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

  1. Interesting writeup you are doing here … I’m definitely interested in seeing where this is headed.

  2. Wow, J. Max.

    Who knew the bloggernacle could lend itself to these kinds of histories? Your analysis of the reasons behind the MA is perceptive. Yes, it’s all about self-promotion. No point hiding from it. The MA portal achieved this for the founding blogs, as did the sell-out to BCC. People start blogs all the time but quickly realise that it’s a depressing waste of time if no-one’s reading your stuff. Is it wrong for bloggers to want to increase their audience? It’s certainly horribly self-important, but which blogger is going to throw the first stone here?

    I think you unfairly omit one regular controversy that rears its head at the MA, but as it does not fit your liberal/fringe meme, it is not surprising. The MA also gets flak for delisting blogs that are seen to cross the line into territory considered hostile to the church. Obviously it does not go far enough to meet your standard, but the MA is conscious of, for example, not giving airtime to obviously DAMU-esque behaviour. Can you give it any credit for this?

    I suppose what puzzles some of us is that you so obviously disdain the MA and yet are complaining that your blog was delisted? What am I missing here?

    With best wishes,

    RJH

  3. Nice write-up, J-Max. I think the MA aggregator is the most useful public site for tracking a blogging community’s posts I’ve seen on the Web—is there anything else like it out there—or was there when it first went up? And I think J. Stapley deserves real credit for helping several LDS blogs set up their code and site.

    The other problem for MA or any other LDS aggregator is that there are now thousands of LDS blogs. No one can list them all. Delisting, of course, is a different issue.

  4. I think the about page of the MA says pretty much the same thing. LDSBlogs.org exists to promote (marketing) quality LDS blog content. I don’t think we have delisted anyone for being “too conservative,” but we delist people for hosting content hostile to the Church or its members and in your case we delisted your blog for being hostile to the bloggernacle.

    A fun exercise is to go through the web archives and check out the evolution of LDSBlogs.org. If I am not mistaken, when we started, there were only 3 boxes, then as more blogs came on the scene we kept adding. As there are a lot of new blogs every week, it is a hard job to manage content. Still, there are a couple of rules of thumb:

    -because there is a high burnout rate, we typically let new blogs get at least a month under their belt before addition.

    -because there are a lot of people antagonistic to the Church and its members we typically let new blogs get at least a month under their belt before addition.

    -If you are a regular to LDS Blogging and are known to be stable, smart and engaging, you typically get preferential treatment (e.g., new blogs like Waters of Mormon, or Keepapitchinin, started above the fold) (see the previous two rules of thumb).

    Of course connections matter. That is how networks work. The guys at the JI have amazing content and many bloggers have met them in real life (i.e., they are real people – always a question in blogging). What more, they are exemplary in many, many ways. Why wouldn’t we want to move them up.

    Also to design work, I typically don’t have time to do design work, I did the older work some three years ago or so, but I do have a couple templates that I can modify on the fly quite easily and so did the JI and Keepapitchin sites. They are friends, and I was happy to do it.

  5. It also just dawned on my, J. Max – didn’t you at one point design an aggregater?

  6. Having stuck up for MA and J. Stapley, I’d also like to go on record that the “hostile to the Bloggernacle” standard is both incoherent (given that “the Bloggernacle” is not well defined) and probably disingenuous.

    So a good number of folks would defend a blogger’s right to criticize the official LDS position on SSM and avail themselves of that right … but say it’s beyond the pale to criticize the Bloggernacle? If the Church deserves criticism from time to time, doesn’t the Bloggernacle too?

  7. Dave, I think that makes sense. And I think criticism of the ‘nacle within the ‘nacle is fairly common. A couple of blogs stick out – like Rains Came Down. I can think of note a few posts at the bigger blogs as well.

  8. J.,

    I did write a “Roll Your own LDS Blog Aggregator” post, but it represented a geeky experiment with new client side technologies. It recreated the MA using only JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. URL: https://www.sixteensmallstones.org/lds-tech-roll-your-own-lds-blog-portal . It hardly fits into the history above and it is used by nobody that I know of (including myself)

  9. J. Max, I just noticed something in your post that I want to take specific issue with: 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.

    I don’t see how the overlap between BCC and the MA effect the MA (and as a brief sidenote, I think it is only five not six). I can’t think off-hand of any conservative blogs being pushed down on the page (though I can think of more liberal blogs that have been moved or removed). Also note that your blog wasn’t removed for conservatism, it was removed for your antipathy. There is a big difference. I am also interested in what you mean by liberal-blogs being promoted. Do you have any examples of this? Unless you have some specific evidence, I would appreciate you updating your post to reflect the facts. To me it just appears that you are just making stuff up.

  10. Just to clear up a couple of errors in this post regarding the Juvenile Instructor.

    1.) As noted by J. in comment #4, he did indeed help design the blog template we use, and assisted us in other ways. In addition, contrary to your suggestion that “he is not an active participant,” J. visits and comments at the JI as often as just about anyone that is not a permablogger. We have made no secret about our gratitude for J.’s generous assistance. The fact that you’re unaware of all of this is frustrating, if only because you seem so sure in making such sweeping generalizations about the JI.

    2.) Contrary to your suggestion, the JI was started roughly four months before Thinking in a Marrow Bone. Thus, we’re not exactly “equal,” as you suggest, in terms of seniority. Given the rapdily-increasing number of LDS-themed blogs every week, that’s a larger difference than at might first appear.

