Social engagement: Pope breaks record on Instagram


By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — With a simple tap, Pope Francis joined
Instagram and quickly set a record for gaining 1 million followers.

The launch of the “Franciscus” account March 19,
the feast of St. Joseph and the third anniversary of the formal inauguration of
his papacy, was preceded by huge media coverage. But still, he hit the
million-follower mark in just 12 hours, making his “our fastest growing
account on Instagram to date,” said Stephanie Noon, an Instagram spokeswoman.
The pope broke the record held for almost a year by former soccer star David
Beckham, who took twice as long to gather 1 million followers.

Joining Instagram, Pope Francis jumped into a community that
tends to be younger and more complimentary than people on Twitter, although
with similarly impressive “engagement rates.”

“Twiplomacy,” an annual study conducted by the
communications firm Burson Marsteller, found Pope Francis — through his
@Pontifex accounts in nine languages — to be the most influential world leader
on Twitter three years running. U.S. President Barack Obama has more followers,
but Pope Francis’ average “retweet” and “favorite” rate is
more than eight times higher than Obama’s.

Pope Francis’ Instagram account is showing a similar
pattern. The 17 photographs and two video clips posted by early morning March
31 had an overall average of 212,200 “likes” and 6,299 comments each.

The photos on the Franciscus account are taken by
photographers at L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. They are posted
by staff at the Secretariat for Communications.

Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the secretariat, told Vatican
Radio, “The idea is to recount the story of a pontificate through images
to let everyone who wants to accompany or wants to know the papacy of Pope
Francis enter into his gestures of tenderness and mercy.”

While the @Pontifex twitter account is
“institutional” — it was launched by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI
in 2012 — the Vatican’s choice of the more personal “Franciscus” as
the account name was dictated by reality of the platform, Msgr. Vigano said.

The photo-sharing site uses images as an “iconic
sign,” he said, and so “immediately evokes the face, the smile and
the posture of the pope. Every pope has his own facial expressions and his
personal way of looking at people, caressing them and blessing them.”

“Instagram is mostly about pictures, which makes it a
very effective way to spread Francis’ message of tenderness,” said Greg
Burke, assistant director of the Vatican press office. “If people are
looking at their phones 150 times a day, it’s good they see something a little
more profound than pictures of food.”

After settling down for a few days, the comment rate on the
pope’s account spiked March 29 after the Vatican posted a video clip with the hashtags
tenderness, mercy and Catholic.

The video opened with the pope blessing the obviously
pregnant belly of a woman and included scenes of a little boy taking the pope’s
zucchetto and Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict XVI greeting each other.
The more than 6,300 comments it attracted remarked particularly on the beauty
of the gestures and expressed enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

The video was among the first on Instagram to be 60 seconds
long, Msgr. Vigano said. The social media company had just announced that day that
gradually users would be able to exceed the previous 15-second limit.

The video and its popularity illustrates how “a gesture
of love is more obvious than a speech about love,” said Jesuit Father Antonio
Spadaro, author of “Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the
Internet” and editor of “La Civilta Cattolica.”

The Jesuit told Catholic News Service that while the pope
communicates well verbally and in writing, his message is wrapped in “his
closeness, his gestures and his physicality, which photos communicate.”

Father Spadaro also said members of the Instagram
“community,” like many people today, take photographs primarily to
share an event rather than to preserve a memory. “Who looks through old
photos anymore?” he asked.

He also insists that Pope Francis has been on Instagram
since the moment of his election — through the photographs shared by people
who have seen him in Rome and around the world. In fact, as CNN reported in
March, “According to Instagram, his visit to the U.S. in the fall of 2015
generated 21 million posts, likes and comments from 9 million people.”

“A beautiful photo isn’t necessarily a perfect
photo,” Father Spadaro said. A strong picture “communicates an event
and emotion,” which in people’s photos of the pope can have a strong
impact even if they are out of focus or taken from far off.

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