Moderating Mormons Online – Thoughts from SunstoneBy: Andrew S
Two weeks ago, I was at Sunstone in Salt Lake City. I was invited to speak as part of a panel entitled “Moderating Mormons in Cyberspace” as part of my role as a moderator for the Mormon Hub Facebook group (which is Sunstone’s official Facebook group, so that makes sense.) Hopefully, many of you are part of the Mormon Hub (and, as another promotional note while I’m at it, hopefully, all of you have liked Wheat & Tares’ Facebook page), but even if not, I wanted to share a modified version of some of my prepared comments here, especially since in the panel, I briefly contrasted Wheat & Tares from Mormon Hub.
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If you keep up with blogs, many of you may recognize me as Andrew S. My relevant online Mormon bona fides with respect to “moderating Mormons in cyberspace” would probably be as follows:
- I run the blog Irresistible (Dis)Grace, a blog with so few comments as to require virtually no moderation.
- I am a (now scarcely) seen permablogger at the group blog Wheat & Tares, a blog where historically, it has been more likely that the permabloggers would sooner offer guest posting slots than actually moderate people.
- Most recently and relevantly, I am now one of approximately 20 moderators for the Facebook group The Mormon Hub, where I moderate with Diplomacy and Tact, (which are of course the names of my dual-wielded ban warhammers.)
One could say that I am a bit obsessed with the question of how Mormons divide and subdivide online, as the first time I went to Sunstone two years ago, I was part of a panel discussing whether good online fences make good LDS neighbors – or, more specifically, how the different blogging communities such as Nothing Wavering, the Bloggernacle, and Outer Blogness define boundaries and whether such boundary maintenance is valuable…and here I am now, talking about moderation in Mormon communities.
But one thing I would like to talk about is the difference in moderation styles between two of the online efforts of which I’m a part — Wheat & Tares and the Mormon Hub. Both Wheat & Tares and the Mormon Hub “began” soon after dramatic events surrounding former efforts of John Dehlin, with Wheat & Tares being the blog successor to Mormon Matters (which was a blog before it was a podcast [...and, for that matter, it was a podcast before it was a blog before it was a podcast, but that's just history]), and with the Mormon Hub being created by Sunstone soon after John had decided to limit the scope of Mormon Stories Podcast Community to being solely for discussions about podcast content (a decision which was quickly reversed), but the way the two communities have approached moderation is very different.
I certainly won’t say that Wheat & Tares is the least moderated blog, and I certainly won’t say that the Mormon Hub is the most moderated Facebook group, but the two groups have very different philosophies to moderation, with W&T wanting to avoid moderation as much as possible, and the Mormon Hub not being afraid of it.
I think that Wheat & Tares is (generally) averse to moderation for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, many of the permabloggers have experienced moderation at other sites. We know what it’s like to be banned at sites like By Common Consent, or if we are not banned, to just be ignored. We know how unfair it can feel. So, we didn’t want to do that.
But secondly, and more interestingly, moderation seems eerily similar to church disciplinary action, which also leaves a bad taste in many of our mouths.
In fact, this panel — Moderating Mormons in Cyberspace — could easily have been a panel about the how the institutional church confronts Mormons whose audiences and influences have primarily been formed online. Would folks like Rock Waterman, John Dehlin, or Kate Kelly have ever attracted as much interest as they have (or hit the radar of the institutional church) if it weren’t for blogging, podcasting, and the ability of the internet to allow people from all over the world to express their shared struggles together?
In this sense, becoming a moderator at the Mormon Hub has been quite interesting, because when I first became a moderator there, I found myself using euphemistic terms that we now see the church (or Public Affairs) use in discussion of church discipline.
Firstly, moderation is not punishment.
I really did (and do!) see moderation (mostly) as about some sense of care for the other person. The way I approach it, I want to reach out to the other person, ask them about where they are coming from, try to talk to them about where I’m coming from, what we’re trying to do at the Hub, and so on…I want us to reach an accord.
Maybe that accord is that the person changes their behavior.
Maybe that accord is that I understand what the person is trying to do or say, and maybe I provide some feedback on alternative ways to express themselves.
Maybe that accord is that the person understands what I’m saying, and decides they do not feel their behavior needs to be changed.
