellmut says:

    I am not so sure about your observations on echo chambers though. Some of the Forums you mention have that exact effect and in some cases they even prevent faithful Mormons from having a say or making an argument, etc.

    I totally agree. But I do not think that this is a function of the Internet. RfM and others have to resort to coercion to exclude faithful Mormons and others from their forums.

    If RFM did not beat people off with a stick, it could not be an echo chamber.

    If the Internet were left to its own devices, there would be faithful Mormons posting on RfM every day. So the echo chamber RfM is not the product of the Internet but good old no trespassing rules from the brick and mortar world.

    What do you think, John?

  16. john f. says:

    I agree with that.

  17. Chino Blanco says:

    This is a bit of a tangent, but this recent comment from Measure (the owner of r/exmormon) sounded about right to me:

    The moment we start worrying about what mormons, even potential deconvertees, think about this reddit, the reddit loses value to exmos.

    I like it because it’s a simple statement of exmo purpose that in no way negates the friendly notice posted in the r/exmormon sidebar:

    Mormons are welcome to participate here, but if you’d like to visit a reddit with a more positive view of mormonism, see /r/lds

    Actually, now that I’m off on this tangent, I’d like to mention that I’d be happy to see T&S or BCC or any “smart Mormon blogger” (to use Hellmut’s spot on phrase to describe you guys) take over the r/mormon subreddit. At the moment, it’s just Measure and me on the mod list, and I’d be glad to give up my spot if a real Mormon wanted to step up and use the place to propagate bloggernacle links. Just a thought.

    Back to the subject at hand, as far as I’m concerned, I’d enjoy seeing some smart Mormon bloggers posting here at MSP. My impression is that the door has always been open. I’ve always assumed the faithful tend to decline our invitations because of 1) our strictly enforced openness, and 2) the inverse IQ-EQ ratio typical of so many bloggernaclers.

  18. john f. says:

    chanson, my point related to Hellmut’s observation about the echo chamber effect and was not an attempt to make you or anyone else answer for any decisions taken by other forums.

  19. john f. says:

    re # 15, Hellmut, I agree with that.

  20. john f. says:

    IQ-Elders Quorum?

  21. Chino Blanco says:

    Emotional Quotient. I give up. We’re doomed to talking past each other. 😉

  22. Hellmut says:

    Pardon me, Chino. I googled EQ and only got Everquest. What’s an EQ measure, please?

  23. Seth R. says:

    If left to its own devices, a forum would quickly sink to the lowest common denominator – on BOTH sides.

    You’d be left with primarily three different kinds of commenters:

    1. Atheist trolls who get amusement value out of simply posting uncomfortable questions (at little or no cost to themselves), then just sitting back and sneering unpleasantly while the pro-religion crowd falls all over itself trying to answer. And atheists who’s only goal in participating is to make fun of people.

    2. Mormon zealots who self-righteously feel it their sacred duty to “bear testimony” of the wickedness of everyone else on the message board – because it validates their sense of martyrdom.

    3. Evangelical whackos (they usually tend to be Evangelical – or Lutheran) doing basically the same thing as the Mormons – but bashing Joseph Smith whenever possible as well.

    Everyone intelligent will eventually leave the forum and leave these three worthless groups to cannibalize each other to their hearts content. And all you are really left with is a crappy forum that serves no useful purpose to anyone.

  24. chanson says:

    John F. @17 Yes, except that you specifically accuse exmos of excluding believers. If you’re going to be that specific, I’d like to know which site(s) you’re talking about so we can address this charge. If, OTOH, you’d like to generalize your statement to “some forums and sites deliberately exclude/delete POVs that they disagree with,” then I’ll have no problem with that.

    Seth @22:

    If left to its own devices, a forum would quickly sink to the lowest common denominator on BOTH sides.

    What do you mean “both sides”? You’ve listed at least three sides, and there are plenty of others…

  25. Chino Blanco says:

    It’s a measure of “Emotional Intelligence” … I score really high, which is why I don’t get snippy when people don’t bother to read beyond the first couple of Google search results.

  26. john f. says:

    chanson, I have observed this on a couple of forums, primarily RfM but also FLAK — the purpose of those forums is not to have faithful Mormons come around defending the Church against material that appears there. This statement is not a substantive judgment of that approach but was rather in response to Hellmut’s observations about an echo chamber. These forums are indeed echo chambers (as to certain topics/issues) and are meant to be that way — that is what the participants seem to want out of the forum.

    It is also well known that all blogs aggregated at the MA and most or all blogs more broadly considered to belong to the Bloggernacle similarly exclude commenters or participants who want to take discussion in a direction that is not perceived to fit with the feeling of the particular blog. One difference is that most of the venues in the Bloggernacle are blogs rather than forums. In fact I don’t think there are any forums in the Bloggernacle. The forum is where every commenter is also a participant in his or her own right.

  27. Seth R. says:

    MADB had periods of going straight to hell in a handbasket as well.

    Chanson, I think you missed my point a bit.

    My point was that when a Mormon issues forum deteriorates – those three are the ONLY positions left. There is no nuance. No diversity of views. Just three monotonously predictable clowns caught in an endless loop of the same jokes ad infinitum.

  28. chanson says:

    John F — I agree that blogs tend to have a different social dynamic than forums. I like the blog dynamic better, as I explained in my friend, the Internet.

  29. Justin says:

    Zion needs great intimacy and connection among the people. The church is lacking in intimacy and connection because members are all still strangers. The only way to achieve Zion, or even a Zion-like atmosphere at church is for the men and women to all be connected to each other thru covenants.

    As it stands, LDS are connected to Christ thru covenants, but not to each other. As long as we remain unbound by covenant relationships with each other — we will never achieve Zion, and our conversations [and actions] will never approach the level of intimacy and sharing required of that ideal.

    The Lord is about connecting humans to other humans. That is what activating tribal worship services, tribal family units, and a strong tribal priesthood is all about. Any online discussions are only valuable insofar as they aid each of the readers in making these connections. But no online group is the connection.

    If we arent walking away from our computers and working to establish and spread our own tribes, then we have missed the mark.

  30. Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Justin. I think that the key to intimacy is that people can be honest to each other. In Zion, that probably needs to mean that we are more serious about our values and principles and junk all those check lists that we are accumulating in the Ensign and during general conference.

    Less obedience markers, more discipleship, in other words.

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