The following is Stephen Cranny’s second guest post here at Times & Seasons. Stephen Cranney is a Washington DC-based data scientist and Non-Resident Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. He has produced over 20 peer-reviewed articles and five children.
When somebody is looking up material about the Latter-day Saint movement on their own, which themes draw their attention? What do they look up? Despite all the attention given to the media’s role in narrative-shaping, the fact is that Wikipedia is still the primary go-to source of information for most things that happened longer than a day ago. While many people are keeping their ears to the ground about the latest media response to this or that, I’m consistently surprised at how little Wikipedia makes an appearance in discussions about framing, so I decided to systematically analyze the Church’s presence on Wikipedia using software I wrote (available on my Github page here).
By knowing what people are looking up vis-a-vis the Church, we get a sense of what people are interested in learning about the Church. In my experience, it seems people often associate the Church with very particular subject(s) (polygamy, LGBT issues, etc.), and they implicitly assume that those issues similarly loom large in the consciousness of others, when in fact that particular issue may never cross into the same stream of thought as the Church for most people.
My program builds out a citation network of Wikipedia articles within a subject area (using the outline page as the starting seed) and collects metadata on the articles such as number of pageviews in the past 30 days. We might frame the Latter-day Saint experience in a certain way, but the pages that have the highest Wikipedia hits are probably as good an indicator as we will get about what aspects of the Church people find interesting enough to research on their own.
I also looked into which pages are most linked by other Latter-day Saint themed pages. In other words, which pages are most “central,” in Latter-day Saint Wikipedia–i.e. They are most relied on by other pages in terms of links. Finally, I investigate whether there are any “clusters” of Wikipedia articles that speak more to each other.
Which Latter-day Saint articles are people reading?
For views “in the past 30 days” (as of when I ran this near the end of September) Mitt Romney (first place at 243 thousand pageviews) more than doubles the 93 thousand Wikipedia pageviews of the Church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”–second place). The rest of the big hitters are all fairly generic or stereotypical terms: “Utah” at 90 thousand, “Mormons” at 79 thousand, “Salt Lake City” at 70 thousand, and Joseph Smith at 69 thousand (Joseph Smith barely edges out Bro. Glenn Beck at 61 thousand, who has more views than “Mormonism” at 57 thousand and “Brigham Young” at 53 thousand). Even though I myself am a veteran of the Joseph Smith Wiki-wars (to this day I can’t read that page for fear of being dragged into another fight), I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t actually read Brigham Young’s page.
It looks like outsiders’ supposed fascination with the “magic underwear” is not an artifact of media exposure: the highest non-generic Latter-day Saint topic is “Temple Garment” at 43 thousand views last month. Incidentally, before the Church released pictures of garments the presence of garment pictures on this particular page unleashed a bit of a wiki-flame war between that is documented for all posterity in the edit histories; it resolved itself when a person who, as far as I can tell is a non-member, brokered a ceasefire by using photoshop to remove the people in the picture—hence the floating garments in the picture.
Interestingly the most viewed hot-button critic/apologetic subject is the Mountain Meadows Massacre at 22 thousand views. By comparison, Mormonism and polygamy is 16 thousand, Black people and Mormonism is 12 thousand, sexuality and Mormonism is 9 thousand, Homosexuality and the CofJCoLDS is 5 thousand, Blood Atonement is 5 thousand, the Book of Abraham (which is much, much better than when I worked on that page) and “Criticism of the CoJCoLDS” are both about 4 thousand, and the page on Church finances, the page on criticisms of the Church, and the page on archaeology and the Book of Mormon each clock in at about 3 thousand.
As much as certain corners of the Internet think otherwise, it appears that few visitors to the Church’s Wikipedia page go down the critics/apologetics rabbit hole. These results are pretty typical compared to the other subjects I’ve aimed this tool at: people are interested more in the political, sensational, and anything to do with movies than the abstract or cerebral. (“Orgazmo,” the movie from the creators of South Park about a returned missionary who becomes an adult film actor, has 14 thousand hits, far more than any apologetic/critic issue besides the Mountain Meadows Massacre). The highest (arguably) non-hot-button doctrinal article is the endowment at 11 thousand, with “Sacrament (LDS Church)” at 8 thousand.
Which articles are most central?
There are dozens of measures of network centrality, but here I use the most straightforward: which articles are cited most by other Mormon articles? This is essentially a dumbed-down version of Google’s search algorithm. Based on this measure, 89% of Church-related articles cite “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on Wikipedia, with 55% citing the Joseph Smith page. Beyond that it’s about what would be expected. Names are individuals are particularly high here; Lorenzo Snow ranks higher than the Book of Mormon, each at about 31%. This is probably an artifact of the fact that a lot of Latter-day Saint Wikipedia articles are connected to lists of general authorities and other individuals. In theory, if one wanted to read everything on Mormon Wikipedia, it would make sense to start with the most central and work your way into the periphery, eventually ending with Shiz (the guy who lifted himself up with his hands after being decapitated, and yes I did have to look it up), who was only cited by .1% of Latter-day Saint Wikipedia articles.
In terms of clustering, there aren’t a lot of echo chambers in Mormon Wikipedia, but there are some clear patterns. First, biographical pages cite other biographical pages and form three discernible clusters (I’m not sure what differentiates the three, because I don’t know enough to be able to tell the difference between a Sunday School President in the 1960s and a Church Patriarch in the 1890s). Another cluster includes most of the controversial hot topics, as well as the more contemporary pages about the Church such as the “I am a Mormon” campaign. Another cluster consists primarily of benign historical and administrative topics such as the Mormon Trail and the Orchestra at Temple Square, although the “Mormonism and freemasonry” page fits here, and one cluster is for Book of Mormon books (which, somewhat embarrassingly have actually been helpful in my own Book of Mormon studies).
To sum, most people who are interested in reading about Church topics on Wikipedia focus either on the major articles such as Joseph Smith or “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” , or aspects of the Church that abut with common tropes or media portrayals such as garments or polygamy. Hardly anyone is interested in reading about Egyptian facsimiles, the editorial history of the Doctrine and Covenants, or Presiding Patriarchs. The central articles tend to be the more general ones, and Latter-day Saint Wikipedia isn’t terribly cloistered, although there do appear to be some clusters that end to cite each other more than other Latter-day Saint articles such as Books of the Book of Mormon and general authority articles.