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Pope's first tweets show promise

@pontifex's bumpy start could mean good things to come

Pope's first tweets show promise
John Murphy, Wellington
New Zealand

December 18, 2012

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On December 12, Pope Benedict, like no other pope, opened himself up to the world on Twitter.

Even before he sent his first tweet, Benedict had hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, which he acknowledged, thanking his “friends” for their generous response and blessing them from his heart.

The Holy Father normally speaks to people of similar interest, e.g. to smaller hand-chosen groups, to listeners of his homilies, readers of his official documents and to the crowds who choose to join him as he addresses them from his rather remote balcony window.

From 1945 when he entered the seminary, Joseph Ratzinger's world has been the Church and such were his talents, not just the ordinary Church, the high Church, the intellectual Church, the diplomatic Church, the teaching Church. He has lived near and worked in the Vatican for at least 30 years.

@pontifex, Benedict's personal Twitter account, has now put him in direct contact with those in need of God's grace, the “great unwashed.” He has joined us in the virtual world and is rubbing shoulders with us in the real world.

From teaching and preaching, and engaging with the diplomatically respectful, Benedict's latest outreach means the remoteness of our world has quickly become proximate, and while Benedict was pleased to call his Twitter followers friends, the response he got was rather mixed.

Among the thousands of comments, he was told in effect to “go away,” confronted about child rape, called Satan, told no one cares about what he has to say and challenged about the role of women in the Church.

Other responses included remarks expressing strong sexual overtones.

Not all the comments were so pointed. One respondent called the pontiff a “dude,” another said he “friggin’ rocked,” several people asked serious questions and, for the first time, people communicated easily and directly with the pope and for all to read, several asked him to pray for their specific needs.

Social media is a relatively new phenomenon. We are all learning how best to use it and it seems things have not gone as smoothly as the Vatican might like.

Initially promising to respond reasonably frequently to some of those using the Twitter hashtag #askpontifex, @pontifex is quiet.

While Twitter users keep asking questions as of this writing, @pontifex had not answered any new questions, and soon after they are posted, the Vatican seems to be sadly blocking all messages in the conversation thread.

While some of these “conversations” were very offensive, others were more light-hearted.

For example, Benedict was asked his opinion on the performance of MS Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain.

Dean Marlett-Smitth wanted to know whether in an emergency he might be able to use Twitter's Direct Message facility to get in touch for a quick confession.

Understanding the pope was new to social media, one follower, Alan Swan, ventured to give the Holy Father some advice on his approach to the new medium, suggesting that he not get too heavy about God, saying that it would make people unfollow him. He suggested a few cat pictures would be useful.

One follower also brought up @pontifix on his grammar, saying he thought it more correct to use a capital H when referring to God using the pronoun “his”.

Responding to the Holy Father's request for any suggestion on how to be more prayerful when we're so busy with the demands of work, families and the world, Gareth Gwynn, perhaps tongue in cheek, responded "Mate if you're struggling…."

It is a bold move by the 85-year-old pope and his advisors to move the pontiff beyond the remote Vatican walls into the world of electronic disposable comments.

However the Vatican is not the first institution to have undertaken bold social media campaigns, only to have their initial efforts perhaps backfire.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, manager of social innovation at Twitter, who has been working with the Vatican on its social media strategy, acknowledged the Vatican's concerns and the importance of keeping the pope's persona intact.

"I think people forget some of the ways the Vatican has been innovative over the years. They were great about radio really early on despite many protests from people who said, "The Church shouldn't be on the radio, that's crazy!" Even though there might be some dissent in the Catholic community about whether the pope should be tweeting, I think the Vatican very clearly says yes," Diaz-Ortiz said.

The nature of social media is not one-way delivery but rather engagement, conversation and feedback; and so if @pontifex wants to embrace the new evangelization and outreach effectively in this way, @pontifex has to play by the rules.

At this point the pope is using Twitter to respond to people's questions sent on Twitter using the #askpontifex hashtag. The sheer number of questions makes it an impossible task to answer all of them, and the real test will come should he decide to comment on some of the controversial topics.

Here are a few pointers for the road ahead.

These tentative first steps are likely to have been a mixture of initial excitement and then shock at what has been unleashed. Rather than shutting down the conversation, do the exact opposite.

Rather than simply following himself in other languages, @pontifex should follow others and encourage the Church to participate in and embrace the opportunity.

While recognizing the primacy of @pontifex, the Church is not just one man and encouraging Jesus’ disciples to actively participate and join the conversation can surely be a positive.

Second, there was undoubtedly some shock at the initial feedback and questions @pontifex received. This presents an opportunity to respond with compassion, clarity and understanding. Increase the frequency of involvement rather than decrease it.

Or as Luke puts, “Put out into the deep and set the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). There is no going back. The opportunity is too great.

Third, there is some confusion about the fact @pontifex seems to ask and then answer his own questions. This prompted one correspondent to call @pontifex a “we rascal,” asking a question “that looked like a question, but really you were just telling us!”

When responding to a question, use the normal Twitter convention of responding to the actual question, rather than seemingly asking and then answering it with the same @pontifex persona.

Doing so is more in line with the convention and makes the question and answer much more authentic.

Fourth, the Vatican says it hopes people will re-tweet the pope’s tweets.

The maximum number of characters in a tweet is 140, so to get maximum value from re-tweets, recommended practice is to respond with 70-80 characters, far fewer than the 140-character maximum.

Finally, if it is the case that the Vatican is not too happy with its first efforts at introducing @pontifex to social media, it is not the first institution to have undertaken bold social media campaigns, only to have their idea perhaps backfire.

Look outside the Vatican for case studies where other organizations or businesses have initially floundered in their first attempt at outreach and conversing using social media and see how they turned things around.

All this said, this step into the world of disposable real-world comments has enormous implications for the Vatican, and it has me pondering once again the significance of Marshall McLuhan's observation, the "medium is the message."

John Murphy is a Marist priest who works in digital media in Asia and Europe

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