StaffsLive (@StaffsLive), a local news website run from Staffordshire University, asked me for some comments on how I feel about being the most followed priest on Twitter in the UK. It set me thinking, so I wrote a whole blogpost about it! More than 140 characters here. When and if they publish anything from this, I'll add a link.
I discovered last year that I - @frpeter - am by far the most followed priest (that is to say, Catholic priest) on twitter in the UK and Ireland. The most followed priest in the world is probably the dutch priest, Fr Roderick Vonhogen, who runs an international catholic New Media organisation called SQPN. He has about 5,000 followers on twitter - I have only around 1,500.
It is a little bit surprising to me that there are very few catholic priests in the UK and Ireland who use twitter. There are a number of excellent bloggers, some of who use twitter to promote their blog, but very few are otherwise active on twitter. In the Church of England there are far more clerical tweeters (they call themselves 'the Twurch of England'), including several bishops. I don't know of any English Catholic bishop who tweets. I know of just one Catholic deacon (@noggerules - a colleague of mine!) though there may be a few more. Even so, it seems that there are just two Anglican bishops and one Anglican priest who have more followers than I.
I think to understand this - and understand why I have so many followers - we need to understand what twitter is. It is not quite the same as some of the other "social media" out there.
Blogs are great for outlining opinions, reflecting on the news or life in general. For many people it feels good to write a blog - it 'gets it off your chest'. In some ways it is like keeping a diary (though rather publicly). In other ways it is like writing a letter to the newspaper. Often it is the blogs with the strongest opinions which gather the most readers. It is fun to read someone venting their spleen even if we don't entirely agree with them.
Facebook (and similar services, like MySpace and Orkut) on the other hand, has a different function. It is more about conversation than opinion. It is also used for announcements, to promote people and events - but most use it to share news about themselves and others - to chat in a way which can be very public (watch out!) and can include lots of people. Facebook contacts are called "friends" (though often they aren't) and it is possible to restrict the circle of people who can read your "posts" (as they are called) so that it has an intimacy which blogs generally don't have.
I know very many Catholic priests who are on Facebook, and they use it to keep in touch with close friends and sometimes parishioners. Some find it a helpful way to keep in contact with young adults in the parish or diocese. Big events, such as World Youth Day and the Papal Visit, have made extensive use of Facebook. The ease with which photos and video can be shared helps with this. I also know (fewer) priests who write blogs. They use this as an opportunity to express opinions about the state of the Church and society. A remarkable number of these go ahead priests are (ironically) very keen on antiquarian worship. Blogs give a very good opportunity to express outraged opinions about whatever it is one is outraged about.
Now, twitter is rather different from both the blog and facebook. It has two striking characteristics which make it so. First, a tweet can be 140 characters and no longer (it is based on text messages which have only 160 characters). Secondly, every tweet is broadcast to the world - they are all public. There are no "friends" on twitter, only "followers", those who choose to read your (public) tweets. If you use twitter, you can choose to read the "public timeline", every tweet from around the world as they are posted (tweeted). It is a confusing experience! Alternatively, you can find your way through the noise by selecting interesting people to follow, and even organise these people into "lists". It is also possible to search for tweets being published in a particular locality. Another way of finding your way through twitter is to search for certain words or abbreviations, and in particular "trending topics" to see what people are talking about now. This last point has brought twitter into the news as people have tweeted during international incidents and protests, disasters, and even during tv events such as X-factor (can they find nothing better to do?) The shortness of the messages makes this an exciting and instant medium.
For me, another great attraction of twitter, although it creates a lot of "noise", is it can can also help to cut through that noise. There are hundreds of news site and blogs out there, but if I can follow someone who I know finds interesting articles or gives useful reflections, I can get to the good stuff quicker. If I want news about particular places or events, then I can find what everyone is saying. You really do not need to post any messages to make excellent use of twitter - it can just be your way of finding out what is new and exciting and now. It is a way of making your own choices about what you want to find and read on the internet.
So - this is my reason for using twitter. It is my gateway to the internet, and not just the the internet, but also to the world. It was on twitter that I first read of the death of Michael Jackson, and of local DJ Sam Plank. It is through twitter I keep up with local news. Church news and opinion comes to me through twitter. I also keep abreast of tech news through twitter. It is my main source of information and it presents me with things I know I'll be interested in.
I can't say exactly why I have so many followers on twitter. They just follow. Many follow me, I guess, because other people have recommended me to them. So I guess it must be because of what I tweet. Many of my tweets are 'retweets' - sending on to my followers stuff I have found interesting. My tweets cover the areas I'm involved in - local news and issues, Church news and issues, some stuff about tech and especially Apple, and occasionally amusing incidents from family life. I guess it is the mix which people like. It is not all religion and theology, though I post links to sermons and things I've read I found especially challenging or insightful. I'll post things about Hanley where I live. If I see something beautiful - like a sunset - or amusing - like a newspaper headline - i'll post that too. Its all a bit haphazard. Sometimes I might post ten times in a day, sometimes I could go for a couple of weeks and post nothing. Twitter is quick and easy - it doesn't take up the time writing a blog does, and it can make you think. And make you laugh.
Yes, I love it!
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