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The John Dehlin Drama Life Cycle and a recent branding dilemma

May 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, John Dehlin posted some status about religion — or, to be more precise, about those who criticize religion. The details aren’t super important, but for this post, what is important is that a bunch of people freaked out, and so John tried to delete/hide/undo the drama, which only caused more drama. After a point, John decided that he really needed to study for finals, and so he deactivated his Facebook account.

This predictably caused more drama.

There was some conspiratorial thinking about John’s absence being a direct result of being muzzled by church leaders, and there was more drama. At some point, I decided to lay out what I see as the (rather predictable) John Dehlin Drama Life Cycle:

JD’s behavior is pretty predictable — you don’t need to implicate conspiracies with priesthood leaders or whatever. I’ll run it down for folks who haven’t seen the cycle.

1) John posts something that ends up controversial (usually inadvertently)
2) People flip the heck out.
3) John tries to delete/undo/rewind/reverse the controversy
4) People flip the heck out.
5) John tries to repost/restore/redo/correct the post sans controversy
6) People flip the heck out.
7) John goes on radio silence/total shutdown.
8 ) ??? (I mean, “People flip the heck out”)
9) John comes back in xxx days/weeks/months on his own.

We are, of course, in step 8.

Notice what a great thing of beauty this cycle is. If I didn’t tell you that this was written in response to some FB status from April or whenever, you might think it describes that one time that John temporarily shut down Mormon Stories. You might think it describes the one time that John Dehlin shut down Mormon Matters (from which Wheat & Tares reincarnated like a phoenix from the ashes, and Mormon Matters became a podcast again.) You might think it describes…yeah, so many possibilities.

Sooner or later, I’m going to write about how it seems that fame so often comes with misfortune like this, but for now, I’ll point out that for that last event, we already passed into step 9 and now we are back into step 1, moving onto 2.

What’s the latest drama? John has decided to repurpose the Mormon Stories Podcast Community Facebook group.

As you should be aware by now if you’ve seen my numerous posts about this, the Mormon internet is a very fractured and fractious place. Rather than describing the entire Mormon blogging internet, the “Bloggernacle” describes a peculiar space that’s “left” of your average ward in religious ideology and/or politics, but not quite so far as to be tolerant of the disaffected or those who have left the church. You have competing blog aggregators such as Nothing Wavering, Outer Blogness, and so on.

…but that’s just blogs. There are also symposia and journals (such as Sunstone and Dialogue), there are also forums/message boards, sub-reddits, a twitter presence, and of course, Facebook. While ostensibly, many Facebook groups began around existing websites (such as Mormon Stories Podcast Community around the Mormon Stories Podcast, and Feminist Mormon Housewives Society around fMh), these groups have always had a personality all their own, and the scope of these groups has diverged from the sites. In other words, MSPC has rarely been a group just to discuss episodes of MoSto. fMh Society has rarely been a group just to discuss posts at fMh.

But branding is funny.

Even when the scope of a community exceeds what its brand would imply, the problem is that the average person looking in is going to think that the community is exactly what it says on the tin — so the Mormon Stories Podcast Community is a community around Mormon Stories Podcast.

If the FB group has grown so much (and indeed it has — I am not a member of every or even most Mormon Facebook groups, but at ~2800 members, I suspect that MSPC is the largest general interest Mormon facebook group around) that it is no longer easily manageable under its original purpose, then that’s a problem. Specifically, we know from previous episodes of the JD DLC that John is worried about not being able to control the sorts of things that are associated with Mormon Stories or with Open Stories — a while back, there was drama over the decision to “spin off” the regional communities of support, and in a podcast, John mentioned dramatic stuff going on at some of the local conferences.

The decision to refocus a community is controversial, however. If a community has grown beyond its original purpose, then one argument is that the community should have more control over its own destiny. If John wants a Facebook group narrowly tailored to discussing the podcast, maybe he should create another group for the podcast discussion rather than forcing everyone at MSPC to create a new forum. (Or so the argument goes).

