Catholic social media isn’t really media at all

Catholic social media isn’t really media at all

© Victorpr |
© Victorpr |

We call it social media, but what if it isn’t really media at all, at least how we understand media? In fact, social media shouldn’t be lumped in with traditional media because they are completely different, with different means and different ends. Social media is more akin to the road to Emmaus than it is to a TV channel.

I was talking with someone who works in media for a diocese recently and he mentioned that there’d been discussions about the nature of media, and new media in particular, with regard to how the model should work. The diocese had several kinds of media available to it, including print (newspaper and magazine), broadcast (radio and TV), and online (websites and social media), and the talk centered around the fact that these were all just distribution channels for the same content (the message) that they would produce and transmit.

Unfortunately, my friend and I agreed, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of new media.

(Let’s take an aside here to agree that the term “new media” is no longer apropos, because it’s no longer “new”, especially to a generation that’s grown up with it. It’s all just media now. What we usually refer to as new media could more accurately be called “social media”. The reason will become clear throughout the rest of this post, but in any case that’s the term I will use from here.)

The old forms of media–print and broadcast–were by nature one-to-many: One voice broadcasts to many listeners. Yes, there were various levels of interactivity possible with live audiences, call-in shows, letters to the editor, but these were not a large part of the content, which was usually crafted and controlled by the originator. The content was created and then presented for the consumption of the masses through the medium.

But social media changes all that. Social media is not a distribution channel. It’s a relationship. The content and the medium together form the relationship itself. Yes, information can be conveyed through social media, but when the social media become simply a megaphone or a bulletin board, it ceases to be social and to an audience for whom transparency, accountability, and availability are paramount, they become irrelevant.

When people go to Facebook or Twitter, what are they seeking? They want to connect. They friend, they like, they retweet. They engage. As the primary manager of the Archdiocese of Boston’s social media accounts I see that engagement. I help monitor Cardinal Seán’s Twitter account and I see how people connect with him personally. They send him tweets of admiration, of petition, of simple intercession. They write to him as they would write to their friends.

On Facebook, people identify with the archdiocese’s Page, seeing in themselves some ownership of the Church’s presence online. They see Pope Francis, not as the leader of 1 billion Catholics, but as a personal shepherd and friend. They want to know what he saying and doing today as much for the precious images of the babies he’s kissing and the infirm he’s embracing as for what official teaching he’s promulgating. And those actions may convert more than any words ever could.

Viral Buzz is Better Than 100 Encyclicals

Recently, Pope Francis led a special day of the family at the Vatican and one precocious little boy stole the show by approaching the Holy Father boldly, hanging on his arm, and even sitting in his chair while the Pope was speaking. These images were broadcast around the world, but it wasn’t until they were gathered and amplified through social media that they truly captured hearts and minds.

Buzzfeed is a quintessential social media website in that it’s editors curate “viral content”, i.e. online material that lots of people are talking about and sharing, and package it for quick and image-heavy consumption and further sharing and discussion.

In the week after Pope Francis had his encounter with the boy at St. Peter’s, Buzzfeed posted a story: “Boy Wanders Onto Stage To Hang Out With Pope Francis”. This was not a typical news story with lots of text and analysis from pundits and experts or discussion of the Pope’s message on families, but a series of headlines, photos, and tweets. Yet, the images of the Pope interacting with this boy said more about the value of children and family than any formal speech could have. Or as I said on Twitter:

In fact, the comments on that Buzzfeed article were full of people saying how they aren’t practicing Catholics, aren’t Catholic at all, or even literal pagans or atheists, yet they love the Holy Father and they are moved by his actions.

It’s been said that a picture is worth 1,000 words. For today’s social media generation, an article of animated GIFs is worth 10,000.

Had this been captured in a photo and story in a print newspaper, broadcast in a 10-second hit on national TV news, or discussed in 30 seconds on the radio, there might have been a few head nods, even a smile or two, and then on to the next content being pushed in front of us. But because this content lives online – including, yes, on newspaper websites and television channel YouTube accounts – it takes on a life. It’s shared, liked, and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times in the case of this one article from this one site.

