A Critical Look at LDS Blog Portals – Part 2 : The History of LDS Blog Portals

Continued from Part 1: Never Show Your Face Anywhere in the Bloggernacle Ever Again

Blogging itself is still a new technology, and many people are only now becoming aware of LDS Blogs. By its nature, blogging is focused on the present. Things that were posted two or three years ago are ancient history in blog-time. So it is not surprising that the origin of LDS Blog portals is not well known.

The first LDS Blog portal that I remember was Planet LDS. Created by John Hesch and hosted by KZION Radio, originally, Planet LDS ran on the popular python blog aggregation software Planet from which its name was derived. It has since been migrated to run on the popular PHP blog platform WordPress . I remember visiting Planet LDS as early as 2004 when I first became involved with LDS Blogging and it has been in continual operation since then. While it gets little attention these days when people speak of LDS Blogs, Planet LDS Pioneered the LDS Blog portal concept, paving the way for what was to come.

January 2005 was a time of major growth for LDS Blogging. The number of LDS blogs had been rapidly increasing throughout 2004, and larger group blogs were beginning to dominate a good deal of the traffic and LDS Blog readership. Getting added to the blogroll, or list of LDS blogs, in the sidebar of one of the large group blogs was the best way for smaller LDS blogs to attract traffic.

Looking to compete for readers with these larger blogs, a small group of solo LDS bloggers formed a coalition for mutual promotion that they called “The Mormon Archipelago.”

It was first announced by J. Stapley at his blog Splendid Sun:

”…I’m very pleased to announce the birth of the Mormon Archipelago. […] In order to continually add value to your blogging experience, a group of high quality blogs have joined forces in a Commonwealth, as it were. If you want to shop at Wal-Mart or Target, that is fine (I enjoy it myself on ocassion), but sometimes you need something more intimate and refined.”
“Besides the cool logo and grouped links, we are working on a consolidated RSS feeds for our Menus and for your syndicating pleasure. You can look forward to guest blogging, and wonders that have yet to be revealed to the children of men.”

Ronan made a similar announcement at his blog, United Brethren, entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Both Stapley and Ronan employed the Walmart vs Local store metaphor and both hinted at “secret” other things in the works as part of their efforts to compete. In a comment on his post, J. Stapley also clarified the motivation and vision of the Archipelago:

“It is essentially a loose association of blogs. So, it is really blogs that are members, not individuals. The ways of the Archipelago are indeed mysterious…yet, as I mentioned, there are marketing and collaborative initiatives that are in the works. But these are just the initial fruits of the harvest…”

Shortly thereafter, Geoff Johnston announced that his New Cool Thang blog had joined the coalition and hinted at what was to come:

“In the meantime we’ll have to live without recent comments and the other goodies… I know, you’re thinking Give me convenience, or give me death! I’ll see what I can do for you (the convenience part, that is).”

The purpose of the Archipelago was essentially a collaborative “marketing” initiative by a small group of solo LDS bloggers to boost their own traffic and readership.

The “secret” “wonder” of “convenience” that they all hinted at would be announced a month later by Geoff in an post alluding to the his previous announcement entitled Give me convenience or give me death.

”…the new home page for the Mormon Archipelago: www.ldsblogs.org Go check it out and let me know what you think!”
“The purpose of the new site is to be a useful central place to see what’s going on at all of the best blogs in the Bloggernacle. We hope it will continue to grow more useful over time.”

And so LDSBlogs.org was born.

Behind the stated purpose of the portal, to create a convenient LDS Blog portal, was the motivating purpose of driving traffic toward their own specific blogs. So while convenient general promotion was a partial motivation, the site was essentially a vehicle for self promotion.

This essential marketing motivation was demontrated, not only by their previous statements as they formed the Archipelago coalition, but also by the placement of their blog content on the portal. The archipelago grouped blogs into sections they call “islands.” The islands placed at the top of the portal page would be perpetually displayed in the prime web page real estate, above the fold, so it would naturally get the most attention. The founders of the archipelago placed two islands at the top, one containing their own blog posts, and a second containing the aggregated blog posts of the more popular group blogs. It was marketing by visual proximity. People would visit the portal to conveniently keep up with the latest content from the more popular LDS blogs, and at the same time would see the most recent posts from the archipelago blogs.

By segmenting and grouping blogs, they also ensured that their post titles would not be pushed down off of the page by newer content from other blogs.

From a usability point of view, the portal was superior to the older Planet LDS portal. By eliminating the content from the new content display and only showing the post title, author, and source blog, the aggregator was much cleaner to lay out and more content was available at a glance.

LDSBlogs.org was written by Geoff Johnston’s brother Russ. It is a custom web application built using PHP. Russ has since released the code as open source software project called Blogroll Z . It is also the software used by the Utah Bloghive portal for Utah Politic blogs.

After nearly a year of building traffic, the founders of LDSBlogs.org suddenly decided to de-list the most popular of the LDS Group Blogs, Times and Seasons, and then after a bit of debate relist it in one of the lower island boxes. They introduced a policy that “blogs with top-box status” had to display the Archipelago logo and link on their own blog in a location above the fold where it would be seen by all visitors. Again, the essential marketing purpose of the portal is clear. Times and Seasons had been slow to promote the Archipelago and the coalition wanted the greater access to the large T&S readership that a link and logo above the fold would provide. The controversy was soon over, but the marketing foundation of the Archipelago was clearly on display.

