Quotes of Note: The Perils of Blogs

[Quotes of Note will be a semi-regular feature in which I introduce an excerpt from a recent book or article that I found especially relevant, thoughtful, or otherwise worth discussing. Basically, this is a solution to a common problem in my reading: I often find myself stumbling upon a section of a book that I'm dying to disucuss, but the discussion never happens because I'm typically alone in a library, my office, or any of the other lonely places grad students frequent. Thus, this series.]

I recently finished Armand Mauss’s memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (UofU Press, 2012). The book is a gem that deserves a broad readership: it offers background to his major scholarly contributions, a personal view of Mormon culture in the second half of the 20th century, an overview and loving critique of Dialogue, and an insider’s perspective to the origins and growth of Claremont’s Mormon studies chair, all written in a readable style that is both entertaining and informative. While there are definite points of curmudgeon-ness—hell, isn’t that what memoirs by seasoned academics are for?—the curmudgeon-ness comes from a loving and informed perspective that should be seriously considered.

One example where I think he makes a really important point is found at the end of his chapter on Dialogue. (He had a long relationship with the organization and journal, including five years as chair of the board.) When talking about the future of the journal, he brings up the important point that many young Mormons no longer have to subscribe to Dialogue in order to experience intellectual stimulation—they can now do that by merely clicking on the many blogs. But this is a problem not only for the journal’s financial resources, but also for Mormon intellectual culture in general.

Here’s the quote:

Even the most solid and talented future leaders of Dialogue, however, will still have to find ways to attract more readers from the younger age groups–especially from those below age forty, where attrition in the Dialogue readership has been the greatest. This need not require a change in brand or editorial philosophy, since, as indicated in the surveys, readers preferences in such matters have not differed by age. My own assessment of the task facing current and future editors is that they must find a way to persuade their younger peers to spend less time in the blogosphere and more time in reading and writing in-depth, peer-reviewed literature on the Mormon scene. Blogging has its place, and it is a quick and easy way to get one’s opinions and observations broadcast to a certain constituency.

One drawback, though, is the tendency I have noticed for many who frequent the blogosphere to ask questions, or express opinions, in seeming ignorance of the rich literature found in journals and books that would bear importantly upon the very topics they wish to discuss. I realize that there is an immediate gratification in seeing one’s ideas disseminated to a large audience simply by hitting the “send” key, but in a couple of days one’s treasured thoughts disappear into the archives (or into cyberspace), where their future visibility will be limited. Far better, it seems to me, to collect one’s ideas (even if from one’s own blogs), document them, refine them, and submit them for publication in journals that are peer reviewed, indexed, and readily available for scholarly research. I hope that many more bloggers can be converted in that way into Dialogue authors, for this and many other journals in Mormon studies will be heavily dependent on their talent in the future. (143)

Notice that he admits that blogging does have importance and should not be done away with. (What would I do to procrastinate writing my dissertation?) But the concerns he brings up are very valid: blogging, and I would extend that to discussion groups on facebook, have led people to be satisfied with merely expressing angst without ever really resolving it. (Mauss is especially critical of the current Sunstone culture for that very reason.) Perhaps its because they types of platforms are typically landing spots where people go when they first develop a new interest or experience new problems, and thus blogs and discussion groups typically maintain an introduction-level dialogue.

It seems like there are three things that need to happen when one stumbles upon intellectual problems within the church. First, they need their problems validated and not merely dismissed. Second, they need to know they are not alone with those issues. And third, they need to struggle, research, formulate, reconceptualize, and struggle some more in order to work through the problems. Many online communities, especially those that gather the most people, are good at providing the first two elements, but rarely the third. In a way, internet Mormonism can make one lazy and content rather than inspired to actually find answers to the toughest questions. This is a shame, because the Mormon intellectual community has a deep tradition of sophisticated answers—or at least sophisticated questioning. We have leagues of books, articles, and essays that go a long way to help today’s most vexing questions, yet we are most often content to just read and write short blog posts or facebook statuses that give a superficial and cursory take on the issue; rather than actually dealving in, we are now conditioned to just express angst and leave it at that.

So, a couple questions. Do blogs and online communities actually cultivate intellectual laziness? How can we better utilize the online platform in promoting deeper and more sophisticated looks at our dynamic tradition?

And….discuss.

Update: Dialogue editor and fellow BCCer Kristine shares this good news: “For those of you feeling moved to repentance, Dialogue is offering a special holiday rate on indulgences, just for today and tomorrow. You can get an electronic subscription, which includes access to all of Dialogue’s current content, for just $10. Use discount code BCC15 at dialoguejournal.com. (If you’re already an electronic subscriber, this will add a year to your current subscription.) Peace on earth, good will to all!”

Comments

  1. one way to help is to stop moderating comments unnecessarily. You simply drive people away, and you lose readership.

