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.
“Dear friends,” he wrote, “I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”
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.
On the other hand, it has a remarkably good record with technology. The Vatican had its own website up by 1996, run by a Benedictine community in the Arizona desert. It was one of the first countries to have its own radio station. It has a television station.
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.
There are only two things that a pope can say in public to a secular world: banalities and gaffes. 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.
So the preliminary reckoning has to be that he has made a success of his account, not least because there’s no pretence that he is either writing the stuff himself — though he approves the Tweets — or, still less, wasting his time reading the responses. Very few religious leaders use Twitter well. The archbishop of York’s feed in the UK is a firehose of upbeat banalities that blasts away the reader’s will to live.
The responses to the feed were almost as predictable as the tweets themselves. The most notable thing, again, was how little English was found in the #pontifex hashtag, and how many other languages. The pope’s team were translating his words into seven languages, but not, tragically, Latin.
The other thing that hasn’t happened is any really successful fake account. This suggests the effort Twitter must have invested in such a magnificent publicity coup for them. It’s not as if the pope is on Facebook, or Google+ and his presence will be worth a great deal in advertising.
The only witty spoof seems to have disappeared altogether: the account that pretended to be from Avignon, where the popes were exiled towards the end of the 14th century and where a line of antipopes continued for a few years after 1415. Why, he asked, was Twitter not granting him equal status with the pope of Rome? — The Guardian, London