New Publication: Approaches to Mormon identity and practice in the #ldsconf Twitter hashtag

Over the past few months, I’ve been making some brief forays into the field of Mormon Studies by applying the Twitter research methods I’ve picked up as an educational technology researcher to hashtags related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bret Staudt Willet and Matt Koehler, two of my valued colleagues in my ed tech Twitter work, have been kind enough to accompany me on these inital explorations, and we’ve just received the good word that our manuscript “Approaches to Mormon identity and practice in the #ldsconf Twitter hashtag” is now available through the Journal of Media and Religion. 50 free copies of the manuscript are available through this link and should that run out, a late draft of the article is available here on the website, as permitted by the Taylor & Francis preprint policy. I am also happy to respond to emails about the article.

For your reference, here is our abstract for the article:

In this paper, we document different expressions of Mormon identity and different approaches to Mormon practice within the #ldsconf Twitter hash- tag. In particular, we examine #ldsconf during two important events in the recent history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the pre- sidential transition from Thomas Monson to Russell Nelson in January 2018, and the Church’s formal acceptance of Nelson as Church president in April 2018. Our findings suggest that the #ldsconf hashtag allows for more expression of identity than formal Latter-day Saint contexts and that Twitter hashtags afford a ready audience for religious discussion in which no bounds are set on appropriate identity or practice.

This is a paper that I’ve been interested in writing for about as long as I’ve been doing Twitter research, and I’m very pleased to have finally completed and published it. On one hand, this has been an exciting opportunity to apply the methodological approaches I’ve been refining in ed tech research to a different field, taking advantage of my position in a School of Information Science (rather than a College of Education). On the other, this particular paper is, in many ways, a logical continuation of the questions that I’ve been asking, despite the new field.

For example, my recent publication on spam in educational Twitter hashtags is rooted in an interest in how hashtags can create spaces that are founded on some common interest but have “absurdly low barriers for entry” (as I’ve previously described it). Similarly, one of the main objectives of this new publication is to describe the lack of structure or barriers to entry to this Mormon space on Twitter—especially in contrast to formal Mormon spaces, which are more strictly policed in terms of identity and practice. Thus, as we demonstrate, #ldsconf is as accessible to “typical” members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it is to progressive (or reactionary) Church members—not to mention critics of the Church from a range of different backgrounds. (In fact, if my anecdotal experience with the hashtag is any indication, the data we focused on probably undersells this point). In a similar vein, one of the treats of carrying out this study was analyzing and describing how the formal process of “sustaining,” when imported into a Twitter context, retains the core values of the practice as intended by the Church but becomes intertwined with other aspects of participants’ identities—a far cry from the simple and inexpressive raising of hands that characterizes the process in a more formal setting.

Questions of barriers to entry, identity, and policing are core to the many individuals’—and the collective—Mormon experience today. While this is true beyond social media, it’s hard not to see Twitter as shining a spotlight on questions, issues, and trends that are—or will eventually be—also of greater interest to Mormonism broadly. With that in mind, I already have some additional “Mormon Twitter” projects in the works and am looking forward to continuing this vein of research.