  2. This is a terrific post. The internet’s great strength is in the second point, helping people find support groups around issues of concern. It also does a great deal to help people feel validated. I have, however, for some time had a concern that the even BCC causes people to fall prey a specific form of validation and support that may actually dampen the process of both institutional change and personal progress. From what I have seen, even BCC is beginning, on many issues, to develop a form of self-censorship where only those or a particular position feel comfortable in posting. As a result, a great deal of validation and support occurs but it is from a handful of folks who feel the same way about the issue and not from those of an opposing view or in positions of leadership within the Church. Even this form of validation and support was not easily obtained when geography isolated those with similar feelings but is possible in an internet era. The challenge, of course, is folks preaching to a choir that may have the relative size of one’s ward choir (6 men, 12 women, and two children typically :) as compared with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As a result, I have often wondered if we feel validated and supported by those whom we see as the real “thinkers” or “enlightened” people in the Church only to find (or not find) that there are others who are just as smart and enlightened having a separate conversation to which we are not privy. And, just as importantly, that there may be little institutional validation for what we are feeling.

    To the third point, then, this immediate acceptance from a like-minded audience particularly around issues that stir personal passion, means that there is not a need to dig into the research as everyone whose opinion we have come to value seems to be in agreement with us. Thus we continue merrily down the path of confident discipleship stroked by like-minded saints.

    Now that I have posted my well or poorly reasoned view, I will move on with the rest of my day and not dig into the literature to see what anyone else has to say on the subject. Hopefully all of you, my enlightened sisters and brothers, will agree with me so that I may feel validated and supported and not feel guilty about examining these subjects in any real depth beyond this blog.

  3. Daniel, that might only work if we care merely about the size of our readership and even then it would probably fail spectacularly (cf. the comments section on the SL Trib).

  4. Ben, I think this is a great issue to think more about.

    To play devil’s advocate a bit, this is (of course) a reductionist take on the blogosphere, and I think it’s worth thinking through the various virtues of blogs in order to understand the criticisms better. In that vein, I think blogs (and listservs, which I tend to prefer…) have the potential of substituting for the kind of environment that exists in the best academic institutions.

    For Mormons, who do not have professional seminaries like other religions (though we do have a handful of new Mormon studies programs and chairs), this virtual academy is a fantastic source for getting preliminary feedback on ideas and argument — of that kind that brown bag series and informal hallway chats and other casual conversations do in vibrant academic programs.

    Also, I think it’s important to recognize the incalculable contribution that blogs have made to the dispersion of ideas. That is, if the number of Mormons (or friends of Mormons) who are intellectually engaged in some manner has increased by a factor of 5 or 10, then a drop in quality of, say, 25-50% is not so terrible….

    If those who are intellectually serious do the work of publishing in peer-reviewed publications and blogs are understood to be for the purpose of discussing those ideas and talking to a more general crowd, then the virtues and vices of blogs can be better understood, and better utilized in what is hopefully the ongoing development of a flourishing intellectual ecosystem — an ecosystem that doesn’t exclude those who don’t have the time to invest in reading more weight publications (a criticism Mauss’s point is vulnerable to), but that also pushes everyone involved to think more carefully, responsibly, and rigorously.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    I think Mauss is mostly right, but I don’t know how to fix it. In any other aspect of our lives, a statement that begins with “Hey, I read on the Internet that…..” is the beginning of a punchline. For instance, few people would think of basing investment decisions solely on reading a few websites for an hour or so.

    I share Mauss’ preference for footnotes, ruthless editing, and rigorous peer review, but have no idea how to produce it online.

  6. Great idea for a series.

    To the questions, I know that PTB at BCC have tried to foster links with Dialogue in order create a more productive relationship between blogs and the journal. My own sense is that blogs could be a gateway for academic publications. Blogposts could point to previously published material and also build on it. In fact, I can think of a few blogs that do this really quite well.

    I would also frame the problem in a slightly different way to Mauss. I have not discussed this with anyone involved in Dialogue so this is just some superficial reflections and so I may be wrong but I would imagine that there are two challenges: one with authors and another with readers. As Mormon studies becomes increasingly specialized and professional the academic quality of the work produced by researchers will increase. This will make it less likely that a blogger could produce publication worthy material from a series of blogposts – obviously there may be exceptions (WVS?). With that, increased pressure to publish in certain journals may push some of the best work away from Dialogue.

    In terms of readers, in the past I imagine that some of Dialogue’s readership has been interested amateurs. They want to engage their Mormonism in a more serious way than Sunday School allows and Dialogue has been the venue for that to happen. The blogs fill that void in a similar way except that the interested amateur can now be a regular and active participant, and they can do it for free. The challenge is trying to convince the interested amateur that the publication can offer you something that the blogs cannot. In my view, this is a hard sell because most people – even this interested and bright Mormon – will not want to read serious and detailed analysis of most topics. This will be especially true if the perspective of the author(s) is slightly different from this hypothetical reader. Most readers are lazy and a little vain. Blogs exploit both of those flaws.

  7. For me, it’s simply a matter of time. I’m not an academic by trade, so with family and job I have very little time for deep intellectual thought, reflection, or research. My intellectual stimulation regarding spiritual issues, therefore, comes from blogs where 5 minutes reading gives me days of material to think through. I just don’t have time to spend going to the source as it were.

