Culture Twitter — Theresa Sauter, 20 March 2013
HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM: Pope Francis’s first @pontifex tweet and public reactions

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The new Pope’s first tweet was published shortly after Jorge Mario Bergolio stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to make his first public appearance, taking on (one of) his new role(s) as celebrity figurehead of the Catholic Church. ‘HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM’, it symbolically yelled in all capital letters. The message was retweeted 25,000 times within 10 minutes and a further 38,000 times within the next few hours for all the world to know: ‘We have Pope Francis’. (Now that the new Pope has started his own papal tweeting, however, that first tweet has been deleted from the account – perhaps to provide Pope Francis with a clean slate for his Twitter account.)

On the last day of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign, the @pontifex Twitter account had 1,587,037 followers. Within 20 minutes of Pope Francis’s election the number increased by over 100,000 followers, and within three days of the election (8 am Brisbane time, 17 March 2013) the @pontifex Twitter account had accumulated a total of 1,880,681 followers; a gain of 293,644 followers. The table below shows the engagement with the @Pontifex account from 1 to 15 March (Rome time). It reveals a hardly surprising but noteworthy spike on 13March, the night of Pope Francis’s election when the first tweet was posted.

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Engagement with @pontifex account over time

These data of course do not take into account the many more tweets that would have been sent and circulated about the new Pope Francis without a direct mention of the @pontifex account; also, for technical reasons they include only manual (not button) retweets of the @pontifex account’s ‘HABEMUS PAPAM’ tweet. Nevertheless, an account-centric analysis can provide some insights into the public resonance that the tweeting activity of the Pope has.

In fact, here are the @mentions and manual retweets per hour during 13 March alone – this demonstrates the significant and sudden resonance of @pontifex’s single tweet:

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Tweets referencing @pontifex on 13 March

While Pope Benedict XVI brought the @pontifex account into being, his engagement with the tool and his community of followers was limited. His tweets were short 140-character versions of blessings or prayers, and communication between followers and account holder was limited to a one-way channel; there was no use of @mentions or retweets in any of Pope Benedict’s messages, and the papal account followed only its eight replicate accounts in different languages, rather than connecting with some, or all, of its additional followers.

Given this limited use of the communicative affordances of the Twitter platform by the old Pope, the question emerges as to how Pope Francis will appropriate the tool. The papal foray into online social networking has been conceptualised as part of a renewed push by the Roman Catholic Church to improve its public relations activities at a time of persistent crisis, in an institution affected by scandals over sexual abuse by priests, the leaking of sensitive documents by the Pope’s personal aide, and allegations of money laundering against the Vatican Bank. Will Pope Francis make more effective use of the new media tool to engage with the public, speak out about these contentious issues, and seek ways of attenuating the negative image the Catholic religion has been ascribed in the media and public discourse? Thus far, he has not added any more accounts to the eight @pontifex accounts his predecessor followed, and has not responded to the many tweets and retweets his first tweet prompted. The graph below shows the @replies and (manual) retweets it received over four days, with the critical day being 13 March (Rome time), when the new Pope was elected and his first tweet published. That day, there is a substantially larger proportion of (manual) retweets in the overall mix of tweets referencing the @pontifex account – and the number of button retweets would have been even larger.

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Tweeting activity of @pontifex account holder and his follower-base.

We can clearly see the limited activity by the account user compared to the extensive engagement with that small amount of activity by his follower-base. In the case of the @pontifex account, public resonance develops not necessarily around the extent of tweeting activity by the account itself, or even the content of its tweets, but rather around particular events and the mere celebrity status of its operator. Pope Francis’s election and the ritual of his instatement, and the announcement of it via Twitter, were enough to heighten engagement with the account. The limited use of Twitter by the previous Pope Benedict XVI did not inhibit his fans and followers from engaging with the account. The increase in followers and engagement with the account since Pope Francis stepped in does not necessarily indicate a greater popularity compared to his predecessor, but merely represents a predictable increase in engagement that correlates with the hype around the event of his election, that triggered a renewed public interest in papal activity.

It is early days in Pope Francis’s Twitter activities, and it will be interesting to see how his use of the @pontifex account compares to Pope Benedict XVI’s. The new Pope is certainly a step ahead of his predecessor; he engaged with social media prior to his newest appointment. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergolio maintained a Facebook page on which he shared psalms and articles about the Christian faith. Perhaps his previous experience with social media will make him more adept at employing the tool as an interactive medium, rather than a mere distributor of divine declarations – although his activity on Facebook was also rather limited. He joined the site in November 2011 and posted a few messages and links initially, however his activity quickly died down. The account lay dormant until March 2013 when it was roused back into action by his celebritisation.

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Screenshot of Jorge Mario Bergolio’s Facebook page with posts from November 2011.

While some were fast to proclaim that the new Pope was tweeting under the account @JMBergolio and used this personal Facebook page, these accounts turn out to be fakes. Check back for a forthcoming post on how a mistweet about the fake papal account caused confusion and led to users calling for a feature on Twitter that provides a way of managing a situation when a tweet goes wrong.

Since the first tweet that announced to the world that the new Pope had been chosen, Pope Francis has posted three times already. While the style of his tweets is fairly similar to those of his predecessor – short, divine messages, such as ‘Let us keep a place for Christ in our lives, let us care for one another and let us be loving custodians of creation’ – he is already showing more engagement with the tool. Whether this engagement will extend to those he is tweeting at will remain to be seen. At his inauguration, he broke protocols by seeking physical contact with his audience, keeping the ceremony simple and informal, and referring to himself as ‘The Bishop of Rome’ rather than ‘The Pope’. Already he is talked of as bringing a breath of fresh air to the Catholic Church. Perhaps he will also enliven the @pontifex account and make use of the affordances of the tool to truly interact with his followers, which have amassed to a staggering number of 2,069,596. We eagerly await the future of papal tweeting.6

About the Author

Theresa Sauter

Dr Theresa Sauter is a Research Associate in the ARC Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries & Innovation, based at Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests include the use of social media as tools for self-formation, digital sociology and practices of governing.

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