“The Bannon of Heaven”

This – incredibly – is only one of the blog posts I currently have on the boil that touches on the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, though this one is – I think – merely a coincidence.

Like nearly the entire western world I’ve been thinking about fake news and the negotiation of constructed realities as performed online, and like maybe 40-50 smelly edtech hippies I’ve been wondering how to apply what I learned from #ds106 to this now rather pressing problem.

But then – via Cogdog-style happenstance – and prompted partially by the man-dog himself’s recent and intriguing post on a “Networked Narratives” course he is running with Mia Zamora for no other reason than it needs to be done (I hope to be there) – I got into a bad-old-days-of-blogging nostalgia-fest and in looking up whether anyone had re-invented Google Reader yet. I’m on inoreader at the moment, since you ask.

Whilst meandering, I stumbled across the term “bloggernacle” – which, well, I’d use anything called “bloggernacle” and I think I speak for us all in saying that. Turns out that there is a huge Mormon blogging scene. Open education folks will know that that LDS (Latter Day Saints, which I understand is the more accurate way to describe people of that faith) and OER are intertwined in various wonderful ways, so I was mildy interested to see whether online activities of the two shared a common source. Instead I found a link to something altogether more #ds106-ian.

In mid-2005 several prominent LDS bloggers put together a group blog (called “Banner of Heaven”) based around a bunch of invented characters. The idea was primarily to “to explore the potential of blogging as a story-telling form”, with subsidiary goals of reflecting back what they perceived as the primary concerns of LDS blogging at the time. This link is to what you might call the learning objectives of the exercise – read it.  (most of this post comes from a 2010 “behind the music” style retrospective by one of the original authors on By Common Consent. It was only at this point that the original text was made public.)

They came up with six characters:

  • SeptimusH – a shy inactive former missionary, who all too often ends up dealing with dead cows.
  • MirandaPJ – a feminist from Lewiston, Idaho, who confiscated her husband’s xbox.
  • JennMailer – a perky but insecure young woman with very traditional views.
  • Mari Collier – Miranda’s sister, kind and faithful, but with a troubled past.
  • Aaron B Cox – representing the more combative end of blogging and the more… unique… expression of scriptural fundamentalism
  • Greg Fox – a non-church member who loved to hang out with the others, but was often disappointed with what he found.

These were both (semi-) realistic positions current in the LDS online milleau at the time, and astutely drawn comic characters in their own right. I’m sure coming from my position 10 years or more on I’m missing a lot of the subtlety – and would never be able to spot the point where the stereotypes were amped up to the point of lunacy and people began to spot that something wasn’t right.

Yes – the group blog was not explicitly presented as “fake” – people believed that the characters were real, and began both to worry about the situations described, alternately empathizing and judging, and to share their own stories in response.

From an educational point of view, this is great stuff. But for an online community in the first flushes of blog enthusiasm, perhaps not so much. Another LDS blog, Nine Moons, did the inevitable expose and the initial comments, from the hip young things the joke was aimed at, are fairly good natured. But by the time they began the “guess the famous blogger” competition things start turning a little more sour, and those outside of the community began to take a view. (Church and Federal) Legal issues were brought up. Senses of a community were lost. Hands – indeed – were wrung. Pearls were clutched.

But reading the comments to some of these posts, ten years on, is uncomfortable.  There is a genuine sense of betrayal. People that were accepted as friends are no longer “real”. Ideas of what constituted a part of the lived experience of peers needed to be rexamined.

It’s not hyperbole to say that this “experiment” had a long and lasting effect on the community that was forming around it and other writers.

One of the co-authors, writing a year later, notes:

Here is the interesting part: no one really remembers much about Banner itself; instead, what everyone recalls is the outrage. Either you remember the deceit, or you remember the pound of flesh publicly exacted from the Bannerites. Few of us recall reading Banner or the ideas laid out by the characters. Bannergate has sucked the work dry.

The power of the reaction, the brutality of the analysis, destroying the meaning of the original text.