  8. “For instance, few people would think of basing investment decisions solely on reading a few websites for an hour or so.”
    Mark Brown, this is great. Really great.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    Blogs foster both intellectual and emotional laziness.

    I have rarely, if ever, posted something on this blog that, after a few days of reflection, I recognize to be an insufficient expression of my thoughts on the particular issue at hand. If I were submitting something to be published, I would spend more time, edit more, seek edits from trusted friends, etc.

    As to emotional laziness, the Internet frequently brings out the worst in people, who type insults and provocations that they would never say if face-to-face with the momentary object of their derision.

    Text messages, blogs, etc. are the fast food of human dialogue. They fill a short-term emptiness, but in the long run are not very healthy.

  10. Antionio, this seems strikes me as a lazy comment…. :-)

    My point above is that I think blogs are what we make of them. I follow a handful of very good blogs that maintain a very high level of conversation. For a Mormon blog, I think George Handley’s “Home Waters” is a good example (though I think Patheos, who hosts his blog, has an editorial review policy…).

    BCC’s “brand” might not support this level of rigor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible (esp. if the quick-editorial-review policy that I think Patheos uses were followed…).

  11. For lazy, slow-reading, non-academic, pseudo-intellectuals like me, Mauss’s words ring quite true. My impression is that blogs provide sound-byte, Reader’s Digest versions of what I think I’d be getting in Dialogue.

    Of course, since I’ve read, at best, only a handful of articles from Dialogue, maybe I’m underestimating the enjoyment I’d get from it. Maybe I actually have the reading level and academic background required to make a subscription worthwhile. I do subscribe to Dialogue’s Facebook feed…. :D

    *scampers off to consider getting a subscription*

  12. Sorry, one more quick thought: I have a notion of participatory democracy, as applied to intellectual life, strongly in mind here, and I think it’s a useful framework for thinking about the role of blogs in the broader society of intellectual life (see, for example, this article on participatory democracy, or just peek at the Wikipedia entry if you want the Reader’s Digest version…).

  13. J. Stapley says:

    Its hard for me to formulate an argument against Mauss’s comments and your comments Ben. Still, I think that there can be a symbiotic relationship. As has already been discussed, the vast majority of interested Mormons aren’t going to create academic scholarship on Mormonism. The degree to which the extreme minority who do will be distracted by blogging (as opposed to being enriched by it) isn’t at all clear to me. I imagine it is a large net positive. So the real question is about how to maintain readership, a question that is more systemic then the niche of Mormon Studies.

  14. Robert C.,
    I’m skeptical that Patheos has an editorial review policy, both because of Bro. Peterson’s blog there and because FPR features no editorial meddling of which I am aware (since I’m still sorta associated with it). George’s blog is just that good in its own right.

  15. John, thanks. It’s Jim Faulconer who’s mentioned he works with an editor at Patheos — but maybe he’s an exception (and his blog Speaking Silence deserves mention too, as an example of excellent blogging…).

  16. Many fairly prominent scholars take up blogging (in the Mormon community, George Handley, James Faulconer, Patrick Mason, to name a few). This sheds light on an important task for the contemporary intellectual, that of translation. There are a lot of searingly intelligent yet unapproachable academics and their concomitant academic work, work that is barely translatable among other academics. All three of the above mentioned scholars have produced rigorous academic scholarship, and yet they have recognized that increasingly in today’s interconnected and unmediated world there is a need for intellectuals to be public intellectuals, and even that this is inescapably part of the role of this kind of profession. Blogging is one important venue available to the public intellectual. Kind of like if Richard Bushman had a blog–when Bushman toured the US after the release of RSR, visiting academic as well as non-academic venues, giving interviews to media, etc, he was engaged in the role of the public intellectual. Blogging more or less can accomplish the same. The question, of course, is what to do with all the blogs that are not academically minded, or reactionary, or intellectually lazy, or just not interested in what the academics are doing, and of course the answer is absolutely nothing at all. I think there is something great about scholars becoming public intellectuals through blogging, and having their “translations” inserted amongst the variety of everything else there is, in a kind of democratic whirlpool of risk and ideas. Because there is risk in blogging in a way that doesn’t exist in the peer-reviewed world of journals and books, and it’s risk precisely through having to communicate one’s ideas in broader, big picture terms to a much more diverse populace. But risk is good for scholarship. It helps referee how it might actually matter to humanity at large rather than become the victim of navel-gazing and irrelevance.

  17. Aaron,

    #3,

    Daniel, that might only work if we care merely about the size of our readership and even then it would probably fail spectacularly (cf. the comments section on the SL Trib).

    I didn’t say stop all moderation of comments. I said to stop moderating comments unnecessarily. Obviously that’s highly subjective. Speaking solely of myself, I tired of following this blog after many of my comments were moderated for no obvious reason. I don’t see why I should waste my time if my comments are of no worth. And I think a lot of people feel that way. And that’s all I’ll say. No doubt I’ll push the ire of Steve Evans if I say anymore.

  18. European Saint says:

    “From what I have seen, even BCC is beginning, on many issues, to develop a form of self-censorship where only those or a particular position feel comfortable in posting.”
    Amen. And amen.

