During the last weekend in March, I had the privilege to attend the Decentered Mormonism conference hosted by l’Université de Bordeaux-Montaigne, thanks in part to a Global Mormon Studies grant from Claremont Graduate University. So, what was an educational technology researcher affiliated with a School of Information Science doing at a Mormon Studies conference?
Presenting social media research, naturally. As readers of my previous blog may recall, my research into teacher-focused Twitter hashtags has occasionally led me to explore #ldsconf, the hashtag (~previously) associated with the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “the Church” for the sake of brevity). With the help of my longtime Twitter colleagues Matt Koehler and Bret Staudt Willet, I’ve started turning those occasional explorations into some more systematic research. At the Decentered Mormonism conference, we—in keeping with the conference’s theme—used some of the Twitter geolocation techniques that we’d compared in a previous study to specifically identify #ldsconf participants who identified as being from outside of the United States. There’s a tension in the Church between its increasing international expansion and its deep American roots (hence the reasoning behind the conference), but Twitter theoretically provides a way for “decentered” Church members (i.e., those outside the United States) to participate in conversations and even to “decenter” the conversation (i.e., by working to change Church cultures, attitudes, and teachings. However, as George Veletsianos has written on the subject of seeing Twitter as socially constructed:
Though this perspective recognizes that technologies are imbued with assumptions, biases, and affordances that encourage users to employ them in certain ways, it rejects the notion that technology determines practice. Thereby, this perspective suggests that Twitter and hashtags are not deterministic.
In other words, just because Twitter theoretically allows for #ldsconf participation by more diverse members of the Church (in terms of geographic location or attitudes toward the Church) does not mean that that is actually the case. Rather, we found that Americans—especially those in the Mormon corridor—dominated the #ldsconf hashtag and that international participants seemed more likely to use Twitter to “catch up with” the American Church rather than to distinguish themselves from it. Our full slides (and jumbled presenter notes) can be found here.
We know (from our ongoing research and others’ work) that the Internet (generally) and Twitter (in particular) are places where people frequently express Mormon identities that go against established norms, so while the absence of any kind of “decentering” in our data comes as somewhat of a surprise, we also don’t offer this as an authoritative conclusion that international Mormons aren’t using Twitter to push back against the Americanness of the Church (or any of its other attributes). Rather, we offer it as a helpful reminder that the intersection between technologies and social groups are complicated: liberal/progressive American Mormons’ critiques of the Church don’t always correspond with international members’ attitudes, and just because Twitter allows for Mormons outside of Utah and the United States to join the conversation doesn’t mean that they do. This latter point is perhaps absurdly obvious when one takes into accounts possible differences between international Mormons in terms of time zones and simple familiarity with Twitter, but in my view, it never hurts to challenge deterministic views of technology and to draw attention to distinctions between what a technology affords and how social phenomena drive its actual use.
As a short coda to this post, I’d like to mention how welcomed I felt at the conference and how much of a difference that made in my experience there. While it would be hard not to enjoy a conference that took place in Bordeaux and gave me a chance to dust off my French, my imposter syndrome was cranked to maximum as the presentation began. It’s been turned pretty high since last summer (a perhaps natural consequence of being a first-year assistant professor), but my brain kicked it up a few notches every time I prepared to explain what a professor of Information Communication Technology was doing at a Mormon Studies conference (not least because I’m still adjusting to being associated with “ICT” after years of association with “education”). Yet, although other presenters could have found plenty of reasons to treat me as an outsider, people were kind enough to show interest in my research, ask great questions that pushed my thinking, give me a place at the table, and encouraged me to continue my work in this area. Not only did it make the conference a wonderful experience, it also reminded me that feeling like an outsider is usually the result of internal panic rather than my actual academic status.