When the pope Tweets: Vatican Dialogue in the Digital World

It would seem that Pope Benedict XVI, through @pontifex, wants to actively participate in the give-and-take of online debate and discussion.

Written by Dr. Heather Miller Rubens (February 10, 2013) 

The Roman Catholic Church has long been on the cutting edge of technology and media, opening its own radio station in 1931, and even offering a Decree on the Media of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica) at the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Today the Vatican, has a newspaper, a radio station, a television station, a website, a designated YouTube channel, and Facebook and iPhone applications. Much of the Church’s media outreach has been consolidated into one website for easy online access and reposting in this age of digital sharing. In brief, the Church has readily embraced tech and media developments in the last century in the service of gospel proclamation, and Twitter is no exception to this trend.

Yes, folks, that’s right, the pope has entered the Twitterverse. Yet, like all new tweeters, the pope hasn’t quite figured out the etiquette of online conversation in this forum.

Using the twitter handle @pontifex, Pope Benedict XVI sent out his first tweet on December 12, 2012: “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.” It went out to the pope’s over one million English-language “followers” (in the Twitter sense of the word), and this initial message has been retweeted over 60,000 times.

So what are the pope and the Vatican attempting to do with Twitter? One week before Benedict XVI tweeted his blessings to the world, the Vatican held a press conference explaining the intentions of this development (emphasis added):

"The Pope's presence on Twitter is ultimately an endorsement of the efforts … to ensure that the Good News of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church is [sic] permeating the forum of exchange and dialogue that is being created by social media. His presence is intended to be an encouragement to all Church institutions and people of faith to be attentive to develop an appropriate profile for themselves and their convictions in the 'digital continent'. The Pope's tweets will be available to believers and non-believers to share, discuss and to encourage dialogue. It is hoped that the Pope's short messages, and the fuller messages that they seek to encapsulate, will give rise to questions for people from different countries, languages and cultures.

"Part of the challenge for the Church in the area of new media is to establish a networked or capillary presence that can effectively engage the debates, discussions and dialogues that are facilitated by social media and that invite direct, personal and timely responses of a type that are not so easily achieved by centralized institutions. Moreover, such a networked or capillary structure reflects the truth of the Church as a community of communities which is alive both universally and locally. The Pope's presence on Twitter will represent his voice as a voice of unity and leadership for the Church but it will also be a powerful invitation to all believers to express their 'voices', to engage their 'followers' and 'friends' and to share with them the hope of the Gospel that speaks of God’s unconditional love for all men and women.

"In addition to the direct engagement with the questions, debates and discussions of people that is facilitated by new media, the Church recognizes the importance of new media as an environment that allows to teach the truth that the Lord has passed to His Church, to listen to others, to learn about their cares and concerns, to understand who they are and for what they are searching.... It is for this reason that it has been decided to launch the Pope's Twitter channel with a formal question and answer format. This launch is also an indication of the importance that the Church gives to listening and is a warranty of its ongoing attentiveness to the conversations, commentaries and trends that express so spontaneously and insistently the preoccupations and hopes of people."

It would seem that Pope Benedict XVI, through @pontifex, wants to actively participate in the give-and-take of online debate and discussion. According to the above statement, @pontifex will directly engage with the questions and debates of our times and dialogue directly with believers and non-believers through the digital medium of Twitter.

So I pose the follow-up question: Has @pontifex actually been in dialogue with the world and with his followers (in both the Twitter sense and the religious sense of the word)? Yes, and no. Let’s look at two of his first tweets:

First, yes, the pope has dialogued with believers through Twitter. After his initial tweet, the pope took three questions posed by members of the public from three different continents. He answered each question in turn. The above tweet Q&A is the second question that he took up on December 12, 2012.

However, you would not know by his twitter feed that any direct interaction occurred because @pontifex failed to directly acknowledge those who asked the questions. When interacting on Twitter, it is customary to cite your interlocutor in the exchange. Such acknowledgment also allows conversations to have their own digital space. Because @pontifex failed to cite the fact that these questions came from others on twitter in Twitter-appropriate syntax (through retweet, or through acknowledging the twitter handle of the asker), an opportunity to openly engage in digital dialogue was lost. To many observers, the unattributed queries made it seem like @pontifex was engaged only in rhetorical questions posited as a set-up for his response.

Thus, @pontifex appeared to be engaged in asymmetrical communication, taking on a new digital pulpit of sorts. This appearance seemed confirmed by the fact that @pontifex currently “follows” no one officially. Thus, even though he actually was responding to questions posted through a Twitter hashtag, by failing to adopt Twitter’s norms the pope’s digital dialogue is seemingly nonexistent. This failure demonstrates a missed opportunity on the part of the Vatican to fully engage this digital medium and realize their stated aims to facilitate direct engagement between the Vatican and individuals. One hopes that going forward, @pontifex will acknowledge his digital dialogue partners, and embrace one of the key benefits of tweeting, namely, direct engagement.

**Please note that this reflection was written prior to Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would be stepping down at the end of the month. As of Monday morning, February 11th, @pontifex has not yet tweeted about his retirement.