  19. [Due to unsustainable amounts of ire, this comment is awaiting moderation]

    I didn’t say stop all moderation of comments. I said to stop moderating comments unnecessarily. Obviously that’s highly subjective. Speaking solely of myself, I tired of following this blog after many of my comments were moderated for no obvious reason. I don’t see why I should waste my time if my comments are of no worth. And I think a lot of people feel that way. And that’s all I’ll say. No doubt I’ll push the ire of Steve Evans if I say anymore.

  20. Antonio Parr says:

    Jim Faulconer’s writings on Pantheos do not “feel” like a blog. They feel timeless, and are the best essays of modern Mormonism.

  21. Ben Johnson says:

    I could be wrong but I think readership for blogs vs. readership for Dialogue comes down to one thing: money. I like a fancy, well formatted dead tree in my hands as much as the next guy but I don’t like paying for it.

  22. First, the concept that Dialogue is struggling is disheartening. I’ve wondered for a while if a combination of blogs plus entire generations growing up with correlation (and eschewing anything that either isn’t put out by the church or by Deseret Book) has played a factor as well. Sometimes, academia, scholarly inquiry, and intellectual thought is given a horribly bad name, and if someone brings up many of the more intellectually-based thoughts within Mormonism, they run the risk of being branded a “rabble rouser.”

    Before I get to my thoughts, one caveat – Dialogue has a ton of value, not only as an institution, not only for the archive and the groundwork that has been laid, but for what it stands for. There should ALWAYS be a place for independent, well-researched thought and information within Mormonism.

    However, I think one of the areas that Dialogue is “losing ground” to (though I think both publications like MHA, Dialogue and Sunstone as well as the bloggernacle are extremely valuable) is the ability to connect on a personal basis with personal stories, as well as having the benefit of timeliness on one’s hands. The personal stories are there within Dialogue, but not to the extent and editorial freedom that one has other places. Plus, the ability to make them as long or short as one wants, to add and amend, etc. To include snark, to include whimsical light-hearted posts, to include humor and everything else is a huge benefit to the bloggernacle. To allow for off-the-cuff social commentary without the need to footnote everything is a huge benefit to the blogs. Couple that with the ability to post 10-ways-to-Sunday about the election, the Mormon candidate, Pants-gate, or whatever else might be making waves within the Mormon spheres puts the blogs at an advantage.

    ALL THAT BEING SAID – Dialogue can’t do that. That’s not what the purpose of Dialogue is, in my humble opinion. Dialogue SHOULD carry some intellectual weight with it, where if someone cites the work that is published in that journal, it should mean something. And I think that’s where the mutually beneficial relationship of the bloggernacle is great and wonderful, to see bloggers publish in Dialogue, and to see scholars in Dialogue contribute to blogs is wonderful.

    Where is Dialogue losing ground, though? Is it the younger generation? Probably. Is it now that Mormon studies is becoming more legitimized, and can be done in other journals? Maybe. Is it because everything has been analyzed to death? Probably not. But it makes for an interesting thought exercise.

  23. Daniel (#17), but that is exactly the point. If BCC judged what was ‘necessary moderation’ by the standards of those who comment here then we would have no moderation, just like the SL Trib.

    Norman and European Saint, we try hard to accept different points of view but inevitability there are certain types of conversation that we are most interested in having. Very often those conversations are based on assumptions that are sometimes shared among many of the BCC permabloggers (although they are rarely shared by all). That we can be impatient with those who want to argue over these assumptions is fair, and might even be regrettable, but it is also something that defines BCCs discourse. In my view this is something that makes us valuable. Anyway, I think we should now try to return to the questions posed in the post.

    In the meantime, if you have criticisms of BCC or its moderation policy I am sure Andrew S will be writing another bloggernacle meta-post soon in which he criticizes Steve Evans et al.

  24. Dialogue isn’t actually “losing ground” so much as not growing. Given the environment for print journalism, maintaining a fairly steady number of subscribers is cause for optimism. But it does need to grow–as Brandt kindly points out, Dialogue is important to the Mormon intellectual community, and its relatively small number of subscribers is not congruent with that importance.

    I think we should make everyone subscribe to Dialogue before being allowed to post comments on BCC ;)

  25. Thanks, all, for the comments. I’ll try to respond in turn, though I’ll unfortunately be brief.

    Norman: I’m sure you have a point about BCC, which is probably true for any self-selecting group. (How’s that for validating?) Online communities, just like real life communities, usually congregate around similar ideas and, no matter how broad they try to make their reach, there will always be naturally-formed boundaries that play a subtle, if important, role.

    Robert: I completely agree with your points on the academic worth of blogging (which, btw, is leagues better than listservs :) ). We recently had a discussion about it over at Juvenile Instructor (see here), and it was a main purpose behind me starting another academic blog on early American history (see here). Patrick Mason’s recent and excellent article on “Mormon Blogs, Mormon Studies, and the Mormon Mind” is another excellent exploration of the potentials and pitfals of blogging and scholarship. On your second comment, I fully agree that George Handley’s blog is perhaps the best in the business, and he shows how one can use such a platform for glorious ends. (And since he’s a Patheos blog, rather than a column, he doesn’t have editorial oversight. At least, that’s my experience with Peculiar People.)

