Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon outrage by the numbers, 2014

UnlikeI spent some time recently going over my blog traffic from 2014. I’m delighted to report that traffic was way up over last year. (Thanks, all of you, for reading and especially for sharing posts with others. You’re awesome.)

I’m not as thrilled that my top-ranked posts were often ones that complained about something.

My readers – primarily liberal Mormons, though that is not one of the many audience metrics canvassed by Google Analytics — had plenty to commiserate about with me in 2014. My #4 and #5 posts were about the pending excommunication of Kate Kelly; #9 was a satirical take on Mormon modesty fixations; and #10 addressed a Mormon apostle’s August comments against same-sex marriage.

Those are all important issues, and there is certainly solidarity in knowing I’m not alone in caring about them. It’s a privilege to help voice the concerns of so many people. But it also worries me that the top traffic-generators on this blog are never the posts I wrote about, say, mentoring the new wave of sister missionaries or praising LDS Living magazine for a gentle move toward gender equality.

I’ve written a lot of positive stories this year, lauding the LDS Church for initiatives ranging from giving Mormons free memberships to or getting into social media in a major way.

If you don’t remember those posts, you’re not alone. It’s generally the negative ones that win the day, traffic-wise. In fact, coming in way down my list at #91 is a post I wrote pleading for Mormon anger management. It got only 1,630 page views.

We don’t want anger management, not really. We love us some outrage.

And my readers are far from alone in this. Research suggests that people are more likely to engage with online content that elicits a strong emotional response—either anger or pathos. The angrier the better. Depressingly enough, headlines generate 63% more clicks if they contain negative words like “worst” than if they use positive superlatives like “best.”

So I really pulled a stupid with this post about an “I’m a Mormon” video that I called “beautiful” and “inspiring” in the headline. I should have said it was the worst at being the worst. As headlined, the beautiful, inspiring video only got 418 page views, bringing it to #195 for the year.

I’m not planning any big changes on the blog in 2015. I’ve already learned some lessons. For example, I can do book reviews and author interviews, but they should be framed by an issue that my readers can actively discuss, whether it’s the efficacy of singles wards, differing interpretations of the Word of Wisdom, the role of single women in the Church, how to handle Mormon doubts, or the stigma attached to mission failure. All of those posts garnered good traffic and mostly constructive conversations, when they were essentially book announcements. If I just call them book reviews then nobody comes.

I have a goal in mind for my page views for next year, a benchmark I think is realistic based on this year’s growth, but I’m not going to get there by pandering to the negative. Criticism is healthy and important, and I’ll continue to speak out about issues I am passionate about. But criticism is not where we should live all the time. If I don’t make my traffic benchmark for next year but keep my integrity and feel like I’ve contributed to the conversation, I’ll count that as a win.


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Ack! Just realized an embarrassing mistake: the traffic doubled in the second half of the year over the same period in 2013. I changed the post and the excerpt but it’s still showing my original error when people share the post. I don’t want to mislead anyone: traffic is way up (and thank you!) but it did not double for the whole year. I’m sorry.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I for one WILL read the positive. The honest praise for incremental steps in the right direction that are likely the only way to move forward. The finding and reinforcing the good fruits in our faith from a left of center perspective.

    I left the Right because of how it made me feel far sooner than the intellectual and moral arguments to be had regarding conservatism. The conversations seemed endlessly negative, angry, and ultimately unsatisfying. I don’t want that to happen to my new home because if it does I will tune it out completely for my own sake. I can’t dwell on constant anger and snarkiness.

  • I love this blog, Jana, all of it, but I am definitely guilty of engaging more in posts that are more controversial or critical. It is a sad fact of human nature that we are drawn to conflict, but that’s no excuse. I am going to definitely try to be better–but that doesn’t mean pretending that there’s no need for intelligent and compassionate criticism!

    Thank you so much for this blog. It has been a big help to me. Keep up the great work!

  • Congrats! I enjoy your perspective and the ensuing dialog that takes place. It’s interesting to see the wide variety of individuals that are drawn to your blog. Wish you and others the best this holidays season… Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

  • I think you are right Jana, we tend to gravitate towards the negative. Your writing generally annoys me, and from time to time really ticks me off. I am not one of your main demographic, the liberal Mormon (translation: A Mormon who wants to keep Mormon culture, but is less excited about Mormon doctrine; easily embarrassed by his religion when in the company of his/her non-Mormon friends). If I must be labeled, then I have to admit to being a TBM. BTW, that does not mean a Utahn. I wasn´t born there, and haven´t lived in Utah in nearly 40 years, and to be quite honest I´d rather have my fingernails removed with pliers! I am a resident of Brazil and true-blue, dyed in the wool, through and through Mormon.

