According to legend, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg and thus sparked the Reformation. Although there are ongoing debates on whether this legend was based on fact, one point was undeniable; it was the printing press that helped to spread his message far and wide. In two weeks his theses were spread throughout Germany in a month his message had spread like wildfire across Europe.
In short, MartIn Luther’s theses had gone viral.
What may not be completely apparent was how adept Luther was into tapping and recruiting his social network to pass on the message. According to The Economist, “Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information.”
You can only guess what Luther would do with access to today’s plethora of social media platforms. It’s not completely far fetched to imagine him tweeting his theses one tweet at a time to the @HolySee. Tweeting or blogging in English perhaps, rather than German to make sure he gets the widest audience for his message. The same way he decided to use German rather than Latin when writing his pamphlet to gain a wider audience back in 1517.
This made me curious to see whether the Catholic Church had embraced web 3.0 as part of its communication channel.
If NBC’s Today Show’s instagram shot of Pope Benedict announcement in 2005 and Pope Francis’s announcement in 2013 is anything to go by, in less than a decade the speed in which its adherents consumed and distributed news had changed dramatically due largely to mobile devices.
What had not changed for the Catholic Church is its ongoing mission to spread the words of Jesus. How the Holy See had decided to utilise social platforms to keep the church socially relevant to its youth had seen the launch of its news portal site, Pope Francis’s presence on twitter as @Pontifex and the introduction of plenary indulgence via “the new means of social communication channel”for World Youth Day.
What does this all mean? With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Luther’s “viral” campaign was highly successful in bringing together like minded people who were dissatisfied with the Catholic Church at the time. The role of “social media” helped to amplify the voice of a vast majority and challenged the major power of the time.
Fast forward to the present, the measure of success for the Catholic Church in using social media is not clear. If one crudely measures followers as a substitute of the Church’s ability to spread the word for example, @JustinBieber has over 40 million followers to date compared to Pope Francis’s 11 million. Only one of them is the head of a church with more than 1.1 billion adherents globally.
Perhaps it’s too early to tell, after all the Holy See is only testing the waters at this stage. What I am leaning towards is the idea that the message is what matters, combined with true intent to engage the audience. What do you think?