Zelophehad’s Daughters

Some Thoughts on the Bloggernacle

Posted by Lynnette

I’ve been thinking lately about some of the challenges of blogging. (Millennial Star recently had a really interesting discussion about Bloggernacle dynamics here, and I’ve also been thinking about some of the issues regarding audience  that Eve raised several years ago in this post. Additionally, T&S recently had a conversation about the boundaries of the “Bloggernacle”, and its relationship to LDS blogs more generally.) And one particular question I’ve been contemplating goes back to a much-debated question: what are the issues at stake when we publicly discuss more difficult aspects of the church? (As long as I’m linking, I’m pretty sure that Kaimi had a post several years ago, which I can’t seem to find, on the question of whether we should ever say anything negative about the church when non-members might be listening.)

Over the years, I’ve seen more than one commenter explain their comments in terms of the need for balance—strikingly, not as a virtue in and of itself,  but specifically because non-Mormons might be reading. (I’m not sure “balance” is the best term here,  because I haven’t observed that blogs which emphasize the more traditional kind of faith-promoting material  are particularly concerned about balancing out their own views, either.) But in any case, I do have some sympathy for this view. I can appreciate the desire to represent the church fairly. I get annoyed when people make negative generalizations about all Mormons (we’re a bunch of sheeple who don’t have the ability to think critically, etc.)

I can also respect that different blogs are aimed at different audiences. Where I find myself disagreeing, however, is with any assertion that it’s the responsibility of all blogs which classify themselves in the believing category to stay focused  on the positive, because of the concern that non-members might get a bad impression of the church. I find this problematic for several reasons:

1) I think this approach potentially undermines our ability to have genuine conversations with each other. If one (or more) participants in a discussion are always talking with an eye toward missionary work and/or public relations, they can’t really be said to be engaging the others who are actually participating in the conversation. And it’s frustrating to talk to people who are aren’t actually talking to you, but to an imagined non-member audience who might happen to be watching.

2) I think this approach can actually detract from the positive potential of the Bloggernacle. If hordes of non-Mormons are indeed hanging around, I think there’s value in giving them a chance to see real Mormons talking about their various questions and perspectives on things. I would be quickly bored if I encountered another religious blogging community whose members made sure all their posts and comments were sufficiently faith-promoting. I did my master’s in theology at a Catholic school, and I loved getting to hear Catholics discussing and debating and sometimes critiquing their tradition. I enjoyed the opportunity to eavesdrop on people who were working to make sense of their faith, rather than being careful with what they said because I was there.  It didn’t at all make me think less of Catholicism; in fact, it made me appreciate its richness and complexity.

3) I see the Bloggernacle as actually challenging some common stereotypes of Mormons. For example, people sometimes get the impression that we’re a homogeneous cult that all thinks the same and marches in lockstep. Fifteen minutes on the bloggernacle, seeing people arguing at length about topics from caffeinated beverages to polygamy, is likely to quickly disabuse them of this notion. Even the feminist blogs, which are sometimes dismissed as simply apostate, implicitly send the message that there are a wider variety of Mormon women than one might initially assume. When I’ve talked to non-members about the existence of Mormon feminism, they’ve generally been fascinated, and excited to hear about it.

4) When people have concerns about the church, I think that attempting to come up with clear answers isn’t always that effective. In my experience, at least, seeing that there people who have difficult questions who still stick around is much more helpful. It actually testifies to the power of the church. My close non-LDS friends know a whole lot about what I think is problematic about my religion (just as I know a lot about their relationship to their churches).  And several have told me that the fact that I stay despite all that is something that actually gives them a positive view of Mormonism.

You might point out that the Bloggernacle isn’t exactly representative of the population of the church, and I would certainly agree. But I’d note that potential converts aren’t homogeneous any more than are Mormons. Some of them may be drawn to the lds.org vision of the church. But others may be drawn to the kinds of discussions found elsewhere.

5) I have concerns about saving discussions of difficult issues for private settings in which only insiders are participating. One problem is that of people who feel that they were deceived when they only find out some of the skeletons in the closet after they join the church. I also don’t think we should pressure people to frame all their experiences into a faith-promoting narrative; I’d hope we have room as a church to allow for a variety of experiences, including difficult ones. I actually think that this can make testimonies more credible, not less.

6) I suspect  that people are most likely to get a negative impression of the church not from the content discussed, but from the way we treat each other. When we’re busy calling each other to repentance and generally acting obnoxious, I imagine that doesn’t speak very well to our character as a people. (I say “we”, because I’m not claiming to have a stellar record on this one.)

I’m not saying, just to clarify, that blogs whose primary focus is on the positive aspects of the church, are necessarily being disingenuous—my impression is that they’re usually quite sincere. I see different blogs as aimed at different  audiences, and I respect that. What I’m critiquing here is the notion that discussing negatives is somehow a betrayal, or makes a blog less faithful.

In my own blogging, I think the best I can do is talk honestly about my experience of the church, which is complex and messy and involves both faith and doubt. And when it comes to ZD, I won’t presume to speak for my co-bloggers, but I hope to be part of creating a space where people who might feel marginalized and un-heard at church can have a voice. Of course, we aren’t limited to feminist or other controversial topics, and some of what we do is just downright silliness. (What can I say? That’s the family culture in which I grew up.) But at its best, I really do believe that Bloggernacle-style blogging, with all its questioning and craziness, actually has much of value to offer.

12 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the Bloggernacle”

  1. 1.

    I agree, especially with number six (in a very nonjudgmental sort of way!).

  2. 2.

    Lynette,
    Some very good questions you ask here. I don’t have a problem with different views being expressed regarding the Church.
    I do have two issues: First, on how we as Saints should treat each other (and non-members for that matter), who disagree with us. Second, on how we express our disagreements with Church policy.