LDSBlogs.org quickly became the “gateway to the bloggernacle” and their decisions to include or exclude would have a huge influence over the visibility, discoverabilty, and readership of all but the most popular LDS Blogs. Because of the marketing roots of the project, the segmented layout of the portal leant itself to favoritism of some blogs and by extension some approaches to Mormonism over others. Blogs and Mormon perspectives that they favored were moved into more prominent positions. Less favored blogs were pushed farther down. Blogs could be marginalized by exclusion or given unnatural attention by inclusion.

This tendency to favoritism was most recently on display with the addition of the Juvenile Instructor blog. Even though he is not an active participant and has no official, obvious connection to the Juvenile Instructor, the blog is hosted on the hosting account of Archipelago founder J. Stapley, who likely helped them build their blog. (J. is credited with the blog designs of both LDSBlogs.org as well as Feminist Mormon Housewives.) Not surprisingly, the Juvenile Instructor was soon adopted into the Archipelago island above the fold where it enjoys prominence above older, more established blogs as well as newcomers like Thinking in A Marrow Bone that should be equal to it, located in the bottom box.

By mid-2005 I had already removed myself from active participation in the Bloggernacle, so the development of the competing aggregator, LDSElect.org , is less clear to me. David Landrith apparently created the LDS Elect portal as a response to the problems of marginalization of blogs by the Archipelago portal. His portal allowed readers to customize which blogs would be displayed in which groups. Readers would move their preferred blogs to the top boxes and less interesting blogs to lower boxes. LDSElect was also more open to including blogs even farther outside of mainstream, orthodox Mormonism that LDSblogs.org excluded. As a result, his portal gained popularity among those promoting an even more fringe view than the Archipelago. Landrith originally created his portal based on the WordPress blogging platform, but appears to have since rewritten it as a custom application in PHP.

The marketing initiative of the original founders of LDSBlogs.org was successful in an unexpected way. Each of them became a prominent personality throughout the bloggernacle, and their opinions and posts received greater weight. Throughout 2006, 2007, and 2008, six out of the nine original founders were invited and accepted positions as bloggers for By Common Consent. In many ways they sold out their original desire to compete with the “Walmart” blogs and were happily acquired by the Empire they sought to resist. After all, their original goal was to promote their own content, and an offer to join a big group blog with the traffic of By Common Consent accomplishes that goal, though not in the way that their original Archipelago initiative might have envisioned.

With six out of the nine founders of LDSBlogs.org now permanent contributors, LDSBlogs.org has evolved to some extent into the marketing arm of By Common Consent. Blogs that are more in line with the Liberal Mormonism promoted there are given greater prominence on the portal. Blogs that oppose their more liberal view of Mormonism are pushed down into more obscure boxes, or like my blog, may be excluded altogether. Blogs that promote even more liberal forms for Mormonism, like the Sunstone blog, are also often de-listed.

A number of other portals have sprung up over the last year in reaction to perceived abuse by LDSBlogs.org. All of them have imitated to a great extent the LDSBlogs.org template and layout of different blog groups or islands.

Mormon Blogs, also known as Blogregate, was founded by liberal mormonism evangelist, and, until recently, leader of Sunstone magazine, John Dehlin. Like LDS Elect, Blogregate welcomes even more marginal mormon views than LDSBlogs.org allows. But unlike David Landrith’s approach, which allows readers choose which blogs are displayed in each box, Dehlin chose to groups his blogs into boxes organized by topic (General, Feminism, Technology, Family, Sexuality, etc.). By placing certain topics above the fold and near the top, Blogregate, promotes certain topics over others. Like the most recent incarnation of Planet LDS, and the original version of LDElect, the portal is built on the WordPress blogging platform.

Another relatively recent addition to available LDS Blog portals is the Mormon Blogosphere . Started by “Dr. B” and announced on his blog Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, The Mormon Blogosphere was created to aggregate only solo LDS Blogs. In this sense it is a reaction to the Walmart-ification of LDSBlogs.org in the same way that LDSBLogs.org was originally a reaction to the overwhelming prominence of large LDS Group blogs. It is also a reaction to the exclusion of certain points of view at LDSBlogs.org. Dr B. aims to “not discriminate on the basis of sex, orientation, nationality, or content. If you are a Latter-day Saint in any way or associated with LDS I will be glad to aggregate your blog irregardless of your doctrinal position.” So like LDSElect.org and Blogregate, the Mormon Blogosphere welcomes doctrinal views that are far outside the mormon mainstream. The layout is again segmented into groups. Dr. B takes a unique approach, inspired by his background in Library work, by attempting to group blogs according to fine grained doctrinal disposition. Some blogs are in the Church Office Building or Tabernacle group. Others are in “Deseret Book” while others are out in the “Bodiggity’s.” The Mormon Blogosphere runs on Google’s Blogger platform service on blogspot.com

Up Next: Part 3 – A Technical and Usability Review of LDS Blog Portal Functionality

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