To take it a step further, imagine a diocesan social media account that shares the Buzzfeed article to its social media accounts and starts a conversation with followers there. There would be those who are positive about the event, and undoubtedly others with a negative take. A conversation begins (the civility of which is a topic of another post) and then the participants and readers share it to their friends and family. Conversations begin there. Soon Pope Francis’ actions have been seen and discussed and spread further than they would have, could have just 10 or 15 years ago.

Christianity is relationship, not content

The Christian faith isn’t mere content. It isn’t even just the message, the deposit of faith. If that were so, all we’d need is a book and we could go off alone into our room to be Christian.

The essence of the Christian faith is relationship, a relationship with God in Three Persons and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in the world. We must know our faith, yes, but we must live our faith and share it too. But for those relationships to work, they must be reciprocal. There must be a willingness to speak and to listen on both sides.

As Msgr. Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, put it at the recent Catholic New Media Conference held in Boston:

The biggest challenge we face, particularly for my generation in the Church, is that we grew up with the idea of the pulpit – I’m here, I talk, you listen. The microphone let us reach further. The radio took us even further. The TV lets you see us as well as hear us. But we were at the center and you were out there consuming.

New media is different. I speak, I talk, I reflect, I say something. If you like it, or disagree enough with it to comment on it, or you have something to add to it, you might share it and that’s how it gets out there. For us [i.e. the Vatican], there’s a whole learning about how we communicate. It’s interactive and it’s participative. If I say something, I need to be ready to take something back. That’s how I might get interest. That’s how I might meet someone at their level.

The Church has something to say to the current culture. She has millennia of wisdom and experience, not to mention the Divine Revelation entrusted to her care. But she has to be sure to say it in a way that the current culture can understand and be receptive to.

Msgr. Tighe also said that Pope Francis recently addressed his Council and told them that in social media the Church must listen, converse, and encourage. We are all on a journey to meet Christ together and the Church accompanies the pilgrims on that journey. We are not leading, following, or simply giving directions. We walk side-by-side like Christ-in-disguise on the road to Emmaus with the disciples. Along the way we can talk and explicate, but there must be a conversation. For there to be conversation, there must be trust. And for there to be trust, there must be a relationship.

Today’s Millennials and the Generation Xers before them have grown up in a world where they are bombarded with messages every day from TV shows and news and advertisers and musicians and activists and so on. Those messages are often in conflict, and yet so carefully crafted it’s difficult to sift the authentic from inauthentic, the wheat from the chaff. Because of this, these generations have either become media savvy, at best, or jaded to all media, at worst.

If we are to reach these generations and this culture, we must recognize that everything has changed. We need to be authentically on the journey with them. We must show Christ to them in all his amazing guises. And with social media we can finally have the kind of relationship that make that a reality.

Social media isn’t just another aspect of the content/distribution model of media. It’s almost wrong to even call it media anymore, because it’s so unlike the traditional print and broadcast media.

In some ways, it’s just Social. It’s relationship.

Who should know social better than the Church whose binding principle is literally Communion and the Holy Spirit? So why are we so slow to show it?

  • This is a terrific article, Dom. I am a marketing professional in the publishing industry and it can be very disheartening to see how poorly most Catholics use social media as an evangelical tool. You are exactly right when you say it’s not about repackaging the message for different formats. It’s about relationships.

    I have a concept in mind for a new and unique Catholic-based social media site which incorporates a lot of what you’re talking about here. It would encourage relationships, be a source of fun, nostalgia and entertainment, while at the same time promote a beautiful core Catholic teaching that is widely misunderstood and ultimately help people get to heaven. As a side benefit, it has the potential to throw off a large amount of revenue as well. All I need is a tech-savvy Catholic organization to hire me to implement it. 🙂