    Agreed, Mark. Your first point reminds me of this McSweeney article (see here).

    Aaron: your separation into two camps is exactly right. The question of authorship is an important one, especially now that most Mormon academics have to publish in non-Mormon publications in order to get credit in the academic world. (Though Dialogue is gaining reputation.) As for readership, I think you hit on the point Mauss (and to a degree, I) finds most disturbing: that rather than wanting to read peer-reviewed, rigorous material, we are happy to settle with half-baked blog posts. As a result, our ideas remain half-baked.

    Shawn H: I totally understand. But as I’m sure you’ll agree, there are pitfalls with that. How do we make things more accessible to the busy semi-interested observor?

    Tevor: if you go purchase a subscription to Dialogue, I will consider this post a success.

    J: fully agreed, both on your points and your question.

    Jacob: I think “translating” is indeed the correct word here. As one who firmly believes in the necessity for academics to, in some way and to some degree, be “public intellectuals,” I think blogging is a great way to serve that function. The people you point out are great examples for that.

    Antonio: if only all other writers could be like unto Jim!

    Ben Johnson: I agree cost may be prohibitive, but remember that all issues of Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, BYUSQ, etc., are free on their websites, save for the past two years. That’s a lot of free material.

    Brandt: great points. I should note that Dialogue is not in too bad a shape. And the current editor has a great vision on how to keep Dialogue relevant through numerous different ways. I see the journal remaining a significant factor in Mormon life for quite some time.

    Finally, on the tangential point of moderation. My experience here, both in witnessing and even moderating myself, it is not so much viewpoints that are moderated but tone. Personally, I’ve moderated comments on both side of the ideological spectrum. Just like any community, you are expected to abide by a sense of morals. It’s the rule of the game an a common factor in life. You may not agree with them, but they remain nonetheless in order to give the place an identity and sense of order. That said, this is a silly and discursive point not related to the OP and detracts from the other great comments left so far, so future comments that continue this strain of questions will be, ahem, moderated. Live with it.

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    I had some thoughts similar to what Armand says in the OP here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/03/13/a-little-suggestion/

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    And here’s another one on my experience discovering Dialogue:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/03/22/reading-dialogue/

  28. One thing I have noticed is how insular blog communities are and how often posts not only are not informed by publications but also by other blogs.

  29. One may disagree with some of Armand’s observations and criticisms (for example, I think he misses and misstates some of Dialogue’s history and challenges facing Dialogue during the 1990s, especially), but he’s definitely on target in the concerns he raises regarding scholarship in blogs. As more of an outsider than insider to the world of on-line blogging, I realize my exposure is somewhat more narrowly limited than most others. That said, I’m sometimes very disheartened by comments in the talkback sections. More often than not, it seems, anonymity not only licenses but encourages snark and vitriol. So one suggestion: all bloggers must use their real names. (I understand the reasons for anonymity; I just don’t find them usually persuasive.) It’s also discouraging to find so many original posts seemingly unaware of the vast amount of scholarship that has not only already addressed the topic of the OP but that also corrects errors in the OP. The ease of blogging seems to promote a certain amount of ignorance of past scholarship. A third point: the quality of writing. This is sensitive, I realize. The quality of writing can be a subjective thing. What I like, others may not. And vice versa. Still, I worry that the quality of writing, especially in terms of clarity and ease of comprehension, is being seriously undermined by the absence of good editing and also peer review. Perhaps it’s just me, but some posts, notably those that seem to want to adopt and reflect an especially “erudite” posture, are mostly incomprehensible. I worry that what I’ve written reads more as a rant. That’s not my intention. I often find blogs to be stimulating, thought-provoking, educational, even moving. It’s just that I think many could be so much better.

  30. I am a small enough person to be highly amused by the observation by Norman (#2) and European Saint (#18) that BCC “is beginning, on many issues, to develop a form of self-censorship where only those or a particular position feel comfortable in posting.”

    Beginning? BEGINNING? Come now, we’ve been doing this since 2004 and you are just starting to notice this now?

    But to the larger point, as I said, I’m amused at the assumption that BCC should even try to be absolutely neutral. Show me anyplace on the entire Internet where somebody doesn’t feel uncomfortable participating. BCC occupies a niche along a spectrum, and some people like it, others don’t, c’est la vie. It does a decent job of fostering discussion, much if which isn’t very valuable over the long term, but so what? That is the case with any human conversation, online or in person. It goes without saying that this blog is, indeed, an echo chamber to some extent. But compared to many other fora in the LDS online community this is a pretty easy-going place. If you don’t believe me, go to the comment section of LDSLiving and say something nice about gay people. Or, even better, go to the Bulwark blog and try to disagree. They haven’t even allowed comments since October.

  31. I feel that joining the blogernacle as a reader has inspired me to think more deeply about many aspects of my faith and has also greatly increased it.
    If anything I think it is a good introduction into Mormon scholarship and leaves a desire in the mind to attempt to create contributions of one’s own (at least in my case it did).

