You oughta be in pictures.

Two weeks ago, I got an email hinting at significant changes afoot in the Missionary Department of the Church. It referred to “a massive research/rebranding exercise” undertaken over the past year that has led to “some shocking and fascinating discoveries related to people’s perceptions of Mormons,” and a resulting new social media strategy centering on the relaunch of Mormon.org: a “progressive” approach that could “revolutionize” missionary work.

Yes, my hyperbole-meter immediately hit the red zone. But when it comes to institutional Mormonism I’m a sucker for all things progressive and revolutionary; plus, the email addressed me as an “influential blogger” and I certainly couldn’t fail in my duty.  So despite cynical remarks from my fellow BCC permas (who were clearly envious), I agreed to attend a preview meeting designed to leverage feedback from the Mormon blogging community. At the appointed time (roughly) I settled into my seat at the JSMB, regarded the suited array of Bonneville/COB guys, and silently challenged them to impress me.

And they did.

Seriously, folks—I was surprised. I expected slick-yet-schmaltzy media, a site that featured the usual Mormonesque models providing the usual canned answers to the usual canned questions. But what I saw was almost the exact opposite:  I saw garden-variety church members offering spontaneous answers to open-ended questions (well, okay, some of the thought questions are pretty predictable/boring, but there’s wide open space for interesting replies).  I saw clean, contemporary visual design and intuitive site functioning. I saw content parameters that allow for great depth and breadth in the public face of Mormonism. In short, I saw a site representing the Church that I’d be pleased to link to—and that’s saying a lot.

The new mormon.org will launch this summer (current plan: mid-June). The preliminary index page offers several screenshots that give a preview of different facets of the site. Without question, the main event is the collection of personal profiles, the individualized building blocks of the site which have the potential to offer visitors a wide spectrum of perspectives on being a Mormon.

Here are a few details about the profile pages:

–Each page features an individual member of the Church

–Any member 18 and older can create a profile (you need your membership # to do so; there’s a separate site for youth)

–Profiles include your name, photo, and text you write yourself as prompted on the profile creation page

–Required sections include “About Me,” “How I live my faith,” “Why I am a Mormon,” FAQs and personal stories.

–Thought questions are provided for the FAQ and personal stories sections—the former are somewhat objective questions about what Mormons believe (What does Mormonism teach regarding baptism?); the latter focus more directly on your personal experience as a member of the Church (How has the Book of Mormon helped you understand the purpose of life?). You must answer at least one of each.

–Answers to questions need not be “correlated” but should follow these guidelines:

  • Your answers should be in harmony with Church doctrine.
  • Please use appropriate language.
  • Keep the voice and tone simple, relaxed, informative and encouraging.
  • Do not divulge personal information, either about you or someone else (from what I gather, this refers to personal stuff like your contact information, etc)
  • –There is an approval process for profiles (supposedly short, a couple of days), but those approved will not be edited in any way (no proofreading, even)

    I just created my profile (a minimalist version, for now). I was gonna link to it, but it won’t be publicly viewable until the site launches. FYI,  I spent a half hour finishing the basic requirements; I plan to spend time over the next few weeks answering more of the thought questions.  Who knows–maybe my perspective will resonate with a few random strangers who happen across my page. But more importantly, the profile provides my friends and family members a personalized, non-threatening glimpse into my religious life.

    They want a thousand profiles posted by the end of the month. Have you ever wished that the Church’s poster children looked and sounded and thought a bit more like the Mormons you love? A bit more like the Mormons you identify with? A bit more like . . . yourself?

    Here’s your big chance.

    Comments

    1. Aaron R. says:

      Interesting and exciting. I will be interested to see what we as a Church do with this. What scope is there regarding possible topics that could be covered.

    2. Will this be ready in other languages, or just English?

    3. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Aaron, the first couple of sections (how I live my faith, why I’m a Mormon) are wide open–no questions to answer, just your experience to share. The writing prompts for the next 2 focus on basic stuff like relationships with God, first principles and ordinances of the gospel, family life, modern-day prophets, tithing, temples, etc.

      ESO, from the site index page: English-only profiles will be available this year; other languages will follow after.

