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Pope Joins Religious Figures On Twitter


Pope Benedict XVI's Twitter account pictured on a smartphone.
Pope Benedict XVI's Twitter account pictured on a smartphone.
He isn't following anyone else, and even before he sent a single tweet he had amassed more than 650,000 followers.

Pope Benedict XVI has sent the much-anticipated first tweet from his personal Twitter account, telling followers: "Dear friends, 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."

The pope, using the Twitter handle @pontifex -- combining the words for pope and bridge builder --- will be signing off on a total of eight accounts tweeting in eight different languages.

In doing so, he's joining a growing list of religious figures firing off messages in 140 characters.

“If you are a religious leader, you would reach out to your followers by using sermons or letters," says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist, social-media commentator, and a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, "and this has been a very standard part of what religious leaders do and now there are new ways of reaching people.”

Benedict is certainly not the first religious leader, or even pope, for that matter, to have taken to Twitter.

Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church of Egypt did so on November 27, only nine days after he was formally enthroned. He has so far sent more than 20 tweets containing proverbs in both English and Arabic and attracted more than 15,800 followers.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, is also on Twitter, but only tweets links to his press releases.

U.S. Christian evangelist speakers like Joyce Meyer have also carved out a prominent Twitter spot for themselves by gathering thousands of followers and retweets. Meyer has more than 1.5 million followers and mostly tweets verses from the Bible or her own proverbs.

Meyer is also an example of a recent trend -- religious leaders tend to pull more weight per tweet than political or celebrity figures who have more followers.

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What counts as impact here is the number of times other users interact with an individual tweet -- for example by retweeting or "favoriting" it -- in relation to the number of followers the person has.

One recent tweet by Joyce Meyer to her 1.5 million followers has been retweeted 3,345 times:

By comparison, a recent Hanukkah tweet by President Barack Obama, who has more than 24.3 million followers, was retweeted only 3,052 times:

Other religious figures, like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, named by "Newsweek" magazine as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in the United States, use Twitter in a more promotional way.

Rabbi Shmuley’s Twitter account regularly updates his more than 26,000 followers with photos of his family life and links to his books and articles.

The result is lower Twitter interactivity, which means his tweets appear less on other users’ Twitter home feeds.

Another religious leader active on Twitter is Tibet's exiled Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He first joined Twitter in 2010 and now has more than 5.6 million followers. His messages are retweeted thousands of times.

Besides tweeting inspirational messages and proverbs, the Twitter account, which tweets in the third person, also sends photos and videos of the leader’s speeches and encounters with other celebrities:

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweets photos, links to press releases, and snippets of commentary on world events in both English and Persian:

Apart from Pope Benedict's inaugural message, he won't be sending tweets himself, relying instead on aides.

The messages will be on spiritual matters and more worldly affairs, such as reactions to major news events.

He'll also be answering selected questions sent over the last week and a half by people using the hashtag #askpontifex.

Tufekci says if the pope's Twitter account is just a condensed version of the pontiff’s sermons, press releases, and television appearances, then Twitter will be simply an extension of his offline activities.

However, if he uses the account in an interactive manner, the act would signal a break with tradition. "If he changed the issuing of statements and he became more interactive, that would be a huge change," Tufekci says. "That would change religion. That would change the Catholic Church. That would just be a very different kind of world."

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