Although our distant Mormon past encompasses fascinating tales of Mormons manipulating their appearances to protect their community, contemporary Mormons often look (perhaps too much) at external appearances to measure others’ degrees of compliance with mainstream Mormon standards. It is by no means uncommon to check if fellow Mormons wear garments, to measure each other by the color of our shirts or the length of our skirts, or even to guess if the family in the picture is Mormon. In short, we care a lot about being able to measure people’s reactions to us or their ideas based on outward signs and appearances that let us know if they are Mormon.
While these habits can undoubtedly lead to painful consequences when we wrongly judge or exclude others, they are also quite useful, especially to a community that often feels “persecuted” by outsiders. Like any other status symbols, these telltale signs let us make swift, efficient judgments that help us navigate our society when we lack time to closely examine each person we encounter. They play crucial roles in helping us assess the backgrounds of the people we meet so that we can better respond to them and weigh their ideas. But these signs that play such a large role (for good or bad) within our lives in real space are missing in the Bloggernaccle.
Mormon blogs, like other digital sites, pose fundamental security problems and disrupt our ability to measure each other’s status as Mormons. In a space where many authors are semi-anonymous, it is difficult for many readers to evaluate a writer’s intent, background, and credibility. Often, it is simply impossible to know whether the writer is active or inactive, a member or the church or just a friend, male or female, trustworthy about sources or not. It is equally difficult for writers to evaluate their readers’ intentions and identities.
In a space where we cannot accurately gauge the identities of those with whom we interact in what nevertheless feels like a community, new anxieties and opportunities are thereby introduced. On the one hand, with often nothing to evaluate community members with other than the words they write, we develop a trust that their words reflect their “true” identities to an extent that we might not in other places. We might therefore find people becoming more uneasy with reminders that blog posts occasionally borrow from fiction than we might where it is easier to draw a line between a person and the fiction they write. We might worry more about people who invade a community with intentions that we don’t like. On the other hand, placing weight in people’s words while not being able to see other identity markers enables us to know people and religion in ways that are not possible in real life church settings–males and females talk more freely, more attention is paid to texts and history, people in all stages of church activity can mingle. Despite all the potential for people to masquerade on the blog, interactions in the blogging community often feels more genuine to me than the ones I have with Mormons in traditional settings.
What are your thoughts about how the inability to verify identity in blogging communities might change or disrupt the reliance we place on identifying each other as Mormons in real space? How does this identity problem change what kinds of writing we produce on blogs? What creates credibility in anonymous bloggers or detracts from it?
Note: Please limit this discussion to how these issues play out in current Mormon blogs, not in ones that have been laid to rest!