    4. Coffinberry says:

      I sat down to make my profile last night… had a lot of fun. I actually felt like I was helping with missionary work, for once. There are so many questions one can choose to answer, and I’ve temporarily held off finishing my profile because I need to decide which ones I want to answer. The questions to choose from made me and my husband wonder, though, whether there isn’t an element of “learning what members actually think” involved here, especially since the click-through release tells participants that the profiles will be internally linked to IRI-held membership record information.

      As for your question ESO, the system seemed to already know that my responses would be in English, but it did give me the option of marking where in the world I was from. The explanatory side-text suggested that the intent was to enable anyone in the world to find someone like themselves in the profile database.

    5. Interesting. Looks like there is a lot of potential. The videos look stereotypical, but the example personal profile looks engaging. The links to personal facebook and blog pages is a huge decentralization of control and I’ll be interested to see if those last.

    6. Aaron R. says:

      J. I think there will eventually be some changes if things start to move away from what they intend. I imagine that the people involved have given wide latitude but as soon as that boundary starts being crossed regularly they will re-think this. Though I think that these are encouraging steps.

    7. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Yes, they have a margin of error in mind (percentage of profiles that “go bad” from the individual linking to undesirable material, etc).

    8. mmiles husband says:

      Kathy,
      Is this something we should tell our friends about so they can make profiles too?

    9. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Absolutely. By spreading the word you’ll influence who shows up in the beta group.

    10. /(cynical comment from a BCC colleague)/

    11. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed in and that the church appreciates feedback from the blogging community. I am excited to see the changes this summer.

      How will vistors be matched with reading the best profiles to fit their personality? Of will it just be random? Is there and effort at all to help visitors find the profiles and responses that may best resonate with them?

    12. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Joseph, yes. On the sidebar of each profile there are automatically generated links to similar profiles (the “additional information” section of the profile creation page gathers data for this aggregator), and search functions enable visitors to find additional profiles based on variables like gender, age, and ethnicity.

    13. Except that was me.

    14. esodhiambo says:

      It looks very interesting (although the sample profile didn’t really ring true–I hope it was indeed a sample that someone in the COB wrote up).

      So who were the other influential bloggers at the meeting? CJane? Azucar? ARJ? Presumably this was the MoTab of bloggers: the best within a certain radius of SLC.

    15. I heard they flew in Ronan. On a helicopter. And he parachuted in. It. Was. Awesome.

    16. The Other Brother Jones says:

      Will they add a feature to recommend a match to other profiles based on all the specific data in the profile? Maybe they could get an average of 236 temple weddings per day from this effort! … or is that another site?

    17. Michael A says:

      My profile is up. What a great concept to show the world how different–yet normal–we Mormons can be.

    18. The Other Brother Jones says:

      Marmony.com

    19. The Other Brother Jones says:

      wait …eMarmony.com!

    20. John Taber says:

      Would it be possible for my profile to start with simply “Hi, I’m John”? Right now the choices are “John Winder”, “Taber”, “J. Taber”, and “John Winder T.”

    21. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Sunny, yeah. While descending he sang “Come into America.”

    22. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      #20, if I were you I’d go with “J-Tab.”

    23. Looks promising.

    24. John Taber says:

      That’s not a choice, or I would have listed it.

    25. Thanks for the info. This looks great. I will get my family on it this weekend.

    26. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      #14, the selection process for the focus group was very casual–in fact there wasn’t much of a process at all, just a word-of-mouth “come if you’re interested and bring your blogging friends” kind of thing. There were a couple dozen attendees, mostly mommy bloggers. I was late so I missed the introductions, but yes, Azucar was there. CJane sent a representative. And the only ARJ I know of is A Random John.

    27. Kathryn (21),

      Really? Did you just turn “Coming to America” into “Come into America”? Wasn’t there just a thread at Segullah on misunderstanding song lyrics? This takes the cake. You retire with the belt.

