Last Sunday was the 5th Sunday, and, since I was leading the 3rd hour combined lesson on "Using the Internet to Share the Gospel", I decided to teach the same lesson in my Sunday School class, as well. I justified it in a month with a topic of "Priesthood" by mentioning that preaching the Gospel is framed as a priesthood duty and that Elder Oaks had used serving missions as an example of how women are authorized to exercise priesthood authority - meaning that sharing the Gospel online can be seen as a priesthood duty for both men and women. (Creativity can be fun - and it shows how easy it is to justify what we want to do if we try.
I read (and we discussed briefly) the following sentences from Elder Ballard's commencement speech at BYU-Hawaii in Dec 2007 ("Sharing the Gospel Using the Internet
") that was reprinted in the July 2008 Ensign:
I am in my 80th year. By some accounts that makes me pretty old. Actually, some folks think some of the Brethren may be too old to know what’s going on in your world. Let me assure you we are very much aware.
Ours is the world of cyberspace, cell phones that capture video, video and music downloads, social networks, text messaging and blogs, handhelds and podcasts. This is the world of the future, with inventions undreamed of that will come in your lifetime as they have in mine. How will you use these marvelous inventions? More to the point, how will you use them to further the work of the Lord?
There is truth in the old adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In many cases it is with words that you will accomplish the great things that you set out to do. And it’s principally about ways to share those words that I want to talk to you.
The emergence of new media is facilitating a worldwide conversation on almost every subject, including religion, and nearly everyone can participate. This modern equivalent of the printing press is not reserved only for the elite.
There are conversations going on about the Church constantly. Those conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them. But we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches . . . Perceptions of the Church are established one conversation at a time.
All of you know that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are reminded and encouraged continually to share the gospel with others. The Church is always looking for the most effective ways to declare its message.
Now, may I ask that you join the conversation by participating on the Internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration.
Remember, as the proverb states, that “a soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). And remember that contention is of the devil (see 3 Nephi 11:29). There is no need to argue or contend with others regarding our beliefs. There is no need to become defensive or belligerent . . . We simply need to have a conversation, as friends in the same room would have.
I then shared ten suggestions for internet participation taken from a post by Daria Black in February 2007 that I found when I started blogging entitled "The Blogger's Guide to Comment Etiquette", plus two more I added, and we discussed how each suggestion relates specifically to sharing the Gospel online. For this summary, I will skip the obvious applications but add an explanation for suggestions that aren't as obvious.
1. Write a comment, not spam.
Spam is the bane of all webernet existence and has caused many a blogger to resort to counterproductive measures such as closing their comment section. Even worse than spam, however, are comments that do little more than consume bandwidth. What most bloggers are looking for is feedback that continues the discussion about the topic at hand. Comments like “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “I was here first,” are not helpful.
Take the time to read the blog entry and put some effort into writing a response that adds to the conversation and/or helps the blog writer. Your comment is your calling card. The webernet is an open rolodex and as such, how you present yourself through your words will tell people whether or not they want to look you up.
I simply mentioned that the first few comments a person writes in any comment thread (and the first few posts a person writes on a new personal blog) can establish that person's reputation and determine, to a large degree, how seriously that person will be taken by others. I emphasized that they don't have to try to write "perfect" or deeply profound comments and/or posts, but they should try to make sure they are commenting and furthering the discussion - or creating an opportunity for thought and/or conversation.
2. Stay on topic.
This policy may differ from blog to blog. Some blogmasters don’t care if the participants drift off onto tangent. Others will do a round house kick on you if you get too close to the white line. As a general rule if you find that you fall into a discussion with other visitors about something unrelated to the post, offer to email them privately.
We talked about "threadjacks" and how it is impolite to change the course of the discussion from what the author of a post intended - that when a person takes the time to write something, respect is shown best by honoring that intent. I did mention that some blogs and authors don't mind threadjacks, especially if lots of comments and good discussion have occurred prior to the threadjack.
3. Respect the rules.
Some bloggers will have an official comment policy in place. Usually because of issues they’ve run into with their feedback. Read it and respect it. Visiting someone’s blog is just like being a guest in their house. The last thing they want is you pooping all over their couch and doing so will usually result in them pushing you out the front door.
The kids got a kick out of that image. (I had to warn the adults in the 3rd hour about it and offer a quasi-apology before we started.)
4. Comments should be comprehensible.
Make an effort to use good grammar and spelling and to communicate your thoughts clearly. People cannot respond effectively to your concerns if they cannot understand what they are in the first place. Don’t forget that people cannot see your expression or hear your voice. Flame wars are often the result of a misinterpretation of the meaning of your words. This is why smilies and snark tags, such as “sarcasm”, were invented. Use them.
Also, be sure your writing reflects the level of formality of the blog. Throwing around slang terms on a blog that is highbrow may cause you to appear uneducated even though you are Mensa member. On the other hand, using language more suitable for a doctoral thesis on a blog that is very informal may come across as pretentious and snooty.
We talked about how lots of people assume Mormons are ignorant and how badly worded comments, with grammatical and spelling errors can reinforce that perception and actually hinder sharing the Gospel in a meaningful way. Again, I emphasized that comments don't have to be perfect and can include a mistake here and there, but that lots of people write a comment or post in Word first and run SpellCheck prior to copying it into a comment or post.
