August 20, 2008

The LDS/Facebook Rumor Didn't Pass the Common Sense Test

In the absence of news, there's nothing the blogosphere loves more than an unfounded, nonsensical rumor, especially if two visible, but often misunderstood, parties are involved. I was amusingly dumbfounded this afternoon to find that today's rumor du jour settled on the idea that the LDS (or Mormon) Church had made an offer to acquire the hot social networking site, Facebook. While some, knowing only a mote of data about the church, suggested Facebook's strong database of familial interconnects would fall in line with the Mormon's well-known efforts in family history, the rumor was laughable on its face, which had me going from blog to blog saying it was complete bunk - which it of course, turned out to be.

See the nonsense here:As a life-long Mormon, I've grown used to people coming to conclusions about what the church does, stands for, or how its members behave. And despite the church being more open and active on the Web than almost any other faith out there, that I can think of, there are still pieces that remain mysterious, leading people to speculate well beyond reality. And today's rumor was just too juicy for people to pass up - and was more reminiscent of the Twitter-fed rumor that Subway's Jared had died than anything smacking of real journalism.

Whether it's a religious group, a person's country of origin, their race, their age or their gender, people have a tendency to make generalizations based on what they've seen through interacting with others, through what they've learned through the media and books, or been told about from friends or family.

When I tell people I'm Mormon, I'm often assumed to have a short haircut, wear a white shirt and tie, avoid cigarettes, coffee, tea, alcohol, drugs, and caffeine. Taking it a step further, people guess I probably spent good time in Utah, that I probably have 8 to 12 brothers and sisters, that I served a two year mission, that I likely graduated from BYU, married early and would have more than one wife if the laws were just a little more flexible.

At other times, I'll get the "You're Mormon? Really? But you're so normal!", which both gives me a sense of relief, but makes me feel somewhat guilty that I wasn't so exemplary a church member that it would have been obvious.

But while I can take the one by one issues with people who are ignorant, or just curious, today's rumor that the church would use a good portion of its estimated $30 billion cash horde to acquire a social networking site best known for poking and sending zombies to bite you was completely off the wall, and anybody who had any real knowledge about the church's mission had to have been giggling, knowing it had no basis whatsoever.

As a tithe-paying member, 10% of my total take-home income is donated to the church. While I don't dictate how the church uses my money, any more than I tell the government how to spend my tax dollars, I know that the funds are used to build new chapels and temples worldwide, to support the church's extensive welfare program that helps families in need, and to provide service in times of disaster. The church was extremely visible in aiding victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks, in responding to the South Pacific tsunami, and was instrumental in responding to Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the church's well-orchestrated service arm is so strong, that other faiths will often work with the LDS church while encouraging their own members to provide donations in times of strife.

And this has nothing to do with buying any social network.

In regards to the intimations by some that this was some scheme to lop a massive database into the church's genealogical archives, that too made no sense. As members, we are encouraged to pursue our family history and look backward to our ancestors, but we can only submit names of those with whom we are relatives. We don't submit friends' or celebrities' data, and we're certainly not out there buying lists to do a mass import.

But, clearly, not everybody knows this, and that can only be due to a lack of trying to understand.

The LDS church, whether you believe their doctrine or not, has done an amazing job at providing materials for visitors to understand their goals, their current events and their curriculum. Not only do they provide every word of their scriptures, including Book of Mormon, the Bible and all cross-references and footnotes online, and make them searchable, but they stream their semi-annual meetings online, they provide all church magazines going back to 1971, in full text, online, and all curriculum materials. This means any Web surfer can know this week's Sunday School lessons or see the church leadership's comments on world events. And all texts available to rank and file church members are visible to any site visitor.

Yet somehow, the church is seen as mysterious. Even though the church is among the fastest growing worldwide, and all these resources are available, the fact there are denominational differences and behavioral differences between the church and its members, makes people wonder if there's more to the story. That's partly why today's rumor took off like it did. Eric Eldon of VentureBeat wrote, "It got legs because it was so ridiculous, yet intriguing."

It was at least ridiculous. The good news is that, as church members, we've seen this kind of annoying misunderstanding before. It's the same kind of herd mentality that associates the church with the HBO series "Big Love", the same ignorance that linked the church with the odd polygamist sect in Texas earlier this year, or those who forced Mitt Romney's hand, making him do a pronouncement on religion earlier this year. It seems that no matter how many questions we answer, or how open we are, people would prefer not to understand and recognize that the church and its members are not secretly plotting to buy out the Web, and we aren't trying to take over the world. While Duncan Riley of the Inquisitr was good enough to have a little fun with it, many of his sources were of course from anti-Mormon sites or incorrect material, which he's not faulted for finding. And others didn't even do the basics of a simple Web search to understand how to contact church authorities and find the truth.

As one fellow member wrote me on e-mail today, "These guys are not drunk, they are smoking something really strong. It may be a slow day, but that does not mean they need to break the word of wisdom. If they are not smoking it they should at least not inhale."

See Also:
Being Mac. Being Mormon. It's Quite Similar.
Mormon. Liberal. Not Conflicted.