    28. Okay, yeah, I have the same problem as John. The options for my “Hi, I’m…” thing do not allow me to list my name as just Alex. Yes, I know that my legal name is Alexander. I only use it for legal things. And I cheerfully keep my middle name a secret, just because it is fun to do so. I suppose I could select the “A. Valencic” option, except, as I mentioned elsewhere, there are about a dozen of us now, and I’d rather not confuse myself with my various siblings and/or the children of my siblings.

      Maybe this is just me, but I am really glad to see colour on the screenshots! I’ll have to see what my wife (the resident graphic designer), but, personally, I like the move away from the Mormon blue and beige.

    29. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Sunny, no offense, but I take pride in botching Neil Diamond song titles.

    30. 29-
      For shame.

    31. Interesting. Last fall there was a conference for New England singles held in Boston. Part of the conference was splitting into focus groups and designing proposals for ideas that could improve missionary work. The top voted proposals, one of which was this exact idea, were then presented to Elder Ballard, who would then bring his impressions of the ideas back to Salt Lake and perhaps implement one or some of them. Looks like they did!

    32. I can concur, as one who in fact attended the meeting, with Kathy’s overall response. Watching what these guys are up to was both impressive and almost a little unsettling. It was a bit like watching the 2008 presidential campaign. After years of abhorring how politicians market and sell themselves as a carefully crafted and painstakingly managed brand (and the good ones are the ones that don’t look at all contrived or managed…), I watched a candidate I really, really liked (Obama) do it better than anyone ever had. I was kind of like, “well, at least someone I actually like has figured this stuff out,” but I was also a bit uncomfortable with it.

      Having said that, the campaign to re-brand Mormon is very, very impressive, savvy, and cutting edge, and I expect it will actually yield significant benefits in terms of public perceptions of Mormons (especially among the target demographic) and even missionary efforts. And setting aside my own ambivalence and cynicism about marketing religion as a brand (and trying to acknowledge that such things are necessary in the cultural world we inhabit), I was honestly shocked at the quality of the entire enterprise.

    33. Kristine says:

      “I was honestly shocked at the quality of the entire enterprise.”
      The best your tithing dollars can buy!

      Grace, everyone knows all good ideas come from Boston :)

    34. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Yeah, the effusive invitational email now rings true.

      Along with the new mormon.org preview, we saw samples of the new ads the Church will be plastering over the web this summer (e.g. banner ads on NYT.com and CNN.com). The ads mirror the profile concept–name, photo, short self-description, punctuated with “I’m Mormon.”

      Also got to see an interactive web feature still in the digital storyboard stage, this sardonic twentysomething line-drawn dude (“Donovan”) who answers chat-style questions from site visitors. Reminded me of Ben Katz. Hope he makes the cut.

    35. There is an approval process for profiles (supposedly short, a couple of days), but those approved will not be edited in any way (no proofreading, even)

      Really!? Really?! Just what is this approval process? An e-mail to local leaders to ascertain worthiness? One has to already have an LDS Account to create a profile, so what further vetting will occur?

      I can’t imagine that there will be profiles allowed that contain material that some church bureaucrat finds wrong/offensive, or if an inactive member who’s hostile to the church were to create a profile.

    36. Stephanie says:

      Wow, this sounds very cool.

    37. Has anyone actually read the terms of service for this new site? It’s worse than Facebook when it comes to usage rights.

      You understand and agree that if you submit any writing, photo, artwork, text, video recording, audio recording or any other material (“Submission”) to the site, at any time, you grant to Intellectual Reserve, Inc. and its licensees, successors, assigns and affiliated entities (collectively, “IRI”) the right to publish and use the Submission…. Additionally, you hereby grant to IRI a royalty-free, irrevocable, worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable license to use your Submission throughout the universe in perpetuity, and to reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, display, and to incorporate the Submission (in whole or in part) in other works, in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed. You further agree that while IRI is under no obligation to provide you with credit for the Submission…

      Anything you put on this site the church can use and/or modify in perpetuity, without credit, and (this one I love), throughout the universe. A modern application of the law of consecration, perhaps?

    38. Julie M. Smith says:

      Hmm . . . the potential for problems here is so huge . . . what if someone writes something like “I love the church and love what it does for my family, although I don’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and think women should be given the priesthood.”

