Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mormon Internet Origins: A Prelude to the Bloggernacle #mormonmedia

I presented this brief history of the early days of Mormonism on the Internet as part of the Mormon Media Studies Symposium (#mormonmedia) at BYU.  The title of the panel was: "Mormon media Studies: Across Web Time, Cyberspace and Blogging Disciplines" organized by Emily Jensen.

In the beginning was the DARPA-net
And DARPA-net begat the ARPA-net
And  ARPA-net begat USENET
And USENET begat net.religion

 -- which was the first Internet forum for the discussion of religion.

In 1984 I was able to first access the Internet and witnessed my first discussion of Mormonism on the net.religion newsgroup.  Someone had posted parallels between the Book of Moses and the Book of Enoch, suggesting this as a powerful evidence that Joseph Smith had restored an ancient record.

This was amazing!  A place where you learn, share and explore the church with intelligent and thoughtful Mormons, in a realm without geographic boundaries?!

But, Internet access in those days was at best intermittent, and we lost our feed.  However, this whetted my appetite and I wanted more.  
The fruit was most desirable.

To prepare for future growth on the Internet, the "Great Renaming" occurred in 1986, and net.religion was renamed talk.religion. Soon, other religious newsgroups were created.   By this time I had reacquire Internet access, but the character of religious discussion had changed.  Attacks on the church were common, and there were few if any defenders.  I, a few co-workers, and fellow BYU Computer Science alumni felt we should come to the church's defense, and we began spending our spare time  preparing apologetic responses to attacks.

In 1988, David and Lynn Anderson created the first Internet-accessible email group by Mormons and for Mormons called "LDS-L."

It fulfilled my hopes from five years earlier for an intelligent, thoughtful, uncontentious discussion of Mormonism.  It seems no topic was left unturned, and this band of nearly 200 Mormons, hungry for more light and knowledge began
feasting from the tree of knowledge.

It was, perhaps, an Eden-like environment, not dominated by any agenda.   Dogmatism and anti-Mormonism were absent in this hierarchy and authority-free environment.  Friendships, and the first Internet-Mormon-marriage was forged in a community filled with spirituality and inquiry.  And we began calling ourselves the Internet First Ward. 

At this time the internet was accessible mainly through universities and engineering firms; and LDS-L was dominated by scholars, and engineers.  The Internet was difficult to access, requiring engineering skills to navigate. These factors acted as filters, limiting participants to certain interests, personality types and to those who were motivated to participate.

In 1991, two BYU professors announced the creation of Mormon-L, specifically designated to be a forum for the scholarly discussion of Mormonism.  Mormon-L quickly grew in popularity, and soon became the dominant forum.

Several factors converged over the next few years that would change the face of Mormonism on the Internet, and set the stage for the future world of the Bloggernacle:
  1. Around this time, two companies (Prodigy and AOL) began providing Internet access to large numbers of people for a fee, noticeably affecting the Interests and types of discussion on the Internet.  A larger diversity of Mormons joined Mormon-L, bringing in different values, ideological views and approaches.  This diversity expanded the types of opinions and discussions as well as how those discussions unfolded.
  2. Like spokes of a wheel, new email groups branched out, discussing specific aspects of Mormonism, such as feminism, philosophy, scripture, history, antiquities, and ultra-conservative Mormonism.  But Mormon-L remained the central hub.
  3. During this time frame, tensions had been increasing between feminists, intellectuals and the church leadership, culminating in the 1993 excommunications of prominent scholars and feminists known as the September Six.  The Internet provided an unprecedented stream of information and subsequent discussion as events unfolded.  Because it hosted a large audience,  Mormon-L played a role in magnifying these tensions. Individuals became torn over issues of church loyalty, and the the scholarly pursuit of truth.
These factors came to a head In 1994, and Mormonism on the Internet fractured

A BYU professor who was uncomfortable with the open and unrestrained discussion of Mormonism on BYU campus was instrumental in having Mormon-L shut down and removed from BYU computers.

Feasting from the Tree of Knowledge was deemed at odds with the Tree of Life, and it was cast from the garden.

With its removal, the one stop shopping center for all things Mormon was gone, and Mormonism on the internet became decentralized.

The bloggernacle emerged a decade later.  New technologies provided a new medium of discussion.  While not as centralized as LDS-L or Mormon-L, today the Bloggernacle provides a loose collection of forums where one can  monitor and participate in conversation about the church from a variety of angles. 

The Bloggernacle is the next chapter in the ever changing world of Mormonism on the Internet.

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