You’ve probably already seen that the new Church website is out of beta. Check it out at new.lds.org. I haven’t looked at it extensively, but from what I have seen, a couple of nice features stand out. First, you can now upload your own picture to be available to fellow ward members who can’t remember your name, bypassing your ward website person who never got around to it. I hope everyone in my ward does this, because I’d love to be able to learn people’s names faster and pictures would really help. Second, Church magazine articles now have more intuitive URLs. For example, if you want to link to President Uchtdorf’s wonderful talk “You Are My Hands” from this last April General Conference, at LDS.org, you have to use the following URL:
Yetch! By contrast, at new.lds.org, the URL is nice and clean:
Much better, no? Of course what’s best about this is that with such intuitive URLs, it’s much easier to use Google to search specific Church content. Want to search only General Conference? Just throw “site:new.lds.org/general-conference/” on the end of your query. What to search only the Ensign? Try “site:new.lds.org/ensign”. This is almost cool enough for me to forgive the removal of the advanced search tool. I’m still hoping they bring it back.
What I find most interesting about the new site, though, is something that hasn’t been changed. There’s no moving wall on Church publications.
If you’ve ever used JSTOR, or any similar site that keeps electronic copies of old academic journals, you’ve probably run into a moving wall at some point. The idea of a moving wall is that a journal’s publisher doesn’t release new issues to JSTOR for some specified period of time (often a year) in order to avoid undermining its sales of print subscriptions. It’s a moving wall rather than a stationary wall because each time a new print issue is released, the electronic version of the one year old issue is released to JSTOR.
So am I suggesting the Church will put in a moving wall to keep up hard copy subscriptions to Church magazines? No. Actually, I’m expecting the Church to use a moving wall in the opposite way. Rather than using it as the academic journal publishers do to keep recent content inaccessible, I wonder if the Church won’t eventually use a moving wall to keep older content inaccessible.
Why would the Church do such a thing? Well, older magazine articles and General Conference talks start to sound strange after a while. Policies change with time. Even doctrines are updated. As Kaimi pointed out in a post at T&S a few years ago, old doctrines typically go out with a whimper rather than with a bang. Because of this stealth method of changing, and because we like to maintain that our doctrine doesn’t ever actually change, having old articles sitting around in which Church leaders espouse ideas that have since been discarded is potentially embarrassing.
Also, even if nothing else, the way we use language changes over time and makes the old stuff sound funny. For example, contrast President Hinckley’s frequent gender-inclusive insertions into scriptures he was quoting with pretty much everyone’s unabashed use of non gender-inclusive language in, say, the 1970s and 1980s. Certainly it’s the case that General Authorities are frequently older, so they’re not likely to be on the cutting edge of language fads, but even conservatively used language may start to start to sound weird after a few decades.
So there the articles sit, on Church-owned servers, aging. And who’s going to access them? The older they get, the more likely the person downloading them is going to use them to make the Church look bad rather than to serve in the Church. I would guess there are at least two categories of people who will use older articles to make the Church look bad: people looking for older articles because they know that older quotes sound weirder (I admit I’ve fallen into this group a time or two), and well-intentioned people unfamiliar enough with Church practice that they haven’t yet discovered that not everything that’s ever appeared in the Ensign is still believed or practiced. People looking for articles to serve in the Church, or for their own edification, are more likely to search more recent articles. Talks used in Teachings for Our Time lessons, for example, always come from the most recent General Conference.
I expect then, that General Authorities will eventually look into this issue of older articles supplying ammunition for critics of the Church, decide that it’s foolish to arm one’s enemies, and simply take them down. Of course, this won’t take the older articles out of the hands of critics. Certainly many people put up old talks online that they want to criticize. But at least the Church would not be making it easier for people finding such articles. And an added benefit would be that sincere members wouldn’t stumble on distressingly outdated ideas in older Church publications.
Such a decision would be extremely easy to justify to Church members. All that would be required would be a few quotes about how the living prophets are the most important ones to listen to, and how we should put our faith in them instead of in the dead prophets. It would also be easy to justify in that it could be seen as a minor modification of an existing policy. The Church website already doesn’t have articles from older magazines such as the Improvement Era. I’m sure it wouldn’t be very difficult to put them up if the General Authorities decided it was important that they be available. But they haven’t been put up, so they’re clearly not deemed important. In other words, LDS.org already uses a fixed wall, so it’s a small change to start using a moving wall.
The current fixed wall is set at 1971, when the Ensign, New Era, and Friend were launched. Interestingly, in Andrew Ainsworth’s Mormon Stories interview of Daymon Smith, they both guessed that magazine archives on LDS.org would currently go back no farther than 1978 because that was when the priesthood/temple ban on Blacks was lifted. I mention this not to criticize them, but to illustrate that I’m not the only one to wonder if the Church will take steps to try to keep older writings under wraps.
I can imagine a number of different ways a moving wall could be defined. It could be set as a fixed amount of time (the last 30 years, for example) or perhaps based on the year the current prophet was called to the Quorum of the Twelve (President Monson was called in 1963) or maybe for a certain number of Church Presidents (e.g., the last two, so we could see articles back to when President Hinckley was called).
It looks like the moving wall wasn’t implemented with this new version of LDS.org. But I’m going to keep my eye out the next time the site is redesigned, because I think it is very likely to come around eventually.