      Or “Although I wish the Church hadn’t gotten involved in Prop 8, I love my California ward!”

      Or “Although I was abused by my LDS hometeacher, I’ve learned to forgive and move on.”

      Or . . . or . . . or . . .

      Would they pull it or allow it? If they pull it, it will cause a minor Internet scandal when the person writes about it on his/her own blog and the media picks up “Mormons Censor Comments.” If they allow it . . . wow.

      I’d hate to be the person who has to vet these profiles.

    39. Kari… I’m not sure what’s bad about that. Well I know what’s bad about that, and it has to do with lawyers and our legal culture. If it wasn’t there, you’d be happy I presume, right up until the point the church had to spend 400k in legal fees defending the Church against someone who once was a member and wrote some things on their page and now wants the church to pay them for it.

      The church has a legal department and unfortunately when it comes to public advertising/messages they have to use it.

    40. Whoever our tithing $$ is going to to pay for this idea, they earned it. I set up campaigns similar to this for big companies, and it’s extremely challenging teaching them how to 1) Speak like humans; 2) give up control of messaging and content (beyond a simple veto). I wonder how hard it was to sell this idea to Salt Lake? And, operationally, whether it will live up to the pitch Kathryn and Brad saw.

      Perhaps an institutional weakness is on its way to becoming a strength.

    41. Excellent. I think this is a great sign of the church trusting us members to represent our beliefs rather than just speaking for us.

    42. I am really happy to see the review you have given, Kathy–as well as Brad’s input. I admit to being one of the cynical ones, but I am more than willing to eat crow on this.

    43. #32 Very glad to hear you think this will actually get results. I’m now really excited to see this released.

    44. What chris said in #40. The statement quoted by kari is a necessary evil of our time.

    45. Will be interesting to watch and see if it develops.

    46. Personally, I would be delighted if the picture of me taken atop a mountain in southeast Victoria a couple of years ago was distributed throughout the universe for everyone to see. I rather like it.

    47. Sorry Ray and Chris, I call BS on the need for the Church to have the right to keep, modify, and re-issue my work for time and all eternity without giving me an ounce of credit. It most certainly is not a “necessary evil.”

      What if Kathryn Lynard Soper posts an original short story that she feels would be beneficial to have on her profile, or elsewhere on the site (depending on what is allowed to be submitted outside one’s profile)? Do you really think the church should have the legal right to then take that story and republish it (with major edits) in a magazine, on another website, or even be quoted in general conference without citing her?

      What if you post a photo of your family on your profile, Ray, and then the church decides to use that picture in advertising for City Creek Center? Wouldn’t you be just a little irked about that?

      Under the terms of this TOS, the church is well within its legal rights to do these things. Whether you have faith that the church won’t do so is a separate matter.

      The TOS for this site could be re-written to allow the church to use a “Submission’ in much narrower wasy and only as long as it remains on the site, but once it is removed they lose those rights for the original or derivatives. Even facebook’s TOS recognizes a loss of rights once something is removed from the site.

    48. Kristine says:

      Kari, I think the right to redistribute is pretty standard legal boilerplate. The right to modify is troublesome, though (especially for anyone who has seen the before and after of correlation or the Ensign’s editing process).

      I do think it’s a hopeful sign that they were willing to consider it and spend money developing the idea, even if the need to control the message sneaks in in the legalese.

    49. jjohnsen says:

      I don’t understand how #40 addresses Kari’s complaint. The agreement basically says any photo or video you post on the site can be used by the church however it wants without paying royalties, doesn’t it? Why would using other people’s art for free cover the Church’s butt in a lawsuit?

    50. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Kari, chill out. It’s essential for this kind of endeavor to include an approval process of some kind. They don’t allow family or other group photos. And you can’t add anything to your profile that doesn’t fit the specified categories. Anyone concerned about the Church misusing their headshot or their written personal perspectives/experiences shouldn’t create a profile.

      Julie, profiles can be disapproved but not “pulled.” Once it’s up, it’s up.

    51. I am creating a profile, and the Church can do whatever she wants to with it. I am 100% happy with consecrating all my profile content to the Church.

