Tweets and Conference: Real-time Reactions to the Priesthood Session

By: Bro. Jake
April 13, 2014

For those unfamiliar, Twitter is a social media platform that allows users to post statements consisting of 140 characters or less. Because of its immediacy and length constraint, it has become increasingly popular platform for sharing real-time reactions to things, giving rise to the phenomenon of “live-tweeting” events.

General Conference is no exception, and I was curious if I could find some way to analyze the aggregate reaction among Twitter users to conference as it occurred. So, I registered as a “developer” with Twitter, which gave me access to the pipeline of tweet streaming. I then downloaded all the tweets that included the #ldsconf hashtag that were posted during the session. While I did this for all of conference (well, almost all. I missed the Sunday afternoon session), this will only include analysis from the Priesthood session.

The analysis I did wasn’t very sophisticated. After some basic text transformations (put everything in lowercase, strip out punctuation, etc.), I filtered out trivial words and created the following word-network visualization out of the remaining most common words used. The size of each circle and its associated label represents the frequency of that word among all tweets. The weight of the line between words is proportionate to the number of times those words appeared in the same tweet. Based on those relationships, the software I used ran an algorithm to group certain words into separate word clusters, which is indicated by the color of the circles. (As a sidebar, many of the common words were links or hashtags–i.e. PresEyring, etc.–which is why some of the words may seem a little wonky.)

Anyway, take a look:

priesthood session

There’s a lot I could say about this image, but one idea keeps floating around my head: for all the talk of how the priesthood is really a tool of inclusion rather than exclusion and it’s really about service and love and expanding the body of Christ, where the rubber really meets the road is the overall message people are getting–doubly so from the meeting specially set aside for leaders to speak to priesthood holders. And while we can argue about whether tweets are really a good measure of how the general membership interpret conference messages (or how much blame falls on imperfect individuals highlighting the seemingly exclusionary parts of what was meant to be an inclusive message), I have to wonder: what does this analysis indicate about the message people took away from this meeting?

To me, it indicates that the message of love and service and Christlike love (bonus question: can you find the word “Christ” in there?) that we purport the priesthood to be about wasn’t what stuck out in the minds of listeners. The red cluster, which I’m affectionately calling the “Oaks Appendage”, includes over 1/3 of the most frequent, non-trivial terms mentioned in people’s real-time reaction to the session, despite being only 1 of 6 discourses given. At the end of the day, it seems as if the “smackdown” on defining the boundaries of who could and could not hold the priesthood talk dominated the conversation, at the expense of things that are (in my opinion) more important.

Here’s what I take away from all of this: if you’re going to argue that the priesthood structure isn’t a tool of exclusion and it’s the fault of agitated members (i.e. Ordain Women) for misinterpreting the “true” meaning, maybe you should reevaluate the message you’re sending about it. Maybe you should take a good, long look at the text and subtext of what you’re saying and really try and gauge how those statements are being interpreted. Because when one guy gives one 15 minute talk during a 2 hour meeting addressing the exclusive nature of the priesthood and then leaves such a disproportionately large impression on listeners, maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe it’s yours.


P.S. I have other visualizations/metrics that I can put up here on request. Let me know if there’s anything else you want to see, and I’ll see if I can make it happen!


6 Responses to Tweets and Conference: Real-time Reactions to the Priesthood Session

  1. kd on April 13, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    There is an interesting book about the culture wars and Christians by James Davidson Hunter called To Change the World, which I think applies to this post. His observation was that as more and more cultural elements become political (abortion is a good example) society becomes more divided. He links his argument to Nietzsche’s, who said that in a democracy cultural factions would feel resentful because of the political actions of other factions and would retaliate in kind.

    Ordain Women I think has a lot of resentment built up due to their personal experiences and ideology, which explains why they use a more public approach to cause change in church. This public approach though is coercive (Hunter would define it as such) as it relies upon media attention, public pressure, and demonstrations to achieve its goals. As such, it causes resentment among people who sincerely believe in the current arrangement (probably exacerbated by a cultural heritage of persecution) that is leading to retaliatory action. Be it increased twitter attention for Elder Oak’s talk or Mormon Women Stand (which has 20,000 more facebook likes than OW), it should not be a surprise there is a strong reaction towards the message of OW.

    Its interesting then to see if what Hunter recommends in his book applies to the OW movement. He argues Christians have an obligation to be non-coercive, and so should not use political levers to change the world. He argues simply being Christian is more effective, and as an example he would probably agree with something like Mormon Helping Hands which spreads a message in a helpful way. I’ve wondered many times what the response would be to OW if instead of demonstrations they tried to increase baptisms or reduce inactivity in their respective stakes. They could do that under the banner of ordination, but I think they would be met with a more conciliatory response.

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  2. Howard on April 13, 2014 at 12:43 PM

    Well, sometimes turning over the tables is more effective to heal the blind and help them see.

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  3. Kent (MC) on April 13, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    One of the issues you have is that those who tweet are not representative of the whole. What would be interesting is what the demographics are for the folks who tweet and how that compares with the demographics of the whole. I doubt the words of Elder Oaks was as important to non-Corridor Mormons, but it is difficult to say. Statistics are fascinating when they tell a representative story as they do here.

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  4. Frank Pellett on April 13, 2014 at 8:21 PM

    Why not combine the tags with the same subject? e.g. “PresUchtdorf” and “Uchtdorf”, “PresMonson” and “Monson”, maybe even “Christ” (not too hard to find) and “Lord”?

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  5. Ziff on April 13, 2014 at 9:07 PM

    I love this, Bro. Jake! I particularly like your labeling of the Oaks appendage. :)

    I also think you make a good point about it looking like the priesthood is more for exclusion than inclusion. Maybe if women made up only 40% of the active adult population of the Church, GAs would be more interested in trying to make them feel included. Unfortunately.

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  6. Roger on April 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM

    I found this very intriguing. All methodology issues aside, this does serve to tell us the reactions of the “connected generation”. Too bad we didn’t have twitter-gram analysis during the Benson diatribes on civil rights and or Elder Poelman’s talk before editing..

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