    For example, on BCC right now is a discussion about women praying in General Conference, and done with gifs. The article is positive and expresses the desires of many people. I personally have no problems with women praying in Gen Conf, or their requesting this.

    However, in some of the comments, some people have presumptuously to call the GAs arrogant, “childish”, and a few other terms that do not move the discussion forward. In fact, it detracts from the discussion and turns it into ad hominem attacks against the leadership of the Church. You may as well invite anti-Mormons into General Conference to pray, or to promote the Church to the non-members looking in.

    There needs to be a balance for all of us, liberal, conservative, TBM and cafeteria types. We must begin with what unites us and move forward from there. However, if we focus first on the divisions, then we will not find solutions that work for all of us.

    Thanks for moving this discussion forward!

  3. 3.

    Well, obviously I agree with you. My goal for my blogging is to create a space where everyone who is positively interested in the church (or capable of positive interest) can participate. I think that means acknowledging negative experiences and considering them seriously, but not ignoring the positives either. I guess I figure if I’m irritating everyone a little, then I’m doing it right. Tension does draw comment, after all.

  4. 4.

    Fantastic points, Lynnette. Regarding having discussions like this out in the open rather than in a closed, Church members only forum, I suspect like you alluded to a couple of times that the bottom line is that it makes the Church more attractive to outsiders rather than less. I’m not suggesting that Church PR should be a goal of online discussion; rather, I’m saying I think the people who are worried that this type of discussion makes us look bad are wrong even by the criteria they care about. Hiding such discussion away suggests a faith too brittle to be exposed to the real world.

  5. 5.

    Lynette,

    Great post. I was actually thinking about this a few days ago after hearing some Mormon friends discuss feedback they received to their podcast (although, I think the same could be said about the bloggernacle as well). They brought up many of the things you did, and didn’t know what to do next.

    I think this is the nature of commenting on Mormonism. To those unfamiliar with the role the bloggernacle and podcasting communities play, it might seem like a bunch of people who want to get around “complaining,” or “straining at a gnat” (both phrases I have actually heard from people). But isn’t that the nature of being a commenter? To offer perspective, opinion, insight into all aspects of Mormonism, the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly?

    But I think I can speak for many when I say it comes from either a place of deep love and affection for the church, or a place of deep intrigue and fascination (both very different places, depending on where one is in their faith journey).

    And as someone who works very closely with LDS PR, we don’t do well being vulnerable. I think that’s partly due to the fact that in some eyes, we have been “burned” (to a certain extent) in the past, but at the same time, we are very sensitive about our public perception. The homogeneity seems to be very much a part of who we are, and when communities and discussions like this happen online, it seems as though people are very quick to say “BUT WE’RE NOT ALL LIKE THAT,” as if to distance ourselves, instead of saying “There’s room enough for all.”

  6. 6.

    Wow, Lynnette, you have an excellent memory. I think you were thinking of this post (now almost a decade old):

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2004/05/our-duty-to-present-the-church-in-a-favorable-light-at-all-times-just-in-case-a-non-member-happens-to-be-listening/

  7. 7.

    This is great…we don’t give enough weight to #6.

    I also don’t think the overall community of saints is necessarily served by a splintered bloggernacle that carves out specific audiences and speaks only to them. It leads to cocooning, and so much of the friction you describe in #6 comes from readers venturing outside their cocoons once in a while, seeing something scary or dangerous or new, and either immediately rejecting it or lashing out. (This is not just a bloggernacle problem, obvs)

  8. 8.

    Nice thoughts, Lynette. In particular: “In my own blogging, I think the best I can do is talk honestly about my experience of the church, which is complex and messy and involves both faith and doubt.”

    Because talking *dis*honestly about one’s experience in the Church or about the doctrines generally accepted within the Church or about LDS history is an approach that might work to achieve some particular point in the short-run (might not) but certainly won’t work in the long run. If there is a topic one can’t address honestly in a blog or other public forum, then don’t address it.

  9. 9.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all. (And Kaimi, yep, that’s the one–thanks!)

    I’ve also thought about the point Kyle M. makes about the effects of a splintered bloggernacle, and people sticking to their own territory, as it were. I’d be interested in other people’s impressions of this, but I wonder to what extent it’s a result of growth. When I first started reading the bloggernacle, I read pretty much every post and comment on several of the larger and/or feminist blogs, as well as regularly following a lot of other interesting blogs from a variety of perspectives. I can’t imagine doing that now. There are blogs that I think are amazing that I don’t often read simply because I only have so much time for blogging. And when there are so many choices, it’s easy to stick to the places where I feel more at home with the general orientation and atmosphere. I do check out places where I’m more likely to disagree, but I have to admit that it’s more a surfing by kind of thing than a consistent engagement.

    I have mixed feelings about that development. When it comes to ZD, I do worry about the echo chamber issue. But I also think we have dual goals which might sometimes be in conflict: first, to honestly and openly discuss various issues related to the church; and second, stealing from FMH, to be a safe place to be both faithful and feminist. To the extent possible, I’d hope we could do both, but obviously the existence of the latter is going to shape the kinds of conversations we have. And while we’ve banned only a handful of people over the years (usually because of their ability to turn any and every thread into a train wreck), I can imagine that being a critic of feminism on this blog would at the very least take a lot of energy.

  10. 10.

    ” And it’s frustrating to talk to people who are aren’t actually talking to you, but to an imagined non-member audience who might happen to be watching.”

    THIS. This explains so many of my frustrating conversations on the ‘nacle.

  11. 11.

    [...] was quite an entertaining grap-bag of random topics this past week!! defending the Bloggernacle, messing with facial symmetry makes people weirdly uncomfortable, Dooce writes the most Mormon [...]

  12. 12.

    [...] By Lynnette [...]

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