The Mormon Internet battleground

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 2:38 p.m. MDT

Patrick Mason, James Faulconer and Ardis Parshall take a moment to pause for a photo between sessions at UVU.

Michael De Groote, deseret news

This is one of two articles from Utah Valley Universitys Mormons and the Internet conference held March 29-30. Read the other article, on "Changing the Mormon image: Behind the scenes of LDS Church media efforts."

OREM — Mormons are changing as they encounter the Internet with its quirks, challenges and dangers. A conference on "Mormonism and the Internet" at Utah Valley University today and Friday is examining how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are expressing themselves and transforming their identity and interaction with the world.

True to the topic, the event is being broadcast live online at www.uvu.edu/uvutv/ in the UVU Events section of the website.

In the conference's first session, James Faulconer, a philosophy professor at BYU, talked about his experiences writing an online column, "Speaking Silence," for the religion blog Patheos.com. "The potential audience is the best thing about writing on the internet for obvious reasons," he said. "Every writer loves to have an audience. It is frightening to have that audience. I am afraid I am unworthy."

The second speaker, historian and blogger Ardis E. Parshall, talked about the way LDS Church history is now available online — comparing it tongue-in-cheek to an old anti-drug campaign when she said, "Parents, if you don't talk to your children about Mormon history, who will?"

And the range of voices on Mormon history online is vast, Parshall said, ranging from professional historians to the "tinfoil hat crowd." "Mormon history is everywhere on the Internet," she said, "and is available in every flavor imaginable — and in some flavors some of you may find unimaginable."

This creates not a two-sided choice between black and white or right and wrong, but a huge variation across a whole range of beliefs, attitudes and competency. There are websites across the spectrum of ideas, emotions and attitudes.

"Each one of these websites and discussion boards and blogs is the battleground for the ongoing negotiation of Mormon identity in the virtual age," Parshall said.

Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and an associate professor of North American religion at Claremont Graduate University, surveyed graduate students from across the country who participated in intellectual blogs about Mormonism. The online survey garnered 113 respondents in late 2011 early 2012.

Those surveyed said they regularly visited a wide variety of Mormon-themed blogs — 86 different ones, showing "an astonishing breadth" in the world of Mormon blogging," Mason said. "This suggests a fractured online community."

"Most respondents pointed to the blogs as space that filled otherwise unfulfilled needs," Mason said. They were forming online communities — communities of like-minded Mormons within a broader community of Mormonism. The downside of this, he said, was this creates micro-communities that self-select and create a polarization against the outside social communities in local areas.

In a later question-and-answer period, Mason said the danger in blogs is if it becomes entirely self-selective. "We never hear anything we don't want to hear or we refuse to acknowledge it. One of the brilliant parts about the Lord's system — as frustrating as it can be for a lot of people ... — is it forces you to do what I think Christianity calls you to do and that is deal with people who are different than yourself."

Faulconer, however, in his blog finds a broader possible audience — perhaps too broad. Readers can be LDS or anti-Mormon, his mother or one of his grandchildren. There is no way to know the level of education or if the person is angry or friendly. "I have no idea how to write for an audience with that many possibilities," he said.

But still he writes. And the audience for things Mormon online grows.

The UVU conference, "Mormonism and the Internet: Negotiating Religious Community and Identity in the Virtual World" continues through Friday at 3 p.m.

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com Twitter: @degroote Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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