  32. Blogs have so many purposes, most of which are not compatible with Dialogue or other formal journals. I may have written six posts out of more than 3,000 where I strove for anything like an intellectual presentation. But I have other goals — valid ones, I think — and am reaching for a very different audience from the journals.

    Maybe I would have published something formally had I not put so much time and energy into blogging, but knowing my personality I think it unlikely. And I would not have uncovered most of my stories and other materials without blogging, because blogging has kept me constantly on the lookout for usable materials that I would not have noticed otherwise. I certainly would not have the opportunity I have at the moment for the project I am now working on, were it not for blogging — blogging has sharpened my storytelling skills (an editor like Kristine could have done that, too, but for how many stories that might have gone to Dialogue, versus how many stories that have gone on Keepa?); reader feedback has clarified for me the audience I’m most interested in reaching; blogging brought me to the attention of people who would not have known to consider me for my current work … Had I not discovered the blogs when I did, and had not T&S invited me to join them while I learned what was what and developed something of a following, my life would be nothing like it is today.

    I just don’t see how the best opportunity in my life could have come to me had the formal journals been the only thing available to me. Blogging did that. And while that may not be an especially important data point for anyone else, it’s pretty dang meaningful to me.

  33. European Saint says:

    Mark: “I’m amused at the assumption that BCC should even try to be absolutely neutral.” Who is calling for this? Not me. But it is perhaps disappointing that, repeatedly, minority (generally more conservative) voices posting at BCC–even and especially those who make an effort to be respectful while disagreeing with posts–still get ganged up on/slighted/etc… the very things people like Dan Peterson and Ralph Hancock get accused of doing (unjustly, in my view) by (ironically?) certain BCCers. That said, I do appreciate some of the pieces I read at BCC, which is what keeps me coming back. So thank you for your efforts. Sincerely. As for LDSLiving, I wouldn’t have the same expectations for fairness/balance there in the comments–it’s a different readership, and not just slant-wise. But regarding the Bulwark, I have seen all sorts of “against the grain” comments posted there; I don’t see the same vibe of censorship by the majority of commenters there that I see here (and I am confident that there are other reasons for comments being closed for a period than those you have suggested). But I am certainly biased, and am no where near “absolutely neutral.” That said, I long to understand my brothers and sisters of different viewpoints. I can only hope that such longing is mutual.
    Aaron: Please excuse my interruption. We can now try to return to the questions posed in the post.

  34. Ardis: Amen! I hope I’d didn’t come off as denouncing blogs, because I share many of the same feelings and experiences as you. In fact, if all online communities were like Keepa, these “perils” would be unheard of!

  35. Ardis, I think your blog marries message and medium better than almost any other blog I’ve ever seen. It’s a truly brilliant use of the form. (But I still wish you’d write for Dialogue–a personal essay on the joys of blogging, maybe? :))

  36. If this was Facebook, I’d like ^this comment. :–D (<–sorry for that, SEvans, wherever you are.)

  37. @25. Ben, I guess I was saying that I agree with “One drawback, though, is the tendency I have noticed for many who frequent the blogosphere to ask questions, or express opinions, in seeming ignorance of the rich literature found in journals and books that would bear importantly upon the very topics they wish to discuss”. The only issue I take is that it’s not “seeming” ignorance. It is ignorance. My point was that is inevitable for those of us who don’t do this for a living to be ignorant. I, for example, spend my days steeped in spatial queries and jQuery code; I can’t dedicate the time necessary to be familiar with the journals and books that have spoken to the issues presented here and elsewhere.

    So for me, being able to read blogs does not encourage intellectual laziness. It’s all I’ve got to provide me with some intellectual fodder, especially since I live in Dallas, one of the most anti intellectual places on earth.

    The only suggestion I would make is that you do more reviews of these journals and books referred to. I would never have been able to know about Joseph Spencer’s “Another Testament” had I not read and been intrigued by the review here. Similarly, though I haven’t yet read it, “The God Who Weeps” is another book I wouldn’t have known about without reading about it here. The recent post linking to and summarizing comments from the post at another blog about limits to the prophet’s power is another good example of the cross pollination the web enables.

    In summary, while those of us who are interested observers may not meet the standard of intellectual rigor expected in the academic world, we receive immense value from the discussion taking place online. In many cases, it’s all we get.

  38. European saint: No worries, I was overstating my case, just trying to have some fun. I really do hope you stick around.

    Like you, I do want to understand.

  39. I agree with the concerns expressed in the quote – from a strictly academic standpoint. However, I also feel exactly like Ardis described in #32.

    Two more things:

    1) There is nothing intellectuall lazy about many of the posts and comments I read in the blogosphere, even if they aren’t traditionally formatted as research-based. Likewise, there are some amazing books published over the last few decades that aren’t considered “classics” worthy of academic study – largely, in my opinion, because we tend to idealize works by people who are dead and who gained their reputations in a time when very few people wrote things that were worth reading and analyzing. More competition creates a higher number of quality writing, but we tend not to value it as much. (The same can be said of athletics, as well.)