    3.) Lastly, it is important to note that the JI started in a conscious attempt to fill a gap in the bloggernacle. We post (almost) exclusively on issues dealing with the academic study of Latter-day Saint history and culture, something no other blog I have found attempts to do. Though I am obviously not naieve enough to believe that connections have played no part in the prominent position given to the JI at ldsblogs.org, I do hope that the intent and content of the blog has contributed to its relative success as well.

  11. Blogging is pretty much ubiquitous these days and so are LDS bloggers. I’ve observed LDS blogging communities emerge within extended families and within wards and many of the people participating have never heard of the Bloggernacle and if you told them, they are just as likely to not care that it exists.

    I suspect that what I’ve observed locally is happening throughout the Church. I think there are LDS family and ward blogging communities all over the place. If they follow the pattern I’ve seen – they are less hierarchical, less cliquish, more local and more personal and family-oriented in nature. These LDS blogging communities may in some ways be more authentic than the Bloggernacle as we know it.

    These people don’t have to write scholarly posts about Mormons to be Mormon bloggers. They just are.

    I write this simply to say that there are other alternatives to the narrowly-defined Bloggernacle. You can find a Mormon blogging community to be a part of without comenting at BCC: or T&S or being listed at Mormon Archipelago.

  12. J. Stapley,

    “Of course connections matter. That is how networks work. The guys at the JI have amazing content and many bloggers have met them in real life (i.e., they are real people – always a question in blogging). What more, they are exemplary in many, many ways. Why wouldn’t we want to move them up.”

    What you say here—and elsewhere in your comments—is certainly understandable. And, for the record, I must say that I do admire all that you and others have done for LDS blogging. But I would simply suggest that LDS blogging is beginning to be (and soon will definitely be) much wider than what is now termed “the Bloggernacle.” Now, a lot of this will be crap, frankly. For this reason, I think it’s good that there are respectable “gateways” like MA. But I would suggest that there are (and will be more) blogs that are excellent in terms of content, but they are very different than the popular Bloggernacle blogs. One way that my blog aims to be different is that I don’t really care about talking with Bloggernacle regulars. (I do obviously do this, though, on others’ blogs, and I certainly have posts that are of interest to some Bloggernacle regulars, but that is simply a coincidence.) My audience is thoughtful Latter-day Saints—a MUCH wider audience than those who frequent popular LDS blogs (and will be even more so in the future, I think) and for this reason I strive to not fall into in-group references. But for this very reason, the blog is somewhat outside the mainstream of the LDS bloggernacle crowd. Anyway, I bring this up simply to suggest that excellent blogs can pop up completely independent of the in-group bloggernacle bloggers. I certainly sympathize with your giving time to make sure they stick around and are relatively faithful—but one thing you might consider is including some “out group” people on your decision-making at MA. This can help ensure that your decisions are not prey to the groupthink that comes from people who have a similar mind set. Just a suggestion.

    My criticisms with the popular Bloggernacle blogs is not like Max’s. I’m not questioning faithfulness (at least not as a whole). However, I do think that there is a thick elitism (and occasional arrogance) and an in-group phenomena that is very apparent to someone who is an outsider. This claim of mine is certainly not to be overgeneralized, but I think it is quite rampant. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with in-group cliques, but let’s hope that there are intelligent LDS blogs with content that can stand apart from an in-group understanding! From my experience, none of the popular LDS blogs pass this test (in terms of their general content—individual posts often do). Because of this, I wonder if blogs that don’t cater to the in-group crowd are not judged highly by the MA decision makers. They might think, “Well, this blog is not valuable to me.” But how can they determine how valuable it would be to other Latter-day Saints—perhaps even in attracting new readers (who currently could care less about the “Bloggernacle)?

  13. Dennis, I think you make some good points, points which fit nicely with Danithew’s. What you are describing are, essentially, different networks. And there may or may not be overlap with the varying networks. As Danithew mentions, I think that there are likely loads of Mormon’s who write blogs that are read by their friends and families that have no idea that the bloggernacle exists.

    As more and more people participate who are interested in different types of content, I think you are correct that other popular sites will emerge. I don’t think, however, that LDSBlogs.org will be all things to everyone. Dennis, what you describe reminds me of what the “bloggernacle” was four years ago or so. You also seem passionate about what you describe. Perhaps you will have some great ideas and innovations that will lead to the success of that vision.

  14. Jeff G

    I should echo what Ronan said. My blog, Issues in Mormon Doctrine, was delisted an hour or two after I published a post announcing my abandonment of the faith. I was a little put off, since I wasn’t really trying to take anyone with me, nor did I plan on posting anything else on the blog after that. It almost felt as if they were trying to push my coming out party back into the closet.

  15. Adam Greenwood

    Incoherent and disingenuous strikes me as about the right description of this delisting.

  16. I can understand many of the issues you raise, but you need not be so disillusioned. On your new aggregator you, too, will face the selection process. There will be blogs which are too conservative (think stockpiling guns and food storage) and too liberal for you to include. In doing this, you will be making personal decisions about “faithfulness” and doing the very same thing you are condemning. This is a necessity unless you follow the example of DH at Mormon Blogosphere and try to include every blog with Mormon content. In my opinion, that is the weakness of his aggregator, because it has become too large and unwieldy to be useful.

    I would love for my faithful LDS blog to have a listing on your aggregator, but I’m sure I cover topics that you would be uncomfortable with, and in the words of Silver Rain, I “need not apply.”

  17. In my opinion, BiV, your DH’s site fills one important niche: collecting all LDS-themed blogs into one place. Therein lies its usefulness.

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