      I guess that makes me a mindless sheep.

    52. Kristine, I agree. As far as I know, it is pretty standard boilerplate, and I don’t take issue with it. Its the ability to modify, not attribute credit, and the eternal right to use that I have an issue with. Compare this TOS with the equivalent section from Facebook:

      You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook….

      For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

      Not even Facebook claims the right to use this IP content throughout the universe; theirs in only “worldwide.” :)

    53. Julie M. Smith says:

      Kathryn, point taken that I should have said “not approved” instead of “pulled,” but that doesn’t change any of my other concerns.

    54. Not even Facebook claims the right to use this IP content throughout the universe; theirs in only “worldwide.” :)

      That’s because Facebook would have you believe in a Jesus that only saves this world, whereas we teach that Jesus is the Savior of the entire universe.

    55. Kathryn, I’m chilled. Are you addressing my questions about the approval process, or about the TOS? My only question about the approval process was the apparent disconnect between approving a profile and proof-reading the content, as I doubt this is going to be a censorship free website. Nor do I think it should be. The church does have the right to control its message.

      With regards to the TOS, whether or not I think the church is going to misuse something I post doesn’t affect the rights I’m willing to grant to the institution. I trust my parents, but I wouldn’t give them an unrestricted power of attorney while I’m of sound mind. I simply find the current TOS to be excessive, even for an institution that is much more likely to be trustworthy than a run-of-the-mill business.

    56. Michael A says:

      A human eye is definitely reviewing our content. Some of my responses have already been flagged, although I wasn’t writing anything negative or outlandish. And the reasons for whey I was flagged didn’t look template-ish–i.e., the reviewer actually wrote a custom reply to me.

    57. Benjamin says:

      Have no doubt, censorship is alive and well in these profiles. I answered a question about temples, and a couple days later, received an e-mail informing me that I shouldn’t speak in detail about the temple endowment. After reviewing Ensign materials to get an idea of what might be more appropriate, I was surprised to learn that I may as well have plagiarized my answer.

      I’ve considered going back and providing text directly from the Ensign just to see if they disapprove of that too.

      That being said, I’m sure their goal is to tailor the message down some for people unfamiliar with the Church. It just seems that their impression of an interested person is a lot less interested in details than my impression.

    58. buraianto says:

      Does it really specify the universe in the terms of service? That is absolutely sweet! The Church is preparing for the future.

    59. Julie M. Smith says:

      “I’ve considered going back and providing text directly from the Ensign just to see if they disapprove of that too.”

      I’m sure we will hear stories of people who put (unattributed) quotes from Church leaders in and are told that they can’t include that in their profiles . . . some people are going to have a lot of fun tormenting those poor vetters and giving the Church a black eye in the process (“Mormons won’t let Brigham Young quote on their website”).

    60. Hmm. At least some of you got something back indicating why a profile needed revision. Mine simply says at the top that my profile “needs attention” and to see below in order to revise, but with no further explanation–no further comments on the proposed profile, and no email. (Maybe it was the QandA I added about blood atonement and Adam-God?)

    61. I suspect the easiest way to not get ‘edited’ is to simply share personal thoughts and experiences and to steer clear from trying to interpret or explain doctrine. Elder Ballard gave some good tips here.

    62. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Yes, they really need a help feature, contact form, or something along those lines–you hit the wall and there’s no window out.

      Apparently there can be a lag between the “revision needed” notice and the explanation. Keep checking back.

    63. “and to steer clear from trying to interpret or explain doctrine.”

      That is kind of hard when the Q&As on the pull down menu are things like, who was Joseph Smith, or what is the atonement, or do Mormons practice polygamy, or what do Mormons think about homosexuality and same sex marriage or what is the church’s position on abortion.

    64. That is kind of hard when the Q&As on the pull down menu are things like, who was Joseph Smith, or what is the atonement, or do Mormons practice polygamy, or what do Mormons think about homosexuality and same sex marriage or what is the church’s position on abortion.

      Ah, didn’t see that (haven’t had much time on the computer today). That does make it interesting. Still think it’s often possible to share use personal experiences and reflections to illustrate and share about different questions people have.

