@Pontifex: Spirituality, Twitter and the Complexity of Diverse Audiences

Today marks the entry of the Vatican into the Twitter-verse as the Pope starts tweeting at @Pontifex. As of this morning, he has three quarters of a million followers. As a Roman Catholic who is used to reading papal writing, the tweets have been as expected: short bits of wisdom meant to encourage and support believers in their daily life. In this, he is in line with a great deal of Christian use of new media. From the early days of listservs to Web 2.0, churches have been using even simple things like email prayer requests and daily Bible verses to help support one another in the small things.

Of course, I’m writing this from the perspective of a Catholic. While I recognize the many problems that the Catholic church has created and continued (insert caveats about the fallen nature of all people, the tendencies of all institutions to have problems, and the lack of uniqueness of the RCC in this respect), I’m on board with the its basic beliefs and commitments. I have great respect for the Pope both in his role and as a stellar scholar.

A Tale of Two Audiences

I guess that’s why Andrew Brown’s opening line in this morning’s blog at the Guardian caught my eye:

It was not surprising that when Pope Benedict XVI finally turned up on Twitter to greet his million followers there he should have nothing to say.

Nothing to say? I guess I didn’t find:

pope's tweet

all that vacuous. I thought it was nice. Generic, but nice. But it got me thinking.

Brown goes on to explain a bit, underscoring what I would call a different levels of connection between the pope as an author and the different audiences that might read his writings. One audience is (to use Brown’s terms) “secular”, “bored, rich westerners.” For them, “there are only two things that a pope can say in public to a secular world: banalities and gaffes.” If you don’t share basic framework for interpreting the world, conversation is hard.

Another audience is people who are already believers or are open to the message. Given that some put the number of Catholics at over a billion people worldwide, that is a huge group. And most of them are outside of Europe, the US and Canada. This seems to surprise Brown a bit.

A high proportion of Twitter users follow the pope all over the Middle East, even in Saudi Arabia. The news that the pope is sending his blessing to them will not seem absurd or boring to Filipino migrant workers enduring conditions close to slavery in a country where churches are illegal.

The words may, indeed, help bring consolation in seemingly unconsolable circumstances, situations that Twitter’s advertising-base couldn’t even imagine.

A Tale of Two Expectations

There are other things that might strike these two audiences differently. For instance, for believers, the statements in last week’s NYTimes story :

Aides will write Benedict’s posts…

and

“…all the pope’s tweets are the pope’s words.”

don’t hold any contradiction. If the Pope approves, they become his words.

Consider, too that for Catholics, a statement like:

It’s not as if any of those million followers had anything much to say either. Twitter is a medium for quick reactive conversations, and the Roman Catholic church has never been good at those.

starts from a faulty premise (not to mention being bit insulting). It’s not that the RCC is bad at “quick reactive conversations”—they simply have no interest in them at all. It’s a standard genre online, but as many of us know from personal experience, it is not one that always leads to uplifting human dignity, respect, and genuine community. Why would a 2000 year old organization want jump into the churnalistic fray? Better to speak thoughtfully and only after reflection.

Tail Between His Legs?

Of course, the tensions between the expectations of different audiences is nothing new. Where Pope John Paul II was a skilled media personality who was able to positively engage a variety of audiences, Pope Benedict XVI has sometimes found it difficult to communicate in today’s media. More at home in the scholarly setting, he has earned harsh criticism for ideas in his academic writings (for instance, use of certain quotes on Islam in a 2006 lecture). Our soundbite culture rarely sets aside the time to understand complex ideas that sit within a long argument and requires understanding of historical and intellectual contexts. Oh, how we love a juicy misconstrual. We can blame the media for that, but doing so is no help. We have to communicate in ways that audiences hear, not the way we want them to hear.

Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, is committed to engaging new media. In one of his last writings before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II wrote about new media landscape, noting that “communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior.” (The Rapid Development, Paragraph 3) They are, he said, the “crossroads of the great social questions.” (Paragraph 10) Way back in 1989, Pope John Paul II had suggested in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio that the media is the “first Areopagus of the modern age” and that it is “unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a ‘global village’.” (Paragraph 37) If Christianity is to be relevant, it must be in the public square of meaning. No question about it.

The question, though, is whether or not Pope Benedict will be able to make good use of the public square. For someone who writes as many books as he has, writing short pieces can be challenging–and in invitation for missteps. At the same time, the 140 character limit may force a whole new style. All I can hope is that the folks on his media team provide sound advice as he learns the new medium.

If Pope Benedict can avoid saying something that can be radically misunderstood, @pontifex could provide both consolation and challenge for those trying to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Or, as Andrew Brown elegantly put it:

The faithful, however, will hear other things in his voice if they are listening. His first answer on Twitter to a question urged them to “look for Jesus in those in need.” That could be a programme for a lifetime, squashed into a lot fewer than 140 characters.

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