Tweeting the Pope
Posted on 05 December 2012, 23:40
Next Wednesday, an 85 year-old man will tweet and the media will report that it is news.
The Pope has debuted before on Twitter, in June 2011, when he sent a tweet to inaugurate the then-new Vatican news website, but this time he has his own Twitter account @pontifex. It’s clocked up half a million followers in the couple of days since the account opened for business.
That supernatural growth spurt is only one of the things that’s unusual about this account. For a start, it’s being run by a man who prefers writing in longhand to using a computer keyboard. And although the Vatican says the Pope ‘will tweet what he wants to tweet’, his involvement will be limited to signing off on the 140-character messages, which according to the Vatican Insider will be put together by staff in the Secretariat of State.
The Pope is apparently not going to follow anyone on Twitter. But actually, that’s not quite correct, as the @pontifex account is already following seven other people, who all turn out to be the @pontifex accounts in other languages. That means the Pope is following only himself, which isn’t very much in the spirit of things on Twitter.
Benedict will also not be retweeting anyone else’s tweets, although he will be replying to questions put to him on Twitter. That’s better than just delivering a monologue, although question and answer always puts the guy with the answers in the driving seat. Unsurprisingly, the @pontifex account has already been bombarded with questions and comments, ‘sometimes irreverent, often downright hateful’, according to Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress.
The absence of retweeting, following others and actually writing your own tweets makes me wonder whether the whole exercise is for real. It certainly takes a lot of sincerity out it. I’m sure the more conservative sections of the Roman curia see this as a new megaphone for the Pope to deliver his one-way messages, but the world doesn’t work like that any more. It’s very Supreme Pontiff (pontifex maximus), and the @pontifex handle is a strong reminder of the worst aspects of the papacy.
However, there could be some promising signs. The Dalai Lama, who has thrived on Twitter for the past couple of years, is supported by a social media team which translates his teachings into tweets. That operation has not only worked well but seems to have been true to the Dalai Lama and true to the social medium too, so perhaps there is a model here that could work for Benedict. The Dalai Lama’s account, which follows 0 people and does not retweet, has 5.6 million followers, making him the 91st most followed person on Twitter.
The Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt yesterday offered five suggestions for the tweeting Pope. They included: engage in dialogue, be funny, and don’t be afraid. Says Vogt: ‘If you’re simply pushing out information, you’re not using Twitter’s full potential. The great power of Twitter is that it puts you in dialogue with a billion Catholics around the world – and billions of non-Catholics – most of whom see you as distant and inaccessible.’
The Pope has I think distinguished himself in reflecting on Internet culture over the past few years in his messages on World Communications Day. In his 2011 message, he talked positively about the way people can connect with each other through social media. He said: ‘Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others.’
If Benedict can turn that thought into action by breaking out of the confines of his office and finding an authentically human way of communicating with the social media world, that would be a very hopeful sign.
It’s a big thing to hope, but if the Dalai Lama can do it, maybe the Pope can too.
And while they’re about it, perhaps they could follow each other.
Photo: Catholic Church (England and Wales)