Does the Pope Tweet in the Woods? An Analysis of Pope Benedict’s Social Media Presence
The recent news of Pope Benedict XVI’s impending resignation has set the internet ablaze, much of it fuelled by shock, with Joseph Ratzinger being the first Pope to voluntarily resign since Celestine V in 1294.
As with any stepping down from high office, when Pope Benedict does leave his tall hats and red shoes behind, there is going to be some analysis of how he performed. Among other things, people will look at his dialogues and disagreements with other religions, his stance on safety, his fondness for cats and any efforts he made to modernise the Church.
It’s at this last point that we are going to sidle in for some serious analysis. As commentators have noted, Pope Benedict is the first leader of the Catholic Church to leave behind a twitter profile; in the age of the social media explosion, his papacy grabbed on to some flying debris and held on for the ride. With his term almost up, now is prime time to evaluate @Pontifex. (For all you logophiles out there, ‘Pontifex’ means ‘Pontiff,’ a high priest, or more specifically, a Pope.)
To help us get some in-depth analysis, we’re evaluating his Holiness’s Twitter usage according to a bunch of different categories. For each one, we grant a score out of 10 Hail Marys. All analysis refers to the @Pontifex English account.
With a knowing sense of theatricality, @Pontifex released its first tweet on 12.12.12. But if you were expecting some kind of bombastic proclamation of salvation or damnation from Saint Peter’s successor, you might have been a little disappointed.
Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.
— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) December 12, 2012
It’s pretty pedestrian stuff – kind of like he’s signing off on a cyber-sermon – but at least it’s not offensive. The rest of his tweeted offerings follow a similar vein, with hopeful religious instruction condensed into 140 characters. Though I wouldn’t have minded a few amusing Gawker retweets, given his office, the predictability is understandable. In the pro column, as a stickler for grammar, I give props to the Pope for not using his 140 characters to mangle the English language. Had he tweeted, “Dear frendz, I’m plzd 2 get in touch w u thru twitter. Thx 4 the shoutouts. Blss u from my <3,” you can bet he would have got a lower grade. I do have minor quibble:
Today I have a special though for every religious: may they always follow Christ faithfully in poverty, chastity and obedience.
— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) February 2, 2013
That flat out doesn’t make sense – minus points for confusing an adjective with a noun.
Score: 6/10 Hail Marys.
@Pontifex has got some cyber-sway:
In the couple of months the account has been active, it has accrued over 1.5 million followers. That’s some heft. If the account had arms, it would most definitely lift. At first glance, that looks like a shoe-in for a score of 9 or 10.
But as with all things (accept God’s Truth, of course) that number is relative. A real measure of social idolisation (no pun intended) is @Pontifex’s ranked popularity. According to Twittercounter.com, the Pope’s social voice ranks at number 756 in the list of top Twitter users. (@KwasiStudios ranked at 37,112,307 – Please follow us… please.) Clearly, for a religion with approximately 1.2billion adherents, we can’t be too impressed with that ranking.
This begs the question as to what the Vatican should do to increase popularity. The top 5 Twitter users are:
- Justin Bieber;
- Lady GaGa;
- Katy Perry;
- Rihanna; and
- Barack Obama.
Clearly, to get in such esteemed company, the next Pope has two choices: release a series of danceable love songs and wear less clothing, or push a platform of progressive social reform. Which is more likely?
Score: 7/10 Hail Marys
Unfortunately for the Pope, he does not score highly in this one. As Alex Kantrowitx from Forbes notes, “The dialogue from the @Pontifex account has… been limited, without a single @mention included in any of The Pope’s 34 tweets to date.” (When he mentions ‘God’ in a tweet, he doesn’t even precede it with a #, which in Twitter terms, is tantamount to using the Lord’s name in vain.)
The account has operated much like the Vatican itself – from behind closed doors. The Pope could do well to improve in this area. Imagine getting a RT from him; you could act all ‘Holier Than Thou’ with abandon.
On top of the lack of ‘@s’, Benedict XVI isn’t exactly forthcoming with his follows. Of the 8 people he does follow, all 8 of them are himself. Not exactly sharing the love.
Score: 2/10 Hail Marys
Out of a possible 30, Benedict XVI, the world’s first tweeting Pope, scores 15. Which, my calculator tells me, is 50%. As I used to tell myself at high school, at least it’s not a fail.
Where To From Here?
Like the teachers who used to have me weeping, we haven’t given this low grade for our own pleasure. We’re here to help. With a new Pope about to be delivered by the Pope stork (I’m pretty sure that’s how it works; that’s what my parents taught me), we thought it useful to spell out a plan for the next edition of the @Pontifex Twitter handle.
When your followers know that your every tweet is going to be a blessing or inspirational teaching, they might start to tune them out. (Believe me; I know. I started following @pokemon_ebooks because their snippets of dialogue from the Pokemon games were amusing and nostalgic. Now they’re just annoying.)
By tweeting about relevant news articles, world developments – hell, even photos of the red shoes – people are going to take notice. And if there’s a sense of the Pope following current events, it could even help fight the perception that the Church isn’t exactly moving with the times.
Don’t Proclaim – Communicate
Nothing gets Twitter users more excited than acknowledgement. Seriously, you’d think a retweet was some kind of drug the way people plead for them. If @Pontifex wants to swing with the Justin Biebers and Katy Perrys of the Twitterverse (and it does), a few shout outs to the homies wouldn’t go astray.
For The Non-Popes
We’re realists and we realise that not everyone who reads our articles is the Pope. So what are the non-Popes to take away from this?
- Twitter is about engagement (not the marriage kind). If you want to keep a base involved with your brand, be involved with them. Be a real person – unless you’re having a really off day, you don’t stand next to people and speak closed sentences at them; you converse. So do it on Twitter – retweet, reply, and be an interesting, interested human.
- Keep ‘em guessing. If you’ve got time, avoid the same formulaic approach to tweeting. Keep the masses entertained and pretty soon you’ll be preaching to the congregation. Amen to that.
Do you Tweet in the woods?