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Far away from infallible

14 December 2012

The Pope's new Twitter account will require him to communicate in a radically different way, says Simon Jenkins

In modern times, the Pope has made many journeys. He has jet-setted around the world in his plane, Shepherd One, and driven in a motorcade in the popemobile, memorably described as his "bullet-proof ice-cream van" when it plied the streets of Britain.

But perhaps no journey can be stranger than the one he is setting out on this week, without having to leave his desk in the papal apartments. Pope Benedict XVI is entering the rowdy world of Twitter, where brief, 140-character messages fly back and forth between people, 24 hours a day.

It is about as far away as you could imagine from the world where popes issued bulls and encyclicals from the throne of St Peter, and people listened in hushed reverence. Entering Twitter is like arriving at a noisy bar, where a fight is always about to erupt. So the Pope might do best to leave his mitre at the door.

POPE Benedict has made his debut before on Twitter, in June 2011, when he sent a tweet to inaugurate the Vatican news website. But this time he has his own Twitter account: @pontifex. In the week since the account opened, he has clocked up 600,000 followers, without posting a single tweet.

This supernatural growth-spurt is just one of many unusual things about this account. It is being run by a man who prefers writing in long- hand to using a computer keyboard: the Pope is not even a typewriter sort of chap. And, although the Vatican says that he "will tweet what he wants to tweet", his involvement will be limited to signing off on the 140-character messages, which will be put together by staff in the Secretariat of State.

In another move that is unusual for Twitter, the Pope is not going to "follow" anyone. In fact, however, @pontifex is already following seven other accounts, which all turn out to be @pontifex in languages other than English. There is @pontifex_it for Italian and @pontifex_de for German. There is also an account in Arabic, but not in Latin. It is fascinating to see that English has been chosen for the main account.

All this means that the Pope is following himself, which isn't quite the done thing on Twitter, where following others and being followed in return is the whole point. This is why it's called a social rather than a broadcast medium.

THE Pope will also not be retweeting anyone else's tweets, although he will be replying to questions, which can be posted on the Twitter hashtag #askpontifex

Unsurprisingly, the avalanche of questions, jokes, and comments posted so far is a mixed bag. They are by turns curious, scurrilous, playful, pious, blasphemous, sincere, insulting, mischievous, and occasionally funny. It's an ordinary day on Twitter, in fact.

"When will Your Holiness visit Sweden?" asks bjornglarsson, which sounds like an easy task for the Vatican's social media team.

"Now that @Pontifex has an account, can he excommunicate someone by blocking them on Twitter?" posts CodyCGraves.

The BBC News website asked something similar the other day, when it seriously plumbed the question whether the Pope's tweets could be infallible. Pope Pius IX must be spinning in his sarcophagus.

More challenging is this from oliverthring: "Why do you acquiesce to the deaths of millions of the world's poorest people by teaching them that condoms are worse than Aids?"

A question such as this is the meat and drink of Twitter. I think that the Pope will need to respond to popular and clichéd criticism of the Roman Catholic Church if he seriously wants to build credibility.

Credibility is, of course, the biggest issue. The fact that the Pope will not retweet, follow others, or actually write his own tweets makes me wonder whether the whole exercise is for real. It certainly takes a great deal of sincerity out it. It's very Pontifex Maximus, and the @pontifex handle is an unfortunate reminder of the "Supreme Pontiff" pretensions of papal power.

It is a safe bet that the most conservative sections of the Roman Curia see this as a new megaphone for the Pope to deliver one-way messages; but the world doesn't work like that any more. Committing yourself to social media means joining a conversation, listening as well as speaking, appreciating the thoughts of other people.

Having said that, another world religious leader has thrived on Twitter for the past couple of years. The Dalai Lama tweets regularly, with the support of a social-media team who translate his teachings into tweet-sized messages.

This operation not only works well, but seems to be true both to the Dalai Lama and to the social medium; so perhaps there is a model here that could work for the Pope.

The Dalai Lama's account, even though it follows zero people, does not retweet, and does not answer questions, has 5.7 million followers, making him the 91st most followed person on Twitter.

The Roman Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt has offered five suggestions for the tweeting Pope. They include: engage in dialogue, be funny, and don't be afraid.

Vogt writes: "If you're simply pushing out information, you're not using Twitter's full potential. The great power of Twitter is that it puts you in dialogue with a billion Catholics around the world - and billions of non-Catholics - most of whom see you as distant and inaccessible."

 The Pope has distinguished himself in reflecting on internet culture over the past few years, in his messages on World Communications Day. In his 2011 message, he talked positively about the way in which people can connect with each other using social media: "Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others."

If Pope Benedict can turn that thought into action, by breaking out of the confines of his office and finding an authentically human way of communicating with the social-media world, it would be a very hopeful sign. It's a big thing to hope, but if the Dalai Lama can do it, perhaps the Pope can, too. And, while they're about it, perhaps they could follow each other.

Simon Jenkins is the editor of Ship of Fools, and blogs at simonjenkins.com.


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