You might not realise it, but you probably follow a Mormon lifestyle blogger on social media. It’s an aesthetic: the specific way knee-length dress is paired with an “effortless” messy braid, a yearly snap of pimply-teenagers in wedding dresses, a subtle nod to their children’s names in their Instagram bio, and absolutely no mention of their faith.
While practicing Mormons flock to platforms like Instagram to flaunt an idealised sense of church life, ex-Mormons are more commonly found in spaces that either promote a safe anonymity – ex-Mormon Reddit has amassed over 197K members since it was first founded in June 2009 – or viral video platforms like YouTube and TikTok, the latter being by far the biggest and most vocal community of ex-Mormons (colloquially known as ‘Exmos’) found on the internet. #Exmo on Tiktok features views well into the hundreds of millions and dwarfs every other #exreligiousdenomination combined.
TikTok as digital architecture
With over 2 billion global downloads by August 2020, TikTok is solidifying itself firmly into the psyche of everyday life with its 15 second videos, catchy music, dance challenges, and a surprising UX (tech bro for User eXperience) that facilitates the growth of unexpected communities like #Exmo. danah boyd describes the rise of a digital community as being a ‘networked public’ – a group of people who are not only digitally connected but are actively shaped by the platforms on which they meet.
The architecture of the platform in which people communicate online dictates both how they communicate and what they communicate. McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ comes to mind here. Dr. Crystal Abidin whose research looks at internet and influencer cultures explores how TikTok’s UX differs from other popular social media platforms in that messages are spread and shared only through audio and video memes as opposed to still images. TikTok content creators use short sound bites of audio clips to contextualise messaging through the app. This can give rise to genres of content where creators will use the same audio meme and apply it to different, relatable scenarios that prompt a response from viewers through liking, commenting, sharing, or even stitching a video.
Stitching video is a unique element of TikTok’s UX whereby creators are able to reference the first five seconds of another user’s video, before adding their own commentary. Each user’s feed (‘For You Page’) features an endless stream of videos that is curated by an algorithm. The more you use the app, the more the algorithm learns about you, and in turn, the more specific and accurate the recommender system becomes.
There is an emphasis on what boyd terms as replicable and scalable content where messages can be duplicated, disseminated, and consumed by networked publics en masse. This multiplication of media used in conjunction with the accurate recommender system of the ‘For You Page’ can reinforce dominant discourse and shared beliefs amongst user groups who share similar usage habits on the platform.
From my own experience using the app, once I engage with one type of audio meme in a way that tells TikTok that I enjoy that type of content (for example, the highly viral ‘Berries and Cream’ meme), the ‘For You Page’ will serve videos that use the audio meme to me over, and over, and over again. And if you’re wondering… yes it does get annoying sometimes.
A post-religious act
While TikTok is a space for all sorts of niches, you cannot deny that #Exmo’s vitality is appealing to both those within and beyond the Exmo community. While TikTok meme trends control the form and style of content being shared, the app gives the group a platform upon which they are able to act out and share a certain post-religious experience.
One such example of an audio meme popular on #Exmo is the ‘put a finger down’ trend, where viewers are tasked with putting a finger down when they can relate to a fact relayed in an audio meme created by the original poster (OP). @exmormonmindy first posted an Exmo edition of the challenge in September 2020 (Fig. 1.1) with the original video being viewed more than 139.5K times and inspiring more than 100 other users to stitch her video. The audio meme @exmormonmindy uses is part of a wider trend across the platform in which users can repurpose and recycle the same template and apply it to a wide variety of examples. This allows users to be able to immediately contextualise the use of the audio meme and ascribe the trend to a certain group or experience. In the case of the ‘put a finger down trend’, the virality of the meme rests on viewers either learning something new, or are able to relate to specific shared experiences.
Demmrich (2020) explores music as a trigger of religious experience in a psychological study. Citing Alcorta & Sosis (2005), Demmrich investigates how music connected to ritual can be used as a prompt to elicit an emotional experience. Although Demmrich was primarily looking at the devout, active #Exmo TikTokers exemplify how the app’s audio meme architecture holds the potential to evoke the same emotional experience in those who have left religious institutions. Demmrich highlights that, ‘The more individuals were familiar with the music and liked the music, the more intense was their emotional experience’ (Demmrich 2020, p. 36).
This idea is demonstrated by the Exmo creator @big.crick.music whose account is dedicated to reappropriating Mormon hymnals with new ex-Mormon lyrics describing the shared Exmo imaginary (Fig. 1.2). Through a literal performance of a post-religious act, @big.crick.music is not only reclaiming once pious songs for a new context, but is also simultaneously shifting the collective emotional, religious prompt away from the Mormon Church experience towards a new group identification and solidarity within the Exmo community.
The perfect platform
While creators share their post-faith experience, they invite commentary and criticism from the wider Exmo community, Mormon faithful, and the curious. If Mormon influencers make the church lifestyle look idyllic and enviable, then Exmos make it look, ironically, like a type of hell – ‘Cult’ is used regularly by those who have left the church to describe some of the rules and doctrine of the Mormon church.
One of the most popular Exmo TikTokers is @Exmolex. Her first viral video on TikTok with the title page, ‘my faith crisis (in one minute)’, was posted in June 2020 and boasts over 2.5 million views (Fig. 1.3). In a longer video on her Youtube channel (2019), Exmolex details why she feels that it is important for her to share her experience on social media, ‘If [Mormons] are allowed to preach and talk about what they think, then I believe that I am allowed to do the same.’
The TikTok UX affords Exmos the perfect potential to discuss their changing beliefs. Content that has the capability to perform a shared collective experience of what it means to be Exmo is encouraged and celebrated by the way in which audio and video memes are spread and replicated on the app. The ‘For You Page’ algorithm allows those within the Exmo community to discover similar content without needing to search for it, while simultaneously allowing the curious to be exposed to, and engage with, the community at large. It will be interesting to observe over time whether the digital architecture of TikTok will usher in a new type of ‘parish’ within a post-religious digital space.
[Images of Tiktok in this blog are by Solen Feyissa sourced from Unsplash.]