Column: Advice for One Who Tweets From on High
The Vatican announced recently that Pope XVI will begin tweeting under the handle Pontifex. Though his first Tweet is not expected until Dec. 12, the English-language papal account already has over 112,000 followers.
“We are going to get a spiritual message. The pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad and no-one is going to be putting words into the pope’s mouth,” Greg Burke, senior media adviser to the Vatican said.
“He will tweet what he wants to tweet,” he added, though the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion or so Roman Catholics is expected to sign off, rather than write, each individual tweet himself.
We applaud St. Peter’s successor for embracing social media, but navigating Twitter can be tough for even the holiest of newbies. Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for His Holiness:
1. Learn from your peers
As Nick Kristof suggests, Benedict could do worse than to study the Dalai Lama’s extremely popular account as a model for how religious leaders can use Twitter. DalaiLama is mostly short nuggets of Buddhist teaching with occasional commentary on current events and some non-obnoxious self-promotion. The pope may also want to get a translation of Salman al-Odah’s feed to see how the Saudi cleric has built up nearly 2 million followers or look at Twitter-loving American evangelist Joyce Meyer, who has more than 1.5 million.
2. Follow some people
Too many celebrities and leaders on Twitter make the mistake of using it only as a transmission system without following any other users. Benedict could start with other religious leaders, or political figures like Barack Obama and David Cameron. Nobody’s expecting Benedict to follow biologist and avowed atheist Richard Dawkins just to prove he’s open-minded, but perhaps following a few slightly critical feeds such as the National Catholic Reporter — which advocates ordaining female priests, for instance — could broaden his information diet a bit without angering the man upstairs.
3. Interact, but don’t flame
Responding or retweeting followers can help give them the sense that there’s a real person behind the handle. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the master of using Twitter to communicate directly with constituents on issues as small as stray pitbulls. That level of engagement probably isn’t possible for a global figure like Benedict, but it wouldn’t hurt to periodically engage directly with the flock.
What he should be careful to avoid is getting into the kind of angry flame wars carried out in recent months by the presidents of Rwanda, Estonia and Azerbaijan. It’s not very becoming for the Holy See to start arguments over politics or points of doctrine with obnoxious journalists.
4. Don’t sweat the parodies
The pope is a major world figure. He’s going to be mocked on Twitter. He should handle it like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not like The New York Times.
Trusting others to do one’s tweeting, as Benedict appears to be doing, can be risky. Ban Ki-moon likely wasn’t too thrilled when the U.N.’s official feed tweeted out his support for a “1-state solution” recently. God’s emissary on Earth should probably double-check to make sure his staff are getting the wording right in all eight languages.
Joshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.