What’s the surest sign that the social media has come of age?
No, it isn’t when Facebook’s reach tops a billion, though that would surely be a landmark too. No, you truly know when social media platforms have become mainstream when the church’s leading cleric gives it the ultimate blessing. The Pope may have over a billion religious followers globally, but that is likely to change and open up a whole new audience of ‘followers’ now Pope Benedict XVI has joined the ranks of Twitter. Tweeting under the handle @pontifex, (builder of bridges) the pontiff will attempt to reach out to everyone, not just Catholics, as he tweets with accounts in 8 different languages. If you’re waiting with bated breath, however, you’re unlikely to see any action on day one, but be patient and the 140 character messages will begin on 12 December.
So why would someone in Pope Benedict’s position bother with a Twitter account?
Well, it’s simply because he’s been advised by the Vatican’s media advisors. The Vatican’s original Twitter account was launched last year with a post from the Pope launching the Holy See’s news information portal, News.va. Since that time it has accumulated nearly 110,000 followers, though it in turn follows no-one in return. Joining Twitter, it believes, will give the pontiff the opportunity to reach out to everyone and address questions of faith: it is this ‘building of bridges’ with other religions that is seen to be the most important. How much of a message he’ll be able to get across in 140 characters, however, is questionable, but that won’t stop him trying.
According to Greg Burke, senior media advisor to the Vatican, we can look forward to new insights and real-time reflections:
“We are going to get a spiritual message. The Pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad and no-one is going to be putting words into the Pope’s mouth. However, he will tweet what he wants to tweet,” he added, though the leader of the world’s Roman Catholic family is expected to sign off, rather than write, each individual tweet himself.
The Vatican has already invited people to start sending in questions in advance for the Pope to answer in his first Twitter session. Other tweets, it is believed, are expected to highlight messages from his weekly general audience, Sunday blessings and homilies on key Church holidays as well as papal reaction to world events.
So should this adoption of new technology come as a surprise for such a seemingly-conservative religious organisation?
Well, no, not according to the BBC’s correspondent, David Willey. According to him the Vatican has long shown interest in using the latest communications technologies to spread the faith stretching back over many years: the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, helped to set up Vatican Radio way back in 1931. Besides, the Catholic Church already uses several social media platforms, including text messages and YouTube, to communicate with young people, though sources suggest that the Pope himself prefers longhand rather than communication through a keyboard.
What will be of interest to those interested in the social media is how the account itself is handled. Twitter comments can often be taken out of context or misconstrued. Many celebrities and sporting stars have lived to regret careless remarks and throwaway lines. Given that the Pope’s 6 year papacy has effectively already been bedevilled by poor communications over issues like Islam and his stance on condoms and HIV, one does wonder what future gaffs we may yet witness. However, we may be pleasantly surprised and find that the transition from traditional to new-age communication goes swimmingly. It might need a miracle, but then again he does have God on his side by all accounts.