Dr. Geek: iPope, or When Religions Meet the Internet

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Where were you when you heard the news?  That the white smoke had been sighted over the Sistine Chapel.  That the bells of  St. Peter’s Basilica rang out, to be joined by other chapel bells around Rome.  When Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, of the Jesuit order, greeted the gathered masses and begin his life as Pope Francis I.  Perhaps you were at work or school, like most Americans, and maybe you were even live streaming the news coverage, like my colleagues and I.  I found AlJazeera’s coverage to be the only one working.  The irony of learning about the next head of the Catholic religion from a news organization many conservatives deride as Islamic was not lost on me.

Or maybe you were one of the Catholic faithful who had downloaded a Pope app to your smartphone to receive the alert no matter where you were, what you were doing.  Your own virtual version of the smoke and bells, as it were.

The Vatican joined the social media landscape under the reign of Pope Benedict XVI — aka he who recently resigned for health reasons.  Pope Benedict XVI became an advocate for using various social media platforms as a way to spread the Catholic message, seeing it as another means by which to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Virtual missionary work, if you will.

I wonder if the representation of St. Peter on Earth liked to play Angry Birds...

I wonder if the representation of St. Peter on Earth liked to play Angry Birds…


Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican developed a YouTube channel for masses, news, and behind-the-scenes access to the Holy See.  He began tweeting his benedictions, thoughts, and news @Pontifex and @Pope2YouVatican — not to mention the other Twitter accounts the Vatican oversaw as public relations news feeds, such as the English language https://twitter.com/news_va_en.   Benedict could even outdo most other Tweeters, tweeting in up to nine different languages.  There is the official “Pope App” for iPhone and Android phones, allowing mobile access to all Vatican news and events.  All of this to go along with their various websites: http://www.news.va/enhttp://www.vatican.va/, and even the more user-friendly http://www.pope2you.net/index.php that purported to support more of a one-on-one relationship between Catholics and the Pope.

While the social media outreach may not be converting anyone to the Church, it is definitely doing its part to maintain the cohesion among the believers by providing them with the means by which to stay informed and to stay in-touch, either with their religious leaders or with one another.   The YouTube channel has 8.5 million worldwide subscribers.  Over 2 million people follow the tweets that come from the Vatican from its various accounts.  And while some in the organization see the benefit of having such connections to the globally diasporic followers, others worry about the same things anyone who uses the social media for a specific, strategic purpose worry about: flaming, trolling and the impersonal nature of technologically-based interaction.  Such is the concern that numerous Catholic churches, parishes, and dioceses have even developed protocols for communicating via social media as part of their external communication or public relations strategies.

All of this brings us back to yesterday — March 13, 2013 — when the papal conclave of the College of Cardinals resulted in the election of Pope Francis I.  The faithful, the news organizations, and those interested in the history and the spectacle were waiting for word on whether or not a successful vote had occurred.  NBC News posted a picture yesterday that shows just how much can change in the short time after Pope John Paul II’s death, that led to the election of Pope Benedict XVI, to Benedict’s resignation, leading to Francis’ election.  In that, relatively, short time span, we went from being a world that was not focused on mobile communication technologies, to one where it seems people cannot experience the real world unless it is through a screen.

Can we just no longer live in the moment if we aren't recording it for the future?

Can we just no longer live in the moment if we aren’t recording it for the future?


Now, all of those at the Vatican, awaiting word yesterday did not have to use an app on their mobile device to tell them about the election.  They had the physical signals of the smoke and the bells and the pontiff’s appearance to provide them with that news.  In fact, with their mobile devices, they most likely became part of the news distribution network, tweeting and liveblogging and streaming the physical signals just as the news professionals around them.  With their assistance, the physical signals could spread further and faster than has ever occurred before.

And for those faithful and curious not there, they did not have to rely solely on the Vatican’s apps or the professional news feeds for their mobile alerts.  A search of “pope” turns up numerous apps at Google Play and iTunes that could fulfill all your Pope-related information and entertainment needs.  Along with numerous election specific websites, these apps were providing people with ways to control how they were alerted, allowing them almost as simultaneous knowledge of the election as those physically present.  Many of the apps were free, some had the modest fees common to apps.  And all represent the extent to which apps can be quickly designed for specific purposes, but will only be successful if they have multiple functions beyond such specific purposes.  Apps work best in a long-tail business model, where their multi-functionality allows them to grow an audience over time, from people sharing their experiences with the app.

Interestingly, this long-tail, word-of-mouth style of building a following is essentially the same model religions like Catholicism have relied on for millennia.  Religions tend to start out small, centralized, localized, and it is only through evangelicalism and missionary work, as followers spread the message of the religion, that religions can spread.  For the bulk of human history, this has meant relying on physical groundwork: sending people out to preach to the non-converted.  The rise of mass media with the printing press during the Renaissance meant texts could be sent out and passed along with this message, but usually in the presence of a human being who does the job of handing out the texts.  And, for the large part, this remains how religions spread today: through a combination of people pounding the pavement and palming their mass produced media goods, whether pamphlets, books, DVDs, or other.

The use of social media could mean the collapse of this method.  The person can travel the world via the mass media, be anywhere and everywhere at once without physically having to be there.  Social media allow for more physical-like interaction, through video conferencing, blogging, vlogging, tweeting, podcasting, and more and more.  Virtual worlds, as social media, even allow for the construction of digital houses of worship, digital representations of the religion’s advocates, and the closest to physical interaction we currently have through online means.  Missionary work moving online, even into virtual worlds, aligns with the reasons for the Vatican’s acceptance, under Pope Benedict XVI’s guidance, of the social media  as viable communication channels.

But here’s the thing: there is some irony in an organization not being in step with the world ideologically but trying to be in step with it technologically.  The Roman Catholic Church has seen a decline in the numbers of people who count themselves as faithful to the Church, a decline that has occurred globally as people either lapsed or switched completely their religious affiliation.  For many of those who leave, they cite concerns about the practices and policies of the Vatican and their doctrinal conservativism — recently seen here in the US with the Vatican’s reaction to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of American nuns dedicated to issues like social justice.  Even those still considering themselves Catholics, such as American nuns, worry about how out of touch the Pope and the Holy See are with the needs and concerns of the world.

The trend of decline for American Catholics over three decades.

The trend of decline for American Catholics over three decades.


In a way, the appropriation of very modern, some may say hip, mass communication technologies like social media seems at odds with their practices and policies that, for the most part, do not reflect the beliefs and behaviors of those who most  commonly use those technologies — namely, young people.  In a sense, it is as if they believe that the incorporation of social media into their communication strategy is enough to make up for the conservative policies they continue to endorse.  And, yes, better use of social media can be effective, as long as social media are understood to be the dialogic, user-empowering mass communication technologies they are.  And yet, at the same time, this will only help you reach a certain segment of the population: unless the message changes, they may not be able to reach out to those who have gone or those who have never been with the Church.  Social media can help you get the message out, but only those who endorse the message will spread it positively — everyone else will utilize the message for a purpose that could be very contradictory to what was originally intended.

Since the election of Francis I, there has been some hope from followers and observers of the Roman Catholic Church that perhaps he will be able to bring reform or “house-cleaning” to the Vatican.  However, while he may shake up the practices and procedures of the Holy Order, he will most likely not reform its ideological stances on issues such as contraception, women’s rights, and gays’ rights.  The Roman Catholic Church will continue to be at odds with how more and more Catholics, active and lapsed, live their daily lives and feel and act about those issues.  And no amount of appropriating social media will sway these individuals unless the message that is spread through them changes.

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