5. Avoid setting the whole blog ablaze when flaming a topic.
Let’s face it there are some subjects in life that, no matter how hard we try, cause us to flip out at the mere mention of them. But while you have the right to act like a jerk when the topic is raised, unless you want to be banned from the internet I suggest you refrain from doing so.
I mentioned, explicitly, that there is a reason some people refuse to talk about religion and politics - that they are highly emotionally-charged issues. We listed some religious topics that fit that description: abortion, gay marriage, morality, polygamy, witnessing/testifying, abuse by leaders, etc. I simply pointed out that we need to comment and post about these topics as carefully as we can, understanding how emotional they are.
We talked about respect for differing views and the idea that all people have the right to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences - without being called stupid, blind, idiotic, apostate, etc. for following their own consciences.
6. Follow up on comments.
Be sure to respond to comments directed at you even if just to say you don’t wish to talk about the subject. Services such as Co-Comment can help you track conversations you are involved in.
In the context of sharing the Gospel, I mentioned that I had commented recently on Facebook about a newspaper article that badly mis-characterized the recent statement from the FP and Q12 about the priesthood and apostasy. The title was, "LDS Church leadership says that only men are worthy to have the priesthood" - and my comment was simply, "That title is extremely inaccurate - and the inaccuracy is important." I told them that a high school classmate with whom I had not talked in decades responded with, "Why is that, Ray?" I then had a chance to go into more detail about what the statement actually said, as well as Elders Oaks' and Ballards' most recent statements about the priesthood.
If I hadn't looked at that thread (followed-up on my comment), I would have missed a golden opportunity to share the Gospel with that friend in that way. I also pointed out that it would have been simply disrespectful not to follow-up and answer a sincere question.
7. Keep it to a reasonable length.
Most blog topics don’t require more than a one or two paragraph response. Avoid writing a novel especially if it is your first visit to a blog. It also helps to read the other comments to make sure you are not adding to the broken record effect.
I asked the students how they respond when they realize something they want to read is multiple times longer than they thought it would be. They all agreed that they often skip it entirely. I mentioned that when the same person writes long epistles all the time, people simply see the person's name and skip all of their comments entirely. I told them they can't share the Gospel if nobody reads what they write.
I also emphasized that it is better to say, "I agree with Mary," or, "Wonderful comment, Mary," than to say exactly what Mary said in another comment.
8. Link to your sources.
When citing material to make your case, provide a link so that the participants can read it at their leisure. Be careful of linking to your own website when you first start commenting at a group site, since this can be seen as spam if you are a first time visitor.
Particularly when sharing the Gospel, if you are quoting or summarizing someone (like an apostle), sharing a link to what they actually said is important - and allows someone to go to lds.org, for example, in a non-threatening way. They might or might not read more there, but at least they have the opportunity to do so. It's also critical to make sure you quote or summarize them accurately, since it can be highly embarrassing to have the person read the linked talk and come back with, "I read your link, and the person didn't say what you claimed was said."
9. Do not feed the trolls.
They’ll just follow you home and poop on your doorstep.
The students loved this, and we talked about how intentional trolls often strive to derail good conversations by being inflammatory and diverting the thread into a verbal fistfight - and how they will keep doing so if fed but leave if ignored. I also used it as a chance to talk about how we (Mormons) can be trolls, if we: 1) go to conversations about other religions and start preaching the Mormon gospel there (like commenting on baptism for the dead in a thread about Catholic communion); 2) do nothing in our comments except call people to repentance; 3) go to a liberal or conservative blog and comment from the opposite perspective simply to show them how wrong they are; etc.
I also told them that they should read each comment as if someone else was writing it to them - and that, if they wouldn't like it being said to them they probably shouldn't say it to someone else - that they might be acting as a troll if they submitted that comment.
10. A word about anonymous commenting.
For one reason or another, people feel the need to make anonymous comments. This practice is not right, wrong, good or bad. In some cases this is the only option available especially when personal safety is a concern. However, just so you know using a pseudonym is the same as talking to people with a paper bag over your head which can hurt your credibility. Even when leaving negative comments, it’s best to leave either your name or your web identity.
I told the students that I agree completely that there are times and situations when commenting anonymously is important, and I used StayLDS as an example (without mentioning the site name but talking about people who are struggling with faith crises and are worried about how family, friends and church leaders might react if they used their real names), but that, generally speaking and especially when sharing the Gospel, if they don't feel comfortable attaching their real name to a comment they probably shouldn't submit the comment as written.
The last two suggestions (the ones I added) were:
11. Don't participate just to argue, correct, testify or call to repentance.
We had talked about that with a couple of the other suggestions, but I wanted to emphasize it at the end of the lesson, as well.
12. Pick compatible group blogs.
I told them that my personal blog has a section that lists multiple Mormon-themed blogs, another one that lists a few aggregators of Mormon-themed blogs and another one that is my personal blog roll of individual blogs I like to read regularly. I mentioned a few of the larger group blogs in order to illustrate just a bit how diverse the options are: By Common Consent (one I really like), Times & Seasons (one I tend to like but don't read nearly as often as BCC), Millennial Star (an extremely conservative one), Feminist Mormon Housewives (obviously not a conservative one, which drew some chuckles), Wheat & Tares (one that addresses a wide range of topics from multiple perspectives that I tend to like), Mormon Momma (less doctrinal with more of a "faithful" slant), etc. I told them to look for a forum that fits what they want to get out of online participation - to make it a positive experience of growth and learning and not just a place to share the Gospel.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)
Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.
"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken