By Luke Rosewell
This paper will argue that pseudonymous online platforms are superior to those with identity transparency, for people who are high centers of a community yet wish to leave. Here is presented a case study of The Clergy Project, which uses this strategy to offer safe escape from church communities for non-believing clergy members.
People interacting over a common interest or in a shared space form a community. As relationships develop, the community becomes tightly knit, one with bonds of caring and friendship. A tight-knit community tends to be held together by key figures that sociologists call ‘high centers’. These are people with positions of influence that maintain the group’s standards and play a leadership role. A church community is an example of a tight-knit community, whose clergy form the high centers, representing and maintaining the ideas and values that are the shared interests of the community. Should a clergy member lose their belief, changing to no longer sharing the interests of the community, they may wish to transition to a new community, with different ideas and interests. They can fear hurting the community if they are honest about their change of beliefs, and without being honest and open they can feel internally conflicted. In wanting to avoid hurting the community while finding a way to honestly express their identity, non-believing clergy can find themselves wanting to leave their church community but trapped by their continuing bonds of caring and friendship. Here is presented a case study of The Clergy Project (clergyproject.org), an online community for church leaders and professionals who no longer accept the doctrines of their church’s religion. Members of The Clergy Project report the community hosted by this platform to be a highly valued resource, instrumental in their leaving of their offline church communities and establishing a sense of community elsewhere, one where they can honestly express their identity without hurting those they have cared for, and without suffering social isolation. The Clergy Project uses the method of creating a feeling of security by hiding user identities through the use of avatars and user names, called pseudonymity. In contrast to pseudonymity, it is usual for current online communities to create a safe environment through making user identities clear and transparent, so that people are accountable for what they say and do (Stuart et al., 2012). Although identity transparency is the current standard for safety in online communities, the use of pseudonymity when online can be a more effective means of escape for high centers of tight-knit communities.
A pseudonymous safe space.
The Clergy Project is an organisation created in 2011 to offer secure online forums, a safe space where non-believing church leaders can have discussions and interact. The forums are closed to the public, and applicants are vetted by phone call to protect privacy and avoid malicious newcomers. Instead of identity transparency, The Clergy Project forums offer pseudonymity, which The Clergy Project sometimes equates with the term anonymity. Pseudonymity is more accurate, as true anonymity prevents the building of community or persistent relationships due to a lack of continuity of identity. In a truly anonymous conversation, separate communications cannot be attributed to a single speaker. Pseudonymity, which provides a persistent avatar or name, can be used to build relationships and perform an identity within a community (Donath, 2002). This freedom to express an identity without it being attributed to its author’s offline life is valuable to members of The Clergy Project because it allows them to express facets of their identity that they cannot express within their church community.
Pseudonymity avoids ‘context collapse’.
Should the pseudonym expressed within The Clergy Project forums be identified as a particular church leader by members of her offline community, she would suffer a context collapse. A context collapse is the term given to when a person is part of multiple networks in which they express different identities or facets of their identity, and then a merged audience of the networks forces the person to reveal performances of identity to parties that they usually would not. This can cause problematic consequences as the audience’s expectations of appropriate behaviour are violated (Davis & Jurgenson, 2014). Such consequences for church leaders can include their offline community finding out their leader’s private beliefs are in opposition to the community’s binding shared beliefs. If such an exposure does occur, the church leader can become ostracised by their family and friends. This can be seen in two stories on The Clergy Project website, from the few members that have given permission to have their stories publicly shared (clergyproject.org/stories). Ranier, an Assistant Pastor, was shunned by his family and friends after coming out as an atheist in 2011. Robert Crompton, a Jehova’s Witness and later Methodist Minister, was asked to leave the Jehova’s Witness community by a judicial committee that learned of his doubts of their Watch Tower doctrines. They gave him an ultimatum, to not ever speak of his doubts again and to cease contact with his ‘disfellowshipped’ friend, or be disfellowshipped himself. Finding these demands unacceptable, Robert Crompton accepted what he described as a very lonely existence.
People have difficulty staying in a community where they cannot openly express themselves.
Regardless of whether such an exposure of private beliefs actually occurs, consequences can result from staying in the church community. Living with the fear that context collapse may happen is an additional source of stress the church leader may have to endure. NealH, a deacon giving his story on The Clergy Project, describes the unbearable psychological pressure from publicly supporting doctrines he no longer believed. Life before finding The Clergy Project can feel isolated and solitary. Pastor Drew Bekius reports not having been aware that any other pastor had ever lost their faith, and spending two years after leaving the ministry feeling alone in the world. He found a sense of community in The Clergy Project, and a “renewed sense of hope for the future”.
The importance of finding a new community.
As church communities tend to be tightly knit, they are often the only community that a member is a part of. This is particularly so for the church leaders who play central roles in church communities. Leaving one’s current and only community before having found another causes feelings of isolation and loneliness, and risks that this will be a long term problem if a new community cannot be found. It is therefore important to find and join a new community before leaving the current one. This can be seen in another member of the Clergy Project that gave permission for her story to be published, Carolyn Shadle, who was a Director of Religious Education. After joining a new community upon entering a retirement village, she developed numerous close connections and realised she now felt free to leave her church network. It had been the sense of community the church gave her that made her feel trapped within it.High centers get trapped in their community.