    So when the email arrives announcing another Jana Reiss post, I go through the same heartburn all over again. I ask myself, “Do I really want to do this again? Do I really want to read what will probably put me in a bad mood, at least for a few minutes? I read the title, hoping for something innocuous. And then I dive in, and almost always come away thinking, “What in world is that woman thinking? What did they do to her at Columbia? Is she really LDS? Does she understand her religion at all, ’cause it doesn´t sound like it!” And then I ruminate for awhile. Occasionally, like today, I will comment; a totally pointless exercise but somehow cathartic, even though I know I will be vilified by all the Reiss-ophiles, and anti-Mormons who think you are the best thing since sliced bread, and who study your posts like I study the gospel.

    I know that I just have to stop. I need to quit racing out the door to see the newest Reiss train wreck. I know that I will feel better if I quit, but I think I am actually addicted to Jana Reiss’s blog posts. It´s like heroin; really bad for me, but I just can´t quit!

  • For me, the number of times I visit this blog certainly doesn’t relate to how much I *like* an article, and if I were to personally rank the articles from the year, the top ten would most likely each contain very few comments. For these types of articles, I tend leave at most a single comment.

    However, the articles that solicit the most views and comments are generally the ones where LDS beliefs have been misrepresented or attacked, and I feel the need to speak up. This also attracts the agree-with-anything-that-makes-Mormons-look-bad crowd, which pile on and expand on false narratives.

    Jana, no doubt you’re a talented writer, but please don’t fall into the trap of “click bait” blogging. Page views and comments are terrible metrics for quality.

  • If I may be a bit personal – some of it isn’t necessarily about wanting negativity or drama so much as it is a place to discuss certain aspects of our religion that can’t easily be discussed elsewhere (at least for me).

    My atheist family members think all religions are bonkers, and most LDS friends (or family, or in my local ward) feel uncomfortable discussing controversial issues at all – they either don’t follow it, or aren’t comfortable raising questions or having edgy, critical-thinking discussions. It fills a specific need, to express and read and hear others’ opinions about these matters. I want to be educated and discuss these things seriously, but I don’t know very many people personally who want to discuss it – so the internet and your posts have been a great vehicle for discussions I think are healthy and even necessary.

    Also – any organization worth its salt should WANT to hear every possible criticism – that’s the only worthwhile feedback there is. Back-patting and self-congratulations don’t help any of us – they actually hurt. Seeing where we’re wrong & wanting to ameliorate it should be everyone’s goal.

  • My sentiments exactly, except I’m not addicted to this blog. This will be my last read. There is too much negativity for this Mormon!

  • I only see your blog when it comes up on my Google alert. your negative posts pop up more often and the ones you mentioned in this article popped up on multiple days. I’ll try to come more regularly. Even thought I don’t always agree with you, your blog is a breath of fresh air. The Church is strong-armed by conservatives and I really hate talking to liberal Mormons in shadowy whispers at church. If it makes you feel any better, my blog gets no hits at all, so I’m just ranting to myself 🙂

    Best of luck next year.

  • Cary — Yes, it does sound like you need to unsubscribe for the sake of your own spiritual health. This blog is not for everyone. If it is causing you so much pain, why stay?

  • I don’t interpret your posts as negative at all–and I am an active LDS member. You open up discussions on issues that are taboo to talk about in the church.

    I love the church and I have always been loyal to it. But the church clearly and deliberately avoids difficult issues. Leaders are not looking for feedback or expressions of true feelings, unless they are testimonies. As someone who has worked decades as a manager, I think getting feedback is critically important to having a healthy, successful organization. You have to make it safe for people to express themselves and disagree.

    I would love it if the church at least “survey monkeyed” it’s members a little bit. When you get released as a teacher or presidency member, wouldn’t it be great to share what you have learned and give feedback on lessons, organization structure, etc. but there is no mechanism for this to take place. Instead, there is an attitude from leaders of, “we will bring the prophet to you, don’t you try to bring the people to us”. I believe a speaker said almost those exact words last general conference.