Even if someone decides they don’t value what we are trying to do at the Hub, I don’t want to punish them. I don’t want to ban them. So instead, to use an unfortunate concept enshrined in our cultural vocabulary by fellow Mormon W. Mitt Romney, I try to get them to self-deport. And this technique has been wildly successful, although it has led to the rise of the “YAGE”, or “yet another grand exit,” where people leave the group only after writing some manner of hyperbolic post dusting their feet off at the blind TBMS/evil apostates of the Hub (because the Hub is both full of the mental gymnastics of apologists AND utterly devoid of any faith, apparently.) And YAGEs have raised another moderation issue, but still.
I do see some distinctions between the setup between church and Facebook group, of course. The Mormon Hub doesn’t pretend to be the one true Facebook group and doesn’t take any tithes, and you don’t potentially lose contact with friends and family from leaving a Facebook group. I think a diversity of Facebook groups and blogs is therefore helpful so people can go to the groups or blogs they like.
Still, I think that there is a case for moderation…and also a case for blogs and groups that don’t want a lot of moderation. In particular, many blogs and Facebook groups are trying to cultivate something specific — whether it is a safe space for conservative, orthodox Mormons to talk without being derailed by constant snipes from disaffected comments (which I think is something of what many of the Nothing Wavering blogs are going for), or maybe something more like a mostly-truth-agnostic space for folks who just want to talk about Mormonism because we find it fascinating, but don’t want to be constantly badgered into dismissals because someone thinks that it’s a fraud or that this is all mental gymnastics or whatever. And moderation can be essential to reach those ends.
(I doubt many people at the moderation session were at my session on online fences, but at this point, it might seem like I’ve completely turned around from my previous position. Although, firstly, if you read my after-action report from my previous session, you’ll see that since I played devil’s advocate in favor of boundary maintenance [and the moderation required to maintain that], I’m technically not switching positions at all…but secondly, I had some critiques even back then that I think that I still have. As I said then:
Orthodox, faithful bloggers are discussing their faith and making a case for their faith “under controlled circumstances.” They can defeat critics and ex-members “under controlled circumstances,” and answer the questions of doubting and questioning members “under controlled circumstances.” But the problem is they aren’t going to find those here.
It’s not that doubters or questioners or even wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing do not exist. Vampires (or in J. Max’s lingo, “wolves and spiritual terrorists”) exist. But the ability to somehow find a way to control the engagement with those groups…that’s going to be increasingly difficult to do, and for the sake of J Max, his faith, and his church, I’m suggesting that he should deal with it. It’s a word of advice, not a threat.
I still believe in this critique. To say that an orthodox, faithful space like that of the many Nothing Wavering blogs requires moderation to artificially shelter it from its own fragility doesn’t change (and maybe it doesn’t even acknowledge) the fact of that fragility. But as a moderator of the Mormon Hub, where we are trying to create what increasingly seems to be a similarly fragile space [although it's more difficult to describe. I don't want to describe it as "liberal Mormon" although I think many liberal Mormons will enjoy it...I don't want to describe it as being "against" conservative Mormons or "against" disaffected Mormons, although we strongly oppose proselytizing from either of these camps...so that's why earlier I tried to use the term "truth-agnostic discussion of the fascinating"], it seems to me that just because things are fragile doesn’t mean that they may not be worth it.)
At the same time, because of the potential pitfalls of moderation, it’s also good to have spaces that are closer to free-for-alls. (Although I don’t know if any site can be a complete free-for-all…even in a group entitled Uncensored Mormon/LDS Discussions, informal social moderation techniques developed, and now, they too have an official moderation team.) Because I still do think there are marginalized voices. (I don’t necessarily think the same voices that are typically marginalized offline in LDS spaces are the same ones that are marginalized online, though. And that, I think, is what complicates the fundamental narrative about moderation in Mormon spaces. It’s great that those who are disaffected and marginalized in offline contexts can gain a space for their voice…but the internet by and large absolutely doesn’t marginalize the disaffected.) There are still people who might not express themselves in the most typical way — so our inclination is to reject them and to shun them — but who still have something worthwhile to say. There are still people who might seem to express themselves in provocative ways — because they disagree and we might not be used to that — but who are not trolls.
What do you think?
- Do you think that moderation even conceptually has value?
- And if not, do you think that there is any merit to the concept of fragile spaces?
- What sites, groups, and blogs do you visit and participate in? What places do you think have a good balance of allowing people to freely express themselves without getting mired down? What places have a good balance of moderating without seeming tyrannical?