But, the problem is that the MSPC group still is called the Mormon Stories Podcast Community. There’s one word to speak about the community, and three words to speak about involvement with the Mormon Stories podcast.

…why not change the name then?

Well, Facebook apparently limits large groups (of which MSPC counts) from changing their names.

And so instead, what’s happening is that John has announced a period of time where everyone is encouraged to join another group and the community is encouraged to take ownership of that group, so that the MSPC group can be purpose limited to discussing the podcast.

OK, OK, so if the community cares so much about controlling its own destiny, then it should be easy for members of the community to take the reins of a new group and make things happen?

…unfortunately, this hasn’t really happened. People don’t want to (or perhaps simply have not) step up to the plate of responsibility.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Sunstone Facebook Community

The plot thickens in this case because there is one group that is very willing to continue the general purpose that the Mormon Stories Podcast Community currently serves (e.g., open, friendly forum for people all across the Mormon faith map to discuss a variety of issues), and who would definitely benefit from a pre-existing community like the ~2800 members of the MSPC.

That is Sunstone.

One thing I noticed at Sunstone last year when I presented a panel on the fractures and factions of Mormon blogging was how, even though many attendants were interested in the diversity of Mormonism, and the conflicts in Mormonism, comparatively few were well-versed in the diversity and conflicts of the Mormon internet. In other words, they often knew or were interested in the challenges of creating an open space for conservative believers, liberal believers, and nonbelievers to discuss Mormonism *offline* (such as, say, at a Sunstone conference), but didn’t have the same level of awareness about the conflict between bloggernacle, Outer Blogness, and Nothing Wavering.

Certainly, the bloggers who were at Sunstone knew. But the thing I learned is that not everyone at Sunstone blogs or even reads blogs.

I don’t know if it’s premature to generalize from that observation, but it made me wonder if there isn’t a digital divide of sorts. (I saw a post on Mormon Stories from 2005 announcing the Sunstone Blog and Sunstone Podcast, but….the blog seems not to have lasted very long, and the podcast appears to be very recent recordings of in-person conversations [e.g., “Sunstone Institute”].)

What’s interesting to me is looking at this from a business strategy perspective. So, Mormon Stories finds itself risking brand dilution because its community is increasingly outside of its control. Sunstone finds an opportunity to diversity to the internet with an existing consumer-base. So, Mormon Stories “spins off” its Facebook group business (as it spun off the local community groups a while back), and Sunstone offers to buy at the deep discount.

Nevertheless, people flip the heck out because that’s what always happens.


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  1. The whole thing is hilarious. John feeds off of this stuff. I think he gets something out of it. The truth is he seems to think that people want a group that just discusses the podcast and that will NEVER happen. They can moderate the hell of the new group or the existing group and ultimately all that is going to happen is instead of having one big group there will be one big group and one small group and they probably discuss many of the same things. The only way to get a podcast ONLY group is going to be to moderate the hell out of it and that will just alienate people.

    I am not sure that community as a whole needs a podcast only group at all. If it happens it will be populated by a small group with few voices. It will mainly be followed by the seemingly shrinking group of people that listen to the podcasts.

  2. Kiley,

    I agree that this is hilarious. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the motives. In honesty, I think that John gets pretty worn down with all of this drama — it’s just that he either doesn’t know or evaluate that the things he does *cause* the drama. So, I really see his decision to try to “separate” from the MSPC as being similar to his decision to separate from the regional communities — since he can’t control what happens, he doesn’t want them under his brand.

    That being said, I do think that it’s probable that there will simply be a diaspora. Of course the podcast-only group is going to moderate the hell out of it. Of course that will alienate people. (And then John will probably wonder why he’s losing even more support…)

    I don’t think that he will have a problem with a much smaller podcast-only group. Smaller = much easier to manage.

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