SALT LAKE CITY — For most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, general conference weekend is a change of pace from typical Sunday worship, but for one virtual congregation, conference weekend is prime time.
The unofficial #twitterstake — a hashtag that plays on the Mormon term "stake," or geographic group of congregations — is used by some LDS social media users who converse online year-round about church themes and topics on Twitter, the social networking website oriented to brief messages and immediate updates.
At conference time, however, these and many other church members shift into hyperdrive, sending tweets throughout the meetings as they happen. The messages are little bursts — limited to 140 characters — of commentary, quotations and themes.
And those bursts are coming more frequently. At one point during last April's general conference, LDS Church spokesman Lyman Kirkland said "there were 514 tweets per minute that mentioned either conference or the (church’s official) #ldsconf hashtag.”
During last April’s general conference, there were more than 128,000 tweets about the conference. That number was up from 88,400 at last October’s general conference.
Such general conference-related Twitter conversations “occur organically and are a natural result of the enthusiasm church members have for sharing their faith with others,” Kirkland said.
Observers see various levels of acceptance among church members for tweeting during a reverent meeting in which church leaders provide spiritual messages intended for study and reflection.
The acceptance divides along generational lines, said Jesse Stay, author, speaker and social media coach.
“People my age (36) and older grew up in a culture where we stop and we listen to conference messages, so some of us think tweeting and texting during conference is rude and unacceptable,” Stay said. “But those who are younger grew up in a world of constant communication. They are used to this form of multi-tasking. They know how to listen and read and share simultaneously, and they are able to consume more as a result. They can be listening to a conference session, and then somebody tweets something that they missed, and their overall conference experience is enhanced.”
Sometimes the tweets are informative and add to the appreciation of the session, such as when Beki Winchel observed that “Elder (David A.) Bednar’s talk (during last April’s Saturday afternoon session) is Part II of his earlier address, ‘Things as They Really Are,’ ” and then she gave a link to that earlier address.
Other #twitterstake tweets are more spiritual in nature. “God lives!” tweeted LDSGuy. “Jesus is the Christ. Pres. Monson is His prophet on earth today. God be with you till we meet again.”
Still other tweets are fun and conversational:
“I hope the Brothas are listening!!!!” tweeted well-known bloggers Sistas in Zion during the Saturday morning conference session in April. “What Elder Ballard just said is y’all men are not the priesthood!”
Moments later, another tweeter using #twitterstake called Brielle Photography, posted a meme (or a pop culture image) based on the quote from Elder M. Russell Ballard of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve to which Sistas in Zion was referring: “Men have the responsibility to administer the priesthood, but they are not the priesthood.”
A hashtag is a word or phrase that Twitter users employ to participate in an online conversation on a given topic. The LDS Church has recommended hashtags such as #ldsconf for conference, #PresMonson for tweets referencing LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and #MoTab for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“The Church uses multiple Twitter accounts during general conference, including @ldschurch @mormonorg and @mormonnewsroom, to tweet links to the conference watch page, ask members what messages touched them, and provide links to conference-related press materials," Kirkland said. "With @ldschurch the church will tweet selected quotes from general conference speakers to help facilitate the conversation with accurate information."
“This is one way to fulfill the need that many church members feel — and that many church leaders have encouraged — to share the gospel online,” Stay said. “This started back before the church was very involved with social media, and it has just cascaded and gotten bigger and bigger.”
Stay, author of “I’m on Facebook — Now What???," likened the experience many young general conference viewers/tweeters have to pioneer-era general conferences.
"In many ways this is bringing us back to the days of the pioneers, when the entire church meets together and then sits around the campfire and talks about the conference with each other," he said. “The old forms of community have gone worldwide. Now the entire world is a small village, and we’re all able to share an experience together and communicate with each other about it and share with each other."
For those who are comfortable with this form of communication, Stay says it is “not a distraction from conference, but an enhancement of the conference experience," even though those who are older may bristle at that notion.
While no one is suggesting that general conference speakers should speak in shorter, more tweetable, 140-character sentences ("There is already plenty of material from each general conference talk that fits Twitter’s format,” Kirkland says), Stay said he’s confident church leaders are aware of the tweeting phenomenon. There have been numerous references to social media during the past several general conferences, he noted.
In a 2011 sermon about family history, Elder Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve said it is “no coincidence that (the genealogical data software) FamilySearch and other tools have come at a time when young people are so familiar with a wide range of information and communication technologies.”
“Your fingers have been trained to text and tweet to accelerate and advance the work of the Lord — not just to communicate quickly with your friends,” Elder Bednar said. “The skills and aptitude evident among many young people today are a preparation to contribute to the work of salvation.”
For right now, however, many of them — along with older tweeters and texters — are just looking forward to Twitter's semiannual virtual campfire and another opportunity to tweet conference. And when it is over, Troy G. Parker will tweet as he always does: “Thanks #twitterstake. Now, whose turn is it to put up the chairs?”
(The DeseretNews.com team will live tweet sessions of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of the LDS Church using the @ldsconf Twitter account.)