    2) There is a difference between an ivy tower and the trenches. Both are important, and, sometimes, people have to choose one over the other. At different times in my life, I have preferred one over the other and chosen accordingly. Sometimes, it takes just as much work and intelligence to connect in the trenches as it does to opine in an ivy tower.

  40. Gary–I think there’s no question that most things improve with peer review and editing (I sort of have to think that, I guess :)), but there’s also the question of whether the options are JMH/Dialogue/Sunstone vs. blogs, or JMH/Dialogue/Sunstone vs. nothing. I kind of suspect we’d have lost a generation of readers whether or not there were Mormon blogs, because we’ve lost a generation of readers altogether. One has to contend, I think, with the question of whether blogs are better than nothing at all, and I think that’s an easy question to answer. There’s also the matter of reach–would we rather have 10K+ readers/day looking at BCC and getting a somewhat dilute product or have some tiny fraction of that number getting the full monty (as it were ;)) in edited/footnoted/highly curated outlets?

  41. Thomas Parkin says:

    Big yes on #16. Blogs give intellectuals and academics the opportunity to not talk among themselves. They can serve as a bridge between peer-reviewed journals and everyday Mormon conversation. Expanding one’s intellectual horizons _is_ a universal gospel ideal – receiving the education necessary to read and write like an academic is not. Blogs can explode these territories which were otherwise contained.

  42. By the way, for those of you feeling moved to repentance, Dialogue is offering a special holiday rate on indulgences, just for today and tomorrow. You can get an electronic subscription, which includes access to all of Dialogue’s current content, for just $10. Use discount code BCC15 at dialoguejournal.com. (If you’re already an electronic subscriber, this will add a year to your current subscription.) Peace on earth, good will to all!

  43. Kristine, I understand your point, and don’t disagree with it. And I definitely wouldn’t want to frame the question as Dialogue, etc., vs. blogging, or vs. nothing at all. (It’s not.) I think blogging can be a viable, immensely useful tool for a variety of uses. But I also think, as I imagine some others may as well, that blogging entails is own special can(s) of worms. In my fantasy world, blogs would require all users to use their own real names, and would be moderated for, at a minimum, staying on topic and avoiding personal insults and ad hominems (and maybe especially foul language). Factual errors, etc., would remain, mostly, the domain of responders/talkbackers. I think I agree with you that blogging is probably better than nothing; yet, to be honest, there are times when I find myself wondering if I really believe this.

  44. Armand Mauss says:

    I suppose I should be glad that this one issue, which Ben quoted from my memoir, should have generated so much discussion. Just think what OTHER provocative ideas the book might contain! In any case, I trust, from the general purport of the discussion so far, that everyone understands I am not offering a wholesale condemnation of blogging. I have done a little blogging myself over the years, either by invitation or by “dropping in” on a discussion, and I began the paragraph in question by referring only to one DRAWBACK of blogging. I concur probably with more than 90% of the “yes, but” reactions from all of you. Yet my concern includes also a cost-benefit question about the TIME devoted to blogging, especially by those (like some on this page) who manifestly have the time, training, and knowledge to contribute significantly to Dialogue and similar venues, having done so more than once; and I worry too about other, and perhaps younger, talented scholars, who devote extensive time to lengthy posts and comments that might, with some augmentation of time and effort, make important contributions to the printed journals. This is not an either/or matter in my mind — more a matter of proportionality as between time spent blogging and time spent in crafting publishable work in print.

  45. Well, I had two articles in dialogue this year, so my quota is full. :)

  46. Echoing #37, I wonder how relevant this worry is to those who aren’t academicians of Mormonism. In particular, I doubt that it matters to most individuals going through a the run-of-the-mill faith crisis, as Ben seems to indicate. The average doubter/questioner doesn’t need to MHA ‘certification’ in order to navigate a faith crisis; he or she needs only enough information to decide, according to his/her individual circumstance and temperament, what to do about it. And I contend that sufficient information, as well as the full spectrum of engagement approaches, is well-represented and forcefully articulated among the blogs and online communities. Is there really information in the scholarly sources that (a) would affect someone’s faith-crisis trajectory, and (b) isn’t fairly readily available online (if only by virtue of being quoted on a blog or forum post)?

  47. Matthew, I’d argue that there is some value in the long-form, possibly tedious scholarly approach, not necessarily because there’s information that will solve the problems that precipitate a crisis, but because the process of sifting patiently through complexity is important. The problem with the online, 1-hour-podcast-can-tell-me-what-I-need-to-know approach is that it is the flip side of the shallow challenge-to-baptism-in-the-second-discussion approach to missionary work. It leads people to make emotion-driven decisions that won’t have spiritual sticking power when things get complicated (as they always do). My own feeling is that almost anything that slows the process down and gives time for emotions to be “reflected in tranquility” is really helpful.

  48. An excellent series ;)

  49. Indeed, Ben S. I recognized the series title immediately upon seeing it this morning …

  50. Mark Brown says:

    Matthew, while I agree there is no shortage of information, I think there is a shortage of contexualized information. In the age of google it is the easiest thing in the world to go quote-mining and find anything you want to find. But that approach often doesn’t provide a framework to understand the information. Let’s face it, Mormonism is at least a moderately complicated religion. It is discouraging to me to see that Grant Palmer is held in such high esteem in the post-Mo crowd. Nothing against him personally, but Insider’s View isn’t anything to be basing life decisions on.