Feeling trapped in their community is common among The Clergy Project members because they are among the leaders of the church community, the high centers. Being high centers of a community can be judged by a few metrics, two of the most used being degree, and betweenness (Gruzd, Wellman & Takhteyev, 2011). Church leaders rate as high centers very strongly by the metric of degree, being given a soap box to lead a congregation, while they score lowly by the metric of betweenness, not being in control of other members of the community talking amongst themselves. The removal of a high center from the community it supports can result in an upheaval to the structure of the community. Senior Pastor Mark describes this in his story, a fear of “causing significant disruption” upon leaving the church community.
Identity transparency suppresses dissent, while pseudonymity does not.
Stuart et al. (2012) reminds us that full indentity transparency can lead to the suppression of dissenting voices. Church communities often suffer this feature, and the church leader being honest about their non-belief would be a dissenting voice. Mao and DeAndrea (2018) describe anonymity as a powerful force for allowing dissent in settings of general employment – employees voicing dissenting opinions feel more able to do so anonymously, without having to worry about their job or relationships at work being negatively affected. This is more specifically a feature of non-transparency of identity, and applies equally to pseudonymity as to anonymity.
Online platforms can provide people with new communities with pseudonymity.
Online communities have many advantages due the technology of the platform. The Clergy Project can forward people to international support services with hypertext links, which is much more convenient than offline counterparts for support, where someone might have to search much harder for services in their area. The nature of online interactions being through text rather than face to face is far more conducive to pseudonymous interactions, providing less clues of the type we are used to identifying people by in the physical world, allowing people to interact with anonymity or pseudonymity (Donath, 2002). An online community can easily have members distributed globally, which allows its members to communicate on the forums at any time of the day or night, and still be likely to find someone online to talk to. The content of current and past conversations on the forums can be viewed regardless of space and time. The searchability of this content is a powerful feature that online communities can have, which is lacking in the offline world. The power to search a large body of archived texts vastly expands the information available to a person. Many of these advantages result from the four properties of online mediated spaces: persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences (boyd, 2006).
Online platforms are not risk free, but pseudonymity can help.
It can however be counter-argued that online mediated spaces confer disadvantages for communities that offline spaces for them lack. The lack of subtle cues, both verbal such as tone of voice and non-verbal such as body language, may reduce the chances of being identified, but simultaneously increase the chances of being misunderstood. Boyd (2006) says that the four properties of online mediated spaces make it harder to deal with collapsed contexts, which is of particular concern for church leaders in the delicate situation of trying to hide their lack of belief. This makes pseudonymity essential for them to separate an online identity from their offline communities. Along with the system of vetting entrants to a private forum, these structural strategies work to prevent invisible audiences from searching the persistent, replicable information within forum posts.
Pseudonymity is not risk free, but vetting entrants to closed forums can help.
Pseudonyms may allow people to freely express otherwise suppressed parts of their identity, but also magnify the risk of deceptive performances of identity (Stuart et al., 2012). Pseudonymity allows a reputation to be built up over time and relationships to develop, but it also connects messages together to a single author, providing a larger body of text for someone to be identified by an analysis of their writing style and other social cues. It is the vetting process of The Clergy Project that secures the forums against parties interested in deceptive performances of identity, and the forums being closed to public viewing that protects members from being identified through text analysis.
Closed and vetted communities are not risk free, but allowing dissent can help.
Accepted members of the forums have a lot in common with each other, as Drew Bekius commented in his story. He went from being isolated, to knowing lots of people on a similar journey to him. A group of people inside a tightly knit community with uniformly shared ideas, positions and perspectives can form an environment that can repeat and reinforce that singular position, stifling the growth of its members, an echo chamber. As church communities tend to be echo chambers, the church professional could be trading one echo chamber for another by transitioning to The Clergy Project community. This can be avoided by the moderators managing the forums and the vetting process allowing dissenting voices, from a diversity of religious and social backgrounds.
In conclusion, The Clergy Project has demonstrated that its strategies are effective at freeing non-believing church leaders from communities that they are struggling to leave. Church leaders are provided with a new community where they can freely express themselves, and build relationships based on honest identity performances. With a replacement community available, they no longer need to be worried about insincere performances of identity offline, or the risk of being left isolated.
Online mediated spaces bring an increased risk of context collapse, but this can be addressed with a pseudonymous platform. Pseudonymous platforms bring their own risks of malicious deception and identity exposure through text analysis. These issues can be addressed with a careful vetting process for entry into a closed, private forum. A closed private forum in turn carries the risk of creating an echo chamber, and this can be ameliorated with a well designed vetting process that doesn’t prohibit dissent, and accepts diversity. While not a risk-free solution to the problems these church leaders face, this internet based community provides a useful paradigm for other groups seeking to help socially trapped people escape to a new life.
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