All of us have the urge to create a new reality online – either explicitly in coming up with something like the saga of Dr Oblivion, or in the work of Helen Keegan; or implicitly, in presenting a version of ourselves that is just plain nicer/funnier/smarter/more interesting than the decaying sack of bones, flesh and Doobie Brothers lyrics that exists in three-dimensional reality.

And when you do create a reality, do you pull away the mask and risk confusion and alienation. Or run the risk of keeping the story going, ending with some of the horror we have seen emerging from known falsehoods in 2016 (this week’s shitshow: pizzagate).

Pizzagate brought home to me that the fake news scare is just digital storytelling gone awry – and gives me the hope that I know some people that may have a handle on what to do next.

Teaching digital storytelling is probably one of the most important things anyone can be doing right now… and for my part (without a role of my own) I want to volunteer to help out those of you who are taking this to the streets.

(bonus conspiracy theory)

12 thoughts on ““The Bannon of Heaven””

  1. Oh goodie, I cannot wait to dive into this history, thanks for finding it and being interested in our experiment. We need input like this to design the identity experience so it does not pull people into false belief, though the recent climate of fakephobia suggest a questioning of what is “truth” (sidestepping a philosophical hole I should not be in).

    Maybe there is some kind of uncanny valley we can avoid? By making characters that are far enough from ordinary people to make it obvious they are not real. Or can the experience be designed so that there is as small a chance of people believing the characters are real? or so there is no grief when the falseness is found?

    I also have so naive wondering about the approaches we take when we want to create a safe online experience. The thing we all know is– it cannot be ironclad guaranteed without creating such a tightly bounded place (I love using Catherine Cronin’s vocabulary) that it looses all affordances of being online.

    So can people learn to experience online through a safety buffer we help them design, learning how not to leave, or lease as little digital trace as possible? Again, I cannot be guaranteed considering tracking and sneaky cookies. But might we be doing better to help students learn to create their own nets rather than a false promise a system can?

    I cannot think of a more surreal setting to try this out.

  2. Really thought-provoking stuff. A number of us ran into a similar sort of issue when we created a fake family reunion site for ds106: https://thebergerons.wordpress.com/

    Turned out there was a real family with that name and their own online presence. We had to think about how to present ourselves & our characters as if we were real while also showing somehow that we weren’t. We opted for an info box on the front page explaining what the site was about and that the characters were fictional.

    Then there’s gif-a-chrome, that seems like it could be real: http://gifachrome.com We have a page there called “behind the curtain” that’s supposed to explain what the project is all about, but, fittingly, it kinda goes nowhere.

    Such fun things in terms of collaborative storytelling that we know are just for fun & learning are suddenly taking on a bit more serious tone these days. Not that I think our ds106 story sites are going to lead to any trouble, but that the whole idea of fake stories intertwining with social&political events now feels much more important to think about.

    1. I was thinking the same thing as I read David’s post.

      A while back I read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (https://www.amazon.com/Under-Banner-Heaven-Story-Violent/dp/1400032806) It is a great book and for me living in Arizona at the time, very relevant to the news at the time. I don’t recall if there are other references to “Banner of Heaven” but thanks for sharing these posts and the history. Very interesting.

      I think maybe masks and dressings of our human forms have long caused wonder, inspirations, and misinterpretations. The extensions of our forms through the internet is no different. As a poet, I know that no matter what I write it is always up to the reader to make sense of it. I think 🙂

  3. Yeah, this kinda play scares me to be honest. I don’t usually feel safe when I don’t know if the person is being themselves (who could be dangerous anyway) or not (and not can be playful or sinister). I am ok w it in a closed, time/space-bound environment but not an open one.

    I do things sometimes and call them semi-fictional narratives and if u know the (particular) real story behind the semi-fictional one, you will know what it is, but if u don’t i noticed that ppl take em literally. When I am clear they’re semi-fictional

    I think pedagogically it’s so useful to ask students as they analyze and create digital stories what every choice and decision means for how we represent and interpret things/stories/lives.


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