Creating Technology for Social Change

Religious Hashtags, Memes, and Apps Online: AOIR 16 Liveblog

This weekend, I’m here at the 16th AOIR conference, blogging panels and talks, as well as talking about my research on ways that users put platforms under pressure.

As a Christian who occasionally writes about intersections between faith and technology, I was delighted to attend the AOIR session on religion and the Internet. Here are my notes.

Mark Johns and Shelby Nelson share their work on Analyzing Main Channel and Back-Channel Tweets During the October Church of Latter Day Saints General Conference. Shelby starts out by noting that the Internet is being used to evangelize, enhance community among members, and communicate across borders. The Internet is also being used to discredit and undermine religious authority and traditional hierarchical structures of religious institutions, Shelby claims. Although this is a common issue, there’s not much research on the Internet and religion, especially on the people who leave religion and the conversations they participate in on their former faith.

Shelby talks about the Church of Latter Day Saints, investigating ways that social media is used by members and former members of the church as a channel of outreach, internal communication, and a means of expression about disaffiliation with the religion. They carried out qualitative analysis of tweets on the #exmormin #gaymormon and #mofem during the LDS annual conference, analyzing them for Lundby’s “Aspects of Belonging” (see Lundby’s Patterns of Belonging in Online/Offline Interfaces of Religion and work on Networks of Belonging).

To look for these things, the researchers downloaded tweets along these hashtags.

Norms of conduct include daily rituals, habits of dress, ways of responding to life events, falling in love, etc. To illustrate this, Shelby talks about how Mormon Feminists (#mofem) express association with each other while also identifying with each other as a sub-movement focusing on changing the religious.

Religious groups often develop theological understandings and vocabularies of talking about these events. To illustrate the Cognitive/Communicative Competencies, Shelby shows how ex-mormons use Mormon-specific phrases like “Lamanite” and mainstream mormon hashtags in order to speak to people who are sitll in the church, even while talking about their reasons to leave. One of ways of identifying with a group is to speak the language of that group or not. Finally, Shelby talks about how ex-mormon tweeters differentiate themselves from the group, keep up with Mormon news, and still identify with that culture to some degree.

Cultural belonging is not black or white; it’s hard to separate from a group, let alone separate how you communicate and manifest your connection to that group, says Shelby. With hashtags, you can connect to particular groups and label yourselves so other people can get a sense of who you want to be seen as, who you identify with, and who you want to reach.

Jed Brubaker asked Shelby about her own position in respect to the research and how her own background positioned her to do this analysis. Shelby tells us that she grew up in Las Vegas, which has many Mormons, and many of her friends are Mormon. She grew up knowing about the church, knowing their beliefs, and one of her best friends is a gay Mormon.

Another audience member asks if there’s any discomfirmation — are there any findings from this research that disconfirm or confirm Lundby’s framework? Mark responds that they didn’t set out to confirm or disconfirm the framework — if there were disconfirming tweets, they didn’t find many.

Next up, Gabrielle Aguilar peresents work with Heidi A. Campbell of the Digital Religion network, presenting results from a two-year student-driven project on religion and internet memes. The paper is Communicating Mixed Messages about Religion through Internet Memes.

What are memes? According to Shifman, “Internet memes are multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated.” To study religious memes, a group of students looked at 78 case studies, categorized in the database by “Religious affiliation”, “Meme Humor”, and “Meme Messages” — and assembled into a to-be-published repository. To sample these memes, the authors selected memes from KnowYourMeme, using the term “religion” as a search term.

Across religion memes, they found six dominating genres and identified frames thorugh which these genres are presented:

Stock character memes with religious themes: These are memes that add religious elements to non-religious meme templates. Religious Figure Memes often feature religious figures, like “Buddy Christ” and “Advice God.” Reaction memes tended to respond to national events, such as memes featuring the pope. Implicit Religion Memes use religious iconography to discuss non-religious issues, such as the use of halos or ying-yang iconography. Parody memes are imitations and remixes of original religious content, such as photoshop remixes of paintings of the Last Supper like the notable rockstar last supper. Video response memes are created to respond directly to religious ideas and events, like the “blasphemy challenge” where atheists were invited to create blasphemies and share them. Video parody memes often remix videos of religious figures and events in order to parody the original content, such as comedic covers of original Christian songs.

How do these genres communicate? Gabrielle talks about major frames. Memes promoting religion, like StoryTime Jesus, continue to promote standard religious values. Playful memes attempt to be playfulness and communicate funny, non-confrontational ideas. Questioning memes use popular memes to raise questions about religion. Mocking memes are intended to undermine a religious figure, community, or belief, such as Darth Vader pope or Raptor Jesus. Finally, religious trope memes utilize a figurative or metaphorical use of a word associated with a religion, their beliefs, or their practices.

In the sample, stock character memes with religious themes (n=16) were the most frequent genre, and almost always used a “Questioning Meme” frame (n=19). Parody memes (n=15) utilized “Memes Mocking Religion” (n=22).

Overall, memes using stock characters highlight critical discourses abot religion, Gabrielle says, while memes offering positive frames about religion employ religious character memes. This work affirmed a finding that internet memes often essentialize religion.

Lana Schwartz asks about times when the researchers observed non-essentialized memes or memes that offered a more complex exploration of religion. Campbell responds that outsiders tended to essentialize religion, while nuanced memes tended to come from insiders.

Connections and Distinctions: Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Mobile Applications

Wendi Bellar (@wind21bell) describes other researchers who have studied religious apps (Torma and Teusner, 2011; Wyche, Caine, Daivdson, Arteaga & Grinter, 2008; Wagner, 2014; Wagner & Accardo, 2014; Hutchings, 2014). Bellar had previously worked on a framework for defining religious apps:

Apps oriented around religious practice include sacret text apps, prayer apps, focus/meditation apps, devotional worship apps, and ritual. Apps embedded with religious content include religious utilities that provide information and resources (like prayer times, compasses, etc), apps by religious leaders/wisdom, religious media outlets, religious games, religious apps for kids, and religious social media.

In this study, Bellar asks if her dataset from 2010 of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic apps actually fit this typology. Bellar also sets out to situate these apps in relation to Digital Religion more broadly. She focused on religion-specific apps rather than multifaith apps. She looked at app descriptions and app ratings/reviews. 68 of the apps were Christian, 51 were Islamic, and 27 were Jewish.

Bellar found that the typology seems to stand up, but she noticed an important distinction: her former typology failed to account for “Missionizing apps” that offered basic information about a religion, ones geared toward the uninitiated or to new adherencts. Overall, Bellar found that self-tracking was important in Muslim apps, while Christianity focused on devotional worship and evangelism, while Jewish apps tended to focus on games and celebrations.

In her analysis of ratings and reviews, Bellar found that users often left comments on the kind of spiritual experiences that were facilitated by the systems. Many of them focused on translation. Finally, many users of the 2010 apps left many requests for sharing features to integrate with social network platforms.

In questions afterward, Bellar talks about upcoming work on the debates within Christianity about what kinds of app-based religious activity should be shared and what should be kept private.

(unfortunately, I had to duck out before the final paper and missed Ruth Tsuria’s paper on Jewish Religious Online Q&A as a form of Self-Regulation. Her paper is in PDF form here)