The Pope’s Tweet: The Medium Is the Message

And so, the pope tweeted. What he said far less important than the fact that he tweeted — but what he said is nonetheless revealing.

His tweet: “Dear Friends, I just launched News.va Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI.”

What is significant about this comes down to the fact that “the medium is the message.” That phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s is all that most people have heard (and, truth be told, all most people need to hear) of McLuhan’s thought. It is, like many great ideas, an obvious truth turned into an unexpected declarative sentence.

Think of McLuhan’s observation as “theology of the body,” but for the media. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body might be abbreviated: “The human body’s shape bespeaks its purpose.” Likewise, McLuhan says the shape and method of a medium speaks as powerfully as what its makers try to say through it.

When the printing press began to print Bibles, the book medium told people: “This contains all the word of God and only the word of God.” Some people made the leap from there to, “This book is all I need.” Then the medium of the mass-produced Bible said, “The truths you have read here are available to all,” and some took that to say, “We each can make of these truths what we will.”

The same is true of other media revolutions. Newspapers made the events of the world everybody’s business, challenging corruption and ending officialdom’s monopoly on information. But the broadsheet also made the news more sensational and trivial. As Henry Thoreau said, once newspapers got a cross-Atlantic telegraph, “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” He was right; only today it is Angelina Jolie rather than Princess Adelaide whose every step is reported.

Radio had its positive effects, bringing drama and music to people’s homes. But it also had its unintended consequences: It ended the front-porch culture, drawing families inside to listen to their radios. It made personality important in politics, helping give rise to FDR in America… and Hitler in Germany.

Even television must have brought something positive to the world (I mean, it must have, right?), but it also hastened us along the road to an entertainment culture where people are isolated not just from their neighbors, but their own family members.

 

The Vatican entered the fray in each of these media revolutions to promote the positive and mitigate the negative.

Newspapers? The Vatican launched L’Osservatore Romano in 1861, when newspapers were getting big in Europe. Radio? Thanks to the papal ties of radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi (or those of his aristocratic wife), the pope was in on the ground floor. Visual media? Pope Pius XII’s excellent “The Ideal Film” is a text we read in class here at Benedictine College.

But notice something about the Vatican’s use of each of these media.

L’Osservatore Romano never was, nor likely ever will be, a newspaper newspaper. It is often a great read, but it consists of official texts.

The first Vatican Radio address was not great radio. It was Pope Pius XI reading his address Omni Creaturae — not exactly the experience radio-listeners flock to.

Then take the case of Pope Benedict XVI’s YouTube video greeting to America. To read the message is to read a lovely, caring greeting by an affectionate man. To watch it is to see a man looking at a piece of paper, dwarfed by a giant chair, a giant painting, and an enormous gray wall. Not the kind of thing that would normally “go viral.”

Which brings us to the pope’s tweet. What everyone knows but doesn’t say is this: No, the pope didn’t really tweet. Twitter, at its best, is familiar and personal. What the pope did was hit the send button on the Vatican News Service’s Twitter debut.

The pope is not now on Twitter. He won’t follow his favorite philosophy professor, and he won’t share his thoughts while in the Alps on vacation. But he clearly does want to say that Catholics should not to be afraid of Twitter — and that we should be free to talk about Jesus there. Nothing communicates that so loudly as to tweet, “Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ!”

It’s up to Catholics (lay people, primarily) to use Twitter appropriately, and to avoid its misuses and pitfalls. The pope told us so, through his own example.

Tom Hoopes

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Tom Hoopes, former editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine, teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department, edits The Gregorian speech digest and is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

  • http://www.thinveil.net Brandon Vogt

    Great insights, Tom! I often wonder what McLuhan–a late convert to Catholicism–would think of our digital age.

  • richard

    Yes. Not only on Twitter but everywhere there are comboxes.

  • Brett

    I am now officially following the Vatican on twitter. I hope the Holy Father sends us tweets every once in a while with his own special messages. How cool. I love this Pope.

  • Earnest Bunbury

    “Tweeting” is inane and vacuous, no matter who does it.

  • http://www.thegregorian.com Tom Hoopes

    I agree with both Brett and Earnest … and try to explain why here:
    http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=18689

  • http://twitter.com/#!/tomasiakuina Ike from Sweden

    I don’t really see how an entire medium as big as Twitter can be all “inane and vacuous” – isn’t that sort of like calling all music, all websites or all novels “inane”? – but sure, the wheat-to-chaff-ratio can be off-putting at times…

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