The pope joins Twitter

Benedict XVI  Pontifex  on Twitter

He’s posted no tweets, but he already has over 400,000 followers. Only about a day has passed since it was announced he was joining Twitter.

Pope Benedict XVI joined the social media platform with the account @pontifex. The New York Times reports that the pope will review tweets, but aides will write the updates.

“The messages will mostly feature the contents of the pope’s speeches at his weekly general audience and Sunday blessings, as well as homilies on major holidays and reaction to major world events, like natural disasters,” according to The Times.

The pope currently follows seven accounts, all of which are simply himself in different languages. The first post from @pontifex will come on Dec. 12, The Times reported.

Based on the subjects that the pope is expected to tweet about, I don’t think his presence on Twitter will have a tremendous effect on coverage of the Vatican. The entrance of such a major international figure to the platform, however, brings about the broader question of how public officials use Twitter.

More people who journalists have traditionally covered are now using Twitter to distribute information. For instance, President Obama tried chatting with followers this week about the so-called fiscal cliff.

As much as Twitter can be a reporting tool, is it at all a threat to journalists that the platform could also serve as a microphone for the people reporters cover? Could public officials bypass journalists by taking their message directly to the public through social media?

There are not enough people on Twitter right now for such circumvention to be effective. Too much of the population in the United States just wouldn’t see information posted to social media websites. But as more people sign up to tweet, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Public officials on Twitter, like the president, don’t seem to be using the platform to break any news. They may engage with followers or link to statements, but in no way are they bypassing journalists. Perhaps the 140-character limit on tweets is a barrier to distributing any substantial news with context.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the growth of Twitter and how that is good for journalists. I haven’t looked much at the potential negative consequences with any specificity.

But it’s important to remember that Twitter gives everyone a platform for learning about and disseminating the news, not just reporters, and some aspects of that may not be wholly positive for journalists. If public officials tried to independently distribute news without the critical lens of journalism, that wouldn’t be good for the public either.

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