The pope, Justin Bieber and the nature of social media


By Christopher Gunty

What do Justin Bieber and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? Not much, really, except that both enjoy music and, as of this week, both are on Twitter.

The similarities end there, however.

The pope has spent plenty of time in the Sistine Chapel. Bieber didn’t even know what it was. On “The Late Show with David Letterman” last June, the talk-show host was encouraging the young singer not to overdo his tattoos by adding murals and the Sistine Chapel. Bieber said, “I’m not going to do the 16th chapel.” As Letterman and the audience burst into laughter, it’s clear Justin is not even sure why they are laughing. One hopes he has done some studying by now to know the difference between Michelangelo’s masterpiece and just another chapel.

Bieber has more than 31 million followers on the social media micro-message site. From his Twitter feed, you’ll get insights such as: “been writing alot … new stuff … and yeah. the acoustic album, new arrangements, is happening” and “life is good. too much love.” Bieber tweets often, sometimes several times a day. His messages are usually very mundane and self-promotional.

The pope was to begin his first tweets Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In those first messages, he was expected to answer some questions submitted from around the world.

According to those assisting the pope with his Twitter presence, the papal tweets will be posted regularly, but not too frequently – each tweet needs the pope’s approval and he has a busy schedule, according to Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. According to Catholic News Service, the pope won’t be producing the tweets, but Monsignor Tighe said the messages “are pearls of wisdom coming from the heart of the pope’s teaching and coming from his own mind and ideas.”

From the pope: authentic church teaching in 140-character bites. From Bieber: musings on his current tour.

A few days before the pope’s opening tweets, the eight accounts (@pontifex in English and in seven more languages, such as @pontifex_de for German) had about 900,000 followers combined, about two-thirds of those for the English feed. That’s a pretty quick ramp-up for any Twitter account, but it is still dwarfed by the numbers of entertainment types such as Bieber, who is No. 2 in Twitter followers, and Lady Gaga, who’s No. 1 at more than 32 million.

The only person of substance in the top 20 is @BarackObama, with about 25 million followers. That’s sad. The church and the pope have the words of eternal life; Gaga, Bieber and the like offer “pearls of boredom” forgotten the next day.

Sadly, that seems to be the nature of much social media. It’s prevalent, but is it worthwhile? How likely is it that a tweet from Katy Perry or Taylor Swift can save your soul? Does a billion views on YouTube validate the ethos of a Korean rapper’s “Gangnam Style”?

It’s high time that the pope got on board, since this is where conversations are happening and this spectrum is a good place to reach people with the right message. The fullness of Catholic teaching can’t be captured in 140 characters, but it can whet the appetite. This Vatican effort allows the pope himself to use the media of today. Monsignor Tighe notes it would be worse to have kept the pope out of the Twittersphere out of fear of the ways people might engage with the pontiff, and then to leave that space “vacant.”

In the absence of genuine papal content, others will fill the void, and not necessarily with the right message. Welcome to Twitter, Pope Benedict, a.k.a. @pontifex (Latin for bridge builder). The church has bridges to build and great stories to tell. We have to use all means available.

Christopher Gunty is the associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review. Click here to see more of his editorials.

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