    65. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

      Michelle, certain sections of the profile page are clearly designed to elicit personal experiences and reflections. But many of the FAQ prompts are straightforward requests for profile creators to interpret and explain doctrine. Amazingly enough, that’s one of the primary purposes of the site: to offer visitors a description of Mormonism as it’s understood by its members, rather than in formal, sanitized, correlated soundbites.

    66. #58.

      I’m given to understand that the “throughout the universe” statement is common in drafting contracts.

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125658217507308619.html has some interesting information and interviews about this subject.

    67. Kathy, I agree with you about the benefits of the mixture of types of questions. But still, profiles are being flagged with content that isn’t being approved, and my thoughts were in response to that dynamic. I wonder if sharing through the lens of personal experience can help, but maybe it wouldn’t make a difference in these situations.

      I’m still a fan of using personal experience to respond to straightforward doctrinal questions, though, at least some of the time. At some point, hearing lots of ‘yes, we believe in Jesus’ or ‘yes, marriages really can last forever’ or ‘Joseph Smith was the founder of our Church’ without personal perspectives/experiences/testimony of what that means to each of us might get a little old, ya know? Of course, some of the questions will obviously tend to more variety.

      Anyway, this is all really interesting. Can’t wait to watch it unfold.

    68. The profiles idea seems really great, at first blush. But now that I think about it more, I have a concern. This quote from Winston Churchill came to mind: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

      As I think about the Church letting loose of control over portions of Mormon advertising, I fear that the best argument against Mormonism is a five-minute conversation with the average member. If we get a few profiles up there sputtering about “the only true and living church” and explaining why the GOP is the party of righteousness I worry that more damage will be caused overall than if the Church just kept the PR in-house.

      But maybe I’m over-analyzing this.

    69. I guess I just don’t see the point of having a bazillion members all essentially saying the exact same things. If they are censoring the profiles to that extent, everyone will sound the same. I mean, there are only so many ways of answering “does the church support abortion?”.

      Why have members answer that anyway? There is already official church doctrine concerning that. I’m also wary at members posting outdated, incorrect, weird stuff and perpetuating the same old dogma that’s been passed through wards for decades.

    70. Let the grand experiment commence! I cannot wait to see the full roll-out. Whether it becomes a blunder or not, I am stoked the Church leadership is willing to try it out.

    71. Also: Joseph Smith was an alien from the planet Luxor IV. Don’t forget that in your repsonses.

    72. @Olive (69) – I am not part of the Church’s Web Department but there is a very very good reason why it is a good idea to have a bazillion members saying “exactly the same thing.”

      Search Engine Optimization.

      What do I mean by that? Well I forget the statistics, but the plurality of google queries are queries for names. People who meet you and are interested in knowing more about you google your name.

      With this system now when members who fill out profiles get googled, among the results will be a sincere expression of their faith. How cool is that? It increases the likelihood that they will come asking you about it, which members always profess to be much more comfortable with.

      Kathryn – did the church ask for feedback? One piece of feedback I’d give is to let the “name” field be more flexible. It only gives you a few permutations of Last Name / Middle Name / First Name. If I was John Jacob Smith it would let me put:

      John Jacob
      J. Smith

      etc but not “John Smith.” For people to really be google-able they need to give us the option of using our full name in these pages.

    73. I filled out my profile, and it was actually a bit of a process. I put a link to my blog, and I got an email back asking me to take the church logo off my site. I had only ever used it as a link to the church’s site, but it shows how thoroughly the church-whoevers are checking on things before they let your profile go live.

    74. James Anderson says:

      Regarding #38, what you found is very common in the film industry, it’s called a ‘model release’. If you work on a film shoot as an extra or even an actor of some sort, you usually have to sign about the same thing with pretty much the same language.

      #72: SEO is a big deal here, screw something up in writing the profile and it may keep your profile from showing up where it sould in Google or anyone else’s search results, so regardless of anything else, make sure it is written well.

      I hope that we can fix things once the profiles are approved and we find we could have said it better down the line, anyone know if that will be the case?

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