    Your caveat about individual circumstances and temperament is important. Many people don’t want additional information or understanding. They get to the hurt/anger stage and that is enough.

  51. Matthew: not much to add after Kristine and Mark’s responses. I really do think a majority of blog posts I’ve seen are devoid of much context and demonstrate a lack of knowledge of our rich literature and materials.

    Ben S.: did you do a series like this? If so, I am very open to the possibility that A) I was just ignorant of your efforts, or B) I just forgot them and my subconscious filed it away to be resurrected today.

  52. Kristine: “My own feeling is that almost anything that slows the process down and gives time for emotions to be ‘reflected in tranquility’ is really helpful.”

    Certainly; I’m all for slow moves when it comes to faith crises. But I’m not sure why the ‘long-form’ approach ought to be the drug of choice for such reflections. I know of very few people who have made snap judgements after listening to a one-hour podcast.

    Mark: “I think there is a shortage of contexualized information.”

    I disagree, actually. Internet Mormonism provides plenty of (belief-friendly, which is really what’s in contention here) context, from flat-out apologetics to “nuanced” Mormonism. I can’t speak to the popularity of Palmer directly — I’ve never actually read him. But I’m perpetually baffled at the liberal believers’ surprise at those who have deconstructed the correlated narrative and find the uncorrelated narrative to be a dead hypothesis. Do you really blame them?

    Ben: “I really do think a majority of blog posts I’ve seen are devoid of much context”

    Sure, but I’m not sure how that addresses my point. That most blog posts are uninformative doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of informative posts. I contend that any reasonably lengthy tour through Internet Mormonism provides sufficiently varied and rich context and information — for the non-specialist, at least.

  53. Matthew, if somebody actually understands the uncorrelated narrative and finds it unsatisfactory, that is absolutely legitimate. But I question whether finding out that the correlated narrative isn’t the whole story is sufficient grounds for making life-changing decisions which almost always have negative consequences for family relationships and marriages. It’s like if I moved to Canada and renounced my U.S. citizenship because I found out that George Washington didn’t really chop down the cherry tree. I think Dan Wotherspoon gets it exactly right, when he says that a challenge to our faith should be viewed as an invitation to further study.

    De-conversion narratives, like conversion narratives, are full of “the scales fell from my eyes and I saws the light” experiences. And often, the de-conversion narratives revolve around some facet of our history which the new de-convert gets wrong in some basic ways. I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see people bear their testimonies of MormonDumb. Of course, the church and its correlated curriculum bear much of the responsibility for creating a generation of fundamentalists who are uncomfortable with complexity and who head for the exits when their Manichean, either/or worldview is challenged.

    “I contend that any reasonably lengthy tour through Internet Mormonism provides sufficiently varied and rich context and information — for the non-specialist, at least.”

    I agree with you on this point, with the caveat that we might quibble over what reasonably lengthy means. But I’m not sure this is a very useful point, given that back issues of BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, Joseph Smith Papers Project, Dialogue, Sunstone, etc, are on the Internet now, and I don’t think our de-converts are spending much time there. Instead, what we frequently find is a breathless “You guys, guess what I just found out!! Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with rocks in his hat, ZOMG!! My seminary teacher never told me that, I’m outta here!!”

  54. Mark #38 As an academic, I think I have learned not to be particularly thick skinned but I do think we want to be careful of the framing of our dialogue on BCC so that it does not become like that found on typical news sites or other more emotional (LDS Living) sites. One of the things that I enjoy about BCC is a sincere attempt by most posters not to direct personalized critiques at other posters. Doing so demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice dialogue for victory. When posters begin to begin to be “highly amused” at another’s post, they engage in a form of blogger bullying that decreases dialogue by making unwelcome differing points of view.

    Having said that, I acknowledge that no site is going to be devoid of a particular slant as it tends to draw people who have an affinity for a particular set of issues or a particular way, in this case, of defining the relationship between the life of the mind and the life of the soul. It would, however, be nice to find a site where multiple sides of issues are discussed respectfully and inclusively. BCC, for those interested in LDS-related topics, comes about as close as I have seen. For us to reflect on our own role in keeping it that way seems to me to be a topic worthy of our consideration.

    Now, to Ben, my apologies and back to our regularly scheduled show!

  55. Yeah, I had a series of the same title going for a while at Patheos, which then petered out after 1 or 2 at T&S. Title’s hardly original to me, of course.

  56. Also, a clarification. I’m no longer involved with Patheos, but I was responsible for the early shape of the Mormon portal. Jim Faulconer (along with Rosalynde Welch and William Hamblin) were all invited weekly columnists. As such, they submitted longer pieces that did go through two light editorial layers. (I do not know if such is still the case.)
    Hosted blogs, on the other hand, are just that; blogs hosted by Patheos, which will tend to shorter pieces that go through no editorial process at all.

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