The Pope’s First Week on Twitter (@tim_hutchings)

Last week, a mini social media storm blew up when the Vatican announced a new Twitter account for the Pope. The Pope! On Twitter!


Christian observers were mostly rather grumpy. The Pope was ignoring all the advice of the how-to-use-social-media-in-church books and not following anyone back, and broadcasting worthy comments instead of getting into chatty conversations with strangers. It all sounded dangerously like a vicarbot. Elisabeth Drescher even dismissed the whole project as a kind of marketing: “ministry without meaningful engagement is merely a form of advertising.”

Well, the Pope has now been on Twitter for a week. So how’s it going?

Actually, it seems to be going pretty well. The Pope’s English-language account (@pontifex) now has 1.2 million followers, almost all signed up in the first few days. His first message was retweeted more than 62,000 times. No big surprise there – Twitter sent one of their own members of staff to help the Pope work out what to say.

The Pope has sent nine tweets, and three of those were questions – so he hasn’t just been broadcasting messages. He’s also advertised #askpontifex, promising to respond to a few questions sent to that hashtag. Paul Tighe (Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications) has been saying all the things that social media gurus say about engagement and listening and going-where-the-people-are, too.

Here’s a funny thing, though: those three questions have been the *least* popular messages the Pope has sent. They get favourited and retweeted far less frequently. And the #askpontifex campaign has been a disaster – check it now, and all you see are insulting messages attacking the Pope’s record on social issues. Going “interactive” looks like a bad idea.

But interactivity and engagement are not the only things you can do on Twitter, despite everything the social media gurus like to say. Twitter is a tool for sending short messages to anyone who signs up to receive them, and it’s also a tool for collecting messages from all the people you want to listen to. That’s it. There’s no rule book that says you absolutely must use Twitter in one specific way.

If we look around on Twitter, some really amazing accounts aren’t conversational at all. My favourite is @realtimeWWII, an account which is live-tweeting the entire Second World War day-by-day for six years. That account is based on brilliant research and it’s constantly being updated, but it isn’t about conversation, and it’s not really an account I’d retweet either. @realtimeWWII is a kind of history that couldn’t work in any other medium, because it’s all about time – you hear that a new bombing raid has been launched, and you have to wait for hours to find out, in real time, what happens next. You couldn’t print that in a book, because you would lose the rhythm and anticipation that makes it special. “Twitter drama” accounts like @Natwivity work in a similar way, sending out updates every few hours to narrate the Christmas story in real time.

Twitter storytelling reminds us that social media can be used in many ways. We all need to work out what our personal goals are, and then decide how the tools of social media can be used to achieve those goals. If you want people to think you’re friendly and approachable, start having conversations – but other users of Twitter may have different ambitions.

Can the Pope benefit from using Twitter as a broadcast medium? Absolutely. As lots of religious leaders have discovered, there are plenty of people on Twitter who enjoy receiving messages that are uplifting or challenging or funny or thought-provoking. Positive, inspirational messages have been a huge success on social media, including Twitter and Facebook. If you follow Joyce Meyer or Max Lucado, you know you’ll find something uplifting in your Twitter feed every few hours – and it will probably be something uncontroversial that you can pass on to your own followers, too.

Even better, when a message like this is sent out by the Pope or the Dalai Lama you connect directly to that person, cutting out all the bishops/priests/journalists who normally come between a faith celebrity and their audience. Who wouldn’t want that?

Does that mean your church should start broadcasting on Twitter instead of chatting to people? Well, maybe not. If you think there’s a big audience out there longing to hear your latest aphorism, it might be worth a try – but the more you talk about Christian stuff, in conversation or in broadcast mode, the more you guarantee that only Christians will be listening. You need to work out what kind of connection you want and who you want to connect to, and figure out for yourself how social media can help you achieve that goal.

What do you think? Is the Vatican wasting its time?

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.