Pope Follows Himself in Twitter Echo Chamber

Just in time for the Christmas holiday, Vatican Radio announced this week that Pope Benedict XVI will be launching a new digital ministry (of sorts) through a Twitter feed with the handle @Pontifex.

With the encouragement of Twitter director of social innovation, Claire Diaz Ortiz, Il Papa will extend this engagement into digital space, broadcasting 140-character messages of Church teaching and spiritual encouragement to a followership that had grown to more than 200,000 on the morning of the announcement. Within 24 hours, the followership had more than doubled.

The Pope’s new Twitter account is primarily symbolic. He currently follows only himself in the multiple languages in which his tweets will be broadcast, and will not engage followers directly. The hashtagged phrase #askpontifex, which is already generating a range of serious and snarky questions, will allow the Pontifical Council for Social Communications to select questions or themes which the Benedict might address generally. As Monsignor Paul Tighe, the former Fox News correspondent who is the secretary of the council, has noted, “it’s really an entry level of engagement.”

It is not, however, different from the social media approach deployed by other world religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, who has 5.6 million followers and is himself attached, as it were, to no other followers.

Soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has a slightly more interactive network, with nearly 14,000 followers and 42 fellow bishops, a number of vicars, religion writers, and community service organizations among those he follows. Mark Driscoll, arguably the pope of conservative smack-talking hipster evangelicalism, boasts more than 300,000 followers, and follows 4,000. 

Though religious participation in the twittersphere often echoes the man-cave qualities of institutional religious leadership in general, women religious leaders are likewise signing on. Something of a religious institution unto herself, for example, popular preacher and author Joyce Meyer tweets to more than 1.5 million followers, and follows a third as many. Nuns on the Bus spokesperson Sister Simone Campbell nurtures a small followership of around 5,000, following a dozen mostly media-related apostles. 

Ministry or Marketing?

All of this makes clear that social networking platforms provide plentiful space to broadcast religious messages to self-selecting and, therefore, presumably more attentive audiences. But they raise many nettlesome questions as well, not least among them being whether new media participation by well-known religious leaders is ministry or marketing.

Certainly, the active participation of corporate religious outreach specialists like Twitter’s Ortiz begs the question of what the aggregation of mostly faith-motivated followers (along with a small but lively measure of critics and trolls) around a figure like Pope Benedict offers Twitter from a data-mining and advertising sales perspective. Do religious organizations and their leadership have any obligation to avoid offering up their flock as a conveniently aggregated demographic block?

Beyond this, does the development of massive follower bases on social media sites really amount to the kind of “connection” and “engagement”—these being chief among the values Ortiz and Tighe suggest the Pope’s Twitter participation offers—that are at the heart of genuine ministries?

Keith Anderson and I have argued that the sorts of digital broadcast messaging projects such as those being undertaken by the Vatican and by other world religious leaders do not, in fact, constitute ministries in that, while they provide broad access to information in a Web 1.0 way, they do not invite the kinds of Web 2.0+ interpersonal engagement that have the potential to extend from digital to local spaces.

Such multi-directional interactivity is what’s behind the incredible popularity of the Jesus Daily Facebook page, which has grown into a community of more than 14 million participants since its launch in 2009 by a lay believer with no institutional affiliation. The page continues to rank among the “most engaging” social networking destinations precisely because it is designed for interactivity and relationality, both between page administrators and participants and among participants themselves. Indeed many Jesus Daily participants extend their online participation to local prayer and bible study gatherings, and some geographically distributed participants have organized face-to-face meetings to “incarnate” their digital connection.

The @pontifex Twitter feed—despite the Latin root of the word as a “bridge builder”—is unlikely to encourage this kind of engagement, a ministerial deficit that Tighe made clear at the news conference: “He won’t follow anyone for now. He will be followed.” Like other Vatican forays into new media, this makes the papal Twitter page something of an echo chamber, a rejection of wise Digital Age insights from the Pontifex Maximum himself earlier this year (citing his even earlier new media wisdom for good measure):

The process of communication nowadays is largely fuelled by questions in search of answers… Men and women cannot rest content with a superficial and unquestioning exchange of skeptical opinions and experiences of life—all of us are in search of truth and we share this profound yearning today more than ever: “When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals.”

The active questioning, the exchange of information, the sharing of self that Benedict has rightly highlighted as a feature of new media platforms, and that presents profound opportunities for religious exploration and growth across all sorts of once nearly insurmountable boundaries, is lost when unidirectional, broadcast practices are offered as the starting point for ministry. At the end of the day, ministry without meaningful engagement is merely a form of advertising.

The good news is that, as participatory and transgressive media, social networking platforms inherently resist and subvert the kinds of message control to which broadcast projects launched in social networks pretend. Tighe is certainly right: the messages that will start tweeting out from the @pontifex feed are “only the tip of the iceberg.” What he may not get is that the rest of the iceberg isn’t much under Vatican control. Will the Vatican be ready for distributive the effects of global social media warming that surely will follow?