Something I don’t touch upon that often in this column is the topic of religion.
It’s not necessarily that I don’t think religion is a topic without important notions to comment on—I mean this column is dumb but it isn’t that dumb. No, the reason I don’t tend to comment on religion in #this is simply because I don’t feel wholly qualified to talk about it. Religion is, after all, a topic which requires the utmost respect and sensitivity.
Those are two qualities that are still very much at the “work in progress” phase in social media.
Regardless, the two can and do intersect, and rarely with as much directness as the Twitter account of the leader of the Catholic church himself, the pope. For those who might still be recovering from that last sentence, yes, the pope does indeed have an account on the world’s second most popular social media site, going by @Pontifex. Actually, his holiness has several accounts that the Vatican has set up; each representing a different language so he may reach out to disciples worldwide.
This little trivial tidbit actually gains some significance considering that a new pope was named just a few weeks ago. On March 13, Pope Francis was named to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. Naturally, this was an extremely visible process which—as has happened hundreds of times before—left the pope’s seat eerily vacant for a relatively short deliberation period. One thing most people probably weren’t wondering (as I’d assume not many were aware of) was how this translated to the realm of Twitter.
And the reality is that it was not much different.
Following Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would be stepping down, he made a brief farewell tweet thanking his followers for their love and support. Then, just as quickly, all the tweets the pope had made on the @Pontifex account were deleted—its name being changed to “Sede Vacante” to reflect the vacant pope seat.
That isn’t to say Benedict tweeted much; the now Pope Emeritus had just under 40 tweets between December, when the @Pontifex accounts were created, and February when he announced his resignation. All these tweets can be found archived on the Vatican’s website, but it was still an odd thing to see this kind of momentous change happen through something perceived as trivial.
But that’s the entirety of the pope having a Twitter account, really. It is this odd dichotomy of this centuries-old position—the head of a huge religion—on a social media site that typically houses petty feuds, links to the fifty-thousandth “Harlem Shake” video and leaked pictures of politicians in unfortunate situations.
Again, the @Pontifex account is not necessarily one that sees heavy use. Since Pope Francis has taken over it, it has only sent out three tweets. Taking this in with the common (and unfortunate) uses that social media is associated with, it’s kind of puzzling that the Vatican believed it had a use for a Twitter account in the first place.
However, I’ll attempt to surmise the “why,” from a perspective of a layman.
Religion is an ever-present thing in the lives of the people who devote their lives to it. It informs their beliefs, it influences their decisions and it gives them comfort. Today’s culture, however, is perceived as self-centered, and nothing projects that narcissism like social media.
If one thing seems to oppose the communal and selfless intentions of an organized religion, it’s those qualities. As such, if nothing else, I can only assume that the decision of the Vatican—not necessarily known for embracing modern of concepts—is in some way an attempt to combat that perception or, at the very least, to further penetrate the everyday lives of its followers.
See, in a very broad way, the similarities between social media and religion are not altogether unlike each other.
When one looks at that number above their “Following” list on Twitter, they might not remember exactly who they’re following every minute of every day, but they no doubt have faith that if they continually check in that those they’re “Following” will give them exactly what they were looking for when they joined the site in the first place.
Such a comparison might be considered blasphemy, but I suppose I could always tweet @Pontifex for forgiveness.