Pope Francis’s personality is more joyful than grumpy cat, his vestments undeniably white and gold – not blue or black – and you’ll never hear him say OMG or ermahgerd.
The 78-year-old pontiff isn’t your typical social media star. He doesn’t even carry a mobile phone. But wherever Pope Francis goes, millions of tweets, posts, pictures and video streams are sure to follow.
Two weeks after spurring a viral frenzy with a trip to a Rome eyeglass shop to get new lenses, the wildly popular Francis is embarking on his first journey to the greatest fishbowl of all: America.
Social media platforms and wireless carriers anticipate activity related to his September 22-27 visit to rival the Super Bowl – there’s even a ban on drones and selfie sticks.
Wireless carriers are using the big game as a guide as they add capacity near the Pope’s stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
They’re trucking in portable mobile towers and adding permanent antennas atop street lights on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where a closing Mass is expected to draw more than a million people. Comcast, the hometown cable giant, is offering free wi-fi to ease the data strain.
Before that, Francis will meet with President Barack Obama and address the US congress. He’ll also address the UN General Assembly and visit the September 11 memorial in New York.
Bishops are getting crash courses on tweeting and live streaming, and organisers are pushing the official papal hashtags: PopeInUS and, for Spanish speakers, ElPapaEnUSA.
For people attending Francis’ US events, social media can take on the role of a scrapbook, with personal snapshots and snippets of video preserving their place amid history – a papal answer to the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen”.
And, if recent papal travel is a guide, millions more will be watching from afar, looking for real-time insights from on-the-ground reporters and Vatican insiders along with unexpected turns, as when Francis slipped into a Bolivian Burger King this northern summer for a wardrobe change.
“You can either be watching in person and sharing that experience with people near and far, or you can be far away and watching that event through Twitter,” said the platform’s Bridget Coyne, who manages government and media teams. “You can experience the event without being there, and it can also be the memory of that event.”
Francis has been a social media sensation since his 2013 election. That year, he eclipsed the royal baby, Prince George, and the Harlem Shake as the most talked about topic on Facebook.
His first international trip, to Brazil in July 2013, generated more than 1.3 million tweets and 36 million retweets. His January trip to the Philippines nearly crashed Twitter’s servers.
That’s a far cry from the social media landscape the last time a pope visited the US – Benedict XVI, in 2008.
Twitter had just 5 million users, about 1.5 per cent of its current total, and the Pope’s official account – (at)pontifex – was four years away from making its debut.
Facebook, which today counts 1.4 billion users worldwide, had just 100 million users, and Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Periscope hadn’t been invented yet.
“The industry has changed a lot. Demand for bandwidth has changed,” Verizon’s Raymond Litchfield said. “We know that people are going to be video streaming from their phones. They’re going to be texting a lot. Almost everyone has a smartphone now. They’re going to be taking advantage of the apps in these phones.”
Francis has fast become one of the most-followed celebrities on Twitter. His accounts, in nine languages including Arabic and Latin, have surged from 3.4 million followers around the time of his election to 22.7 million – more than Nicki Minaj or Miley Cyrus.