    So if you are giving people a forum to talk, I think it is mostly healthy venting of repressed and suppressed feelings for which there are no other good outlets. And most of the people who post are not church haters. There are only rarely posts from trolls who have the goal of destroying faith and tearing down the church.

    I have the impression that most of your followers who post are believers who have issues they struggle with. They appreciate hearing what others are thinking and feeling about these issues too. And they like the ability to anonymously express honest concerns without fear of any repercussions.

  • Jana, if I may simply thank you for your work this year, your obviously sincere desire to engage difficult issues, and more importantly your membership in our Church (I could not decided to say “my Church”, or “the Church”, but “our” seemed most appropriate). Our Church is going through some rough times, but I think it is the growing pains to something much better, something much more open, and something much more stimulating to individual members. You are a breath of fresh air!!!! Happy Holidays and please keep at it.

  • Well, I don’t see your blog as negative in the least, but I’m a Roman Catholic examining (and considering) the LDS faith. As an outsider looking in, I’d call your views moderate leaning liberal. But, then, I AM an outsider looking in. 😉

  • I think Brian pretty much hits the nail on the head. While a wide variety of commentaries may be interesting to read, certain topics tend to generate more passion and spirited discussion on multiple fronts of the various divides where people may find themselves. I enjoy reading the views of others on LDS topics, including those which may disagree with my own generally orthdox perspective.

    Wherever any readers may fall, I wish all of you the merriest of Christmas seasons and a blessed new year.

  • This blog is clearly on the path towards maturity and meaningfulness. My comment here is simply to add my supporting voice to the effort. Here’s looking forward to some interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking dialogue in the year to come….

  • I am a liberal Mormon, so I am part of your target audience. I like your blog and I rarely feel any need to comment on the posts I read because you have already said everything so well, but I still rarely think to read it unless it is part of the daily round-up of religious news that I get from RNS. Today was actually a rare exception when I was looking for more to read and thought I would check your blog. Perhaps you should have a conversation with David Gibson, if he is always the one who puts that list together.

  • For whatever its worth Jana:

    Your column I make sure to read are your author interviews/book reviews (such as Sybl Macbeth, or Brian MacLaren, or Lenten and Advent resources), and your thoughts on the Christian faith, and life (such as your wonderful post on ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, or sharing about the loss of your mother). You really have an ‘eye’ for valuable books/authors, and put me on to a few books I have really valued.

    BTW: your new devotional ‘Flunking Sainthood Every Day’ looks really really good! I am looking forward to using it, once the year progresses past ‘fasting’ anyway :).

  • Jen:
    I think you are quite right: public debates and disagreements (when done in a healthy way) and public confessions of wrongs are signs of a healthy, mature faith. When I started reading Jana’s blog a couple years ago and saw that Mormons do seriously disagree with the other, and current or past church leaders, as an outsider, to me it made the LDS faith seem more mature, and less ominous. Nobody trusts a group of people who have convinced themselves they do no wrong. Christ calls individuals to confession of wrongs, and repentance; wouldn’t he expect his Church to set the highest example?

    Pope Francis offers a very visible example of this: he has allowed debate over contentious issues, to be held almost in public, and he has often apologized for sins of the Church. Public trust in the Catholic Church seems to have skyrocketed, and we are seeing people who had felt driven from the church, and drifted from God, are re-engaging with the Church, and Christ.

    And, on a personal note, I can sympathize with your family situation – one can feel pretty alone sometimes – caught between the atheist friends and family who are very uncomfortable with you because you are religious and don’t understand what is most important to you, and fellow, but more fundamentalist Christians who hold you at arms-length, seeing you as dangerous and only a quasi-Christian, because you are open and honest about your struggles and doubts, and you actually believe that the authors of scripture, and the prophets, were men/women who were fallible and occasionally sinned and made mistakes, mistakes I think God probably wants us to stop making.

  • Thanks Jeff P. I’m a huge fan of Pope Francis. I think our church could take a cue from the Pope — see how forgiving and responsive members become when a church openly apologizes and admits mistakes. That seems to be brand new territory for Mormonism – an about-face from past leadership styles. I think it’s been long enough since Joseph Smith, Jr. died that we can stop being so defensive and stonewalling when questioned. It’s no longer an elitist/exclusive top-down club world anymore – it’s an every-person-has-a-voice world, and I think we’re all better for that.

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