Pope Francis was probably not dwelling on the myriad uses and abuses of social media when he called for a “bruised, dirty and hurting” Roman Catholic church that would more closely resemble the flawed 21st-century world to which it ministers.
But, as far as one technologically engaged nun is concerned, the Twitter-sphere is equally deserving of the church’s presence.
Xiskya Valladares, a Nicaraguan who lives and works in Mallorca and has more than 32,000 Twitter followers, has just published a book on how the faithful can best use the medium to reach out to people both religious and secular.
“Pope Francis himself has invited us to build an outward-looking church that is in dialogue with the world,” she said. “Social networks make that easier: we shouldn’t be bombarding people with religious messages because that will mean we’re only talking to people who already think like us. What we need to do is enter into a dialogue with the world not to impose an idea but to find out what people need and what they’re worried about, and then to bear with them in their suffering.”
Although the guide was inspired by her doctoral thesis on the “not very positive” Twitter use of 16 of the biggest Catholic institutions, she insists it could prove useful to anyone on the microblogging site.
“The book is really as much for anyone who wants to navigate the web as it is for Catholics,” she said. “Everyone faces the same problems and you don’t have to be Catholic to be interested in the book.”
The guide – Good Practices for Evangelising on Twitter – offers tips on how to build a digital community, foster initiatives and provide useful information. It recommends exploiting hashtags, using photos and videos, listening to the views of others and, above all, realising that Twitter is more than just a digital parish noticeboard or a self-referential echo chamber.
Helpfully, it also gives advice on dealing with the legions of trolls who increasingly bedevil the digital arena.
“Knowing how to respond to trolls is important: to create a community you need to watch out for people who are looking to make a big noise and distort the conversation,” she said. “First you need to figure out whether you’re dealing with a troll or not: sometimes they’re just negative critics who can help to build a conversation. If that’s the case, talk to them. But when you’re getting threats and insults, you’re dealing with a troll. The best thing to do is ignore them.”
Alternatively, she suggests, try waving them off with a blessing – though the strategy doesn’t always work: “Sometimes that makes them react and return to the dialogue. Sometimes it’s just winds them up more.”
Valladares, who has been asked to run a course for the Vatican’s community managers, concedes that Twitter is becoming a more hostile and violent place “under the banner of freedom of expression”. But she says that should not lead the quieter voices to abandon it.
“If there are more people who are radical, fanatical and violent, I think other kinds of people need to be around to balance the situation out a bit,” she said. “You can’t say, ‘Look at what these people have done, let’s get out of here’. The world is like that. You can’t just hop off the train of life. Twitter isn’t a virtual reality, it’s a digital reality. It’s may be a digital means of expression rather than a physical one, but it’s still real.”
This article was written by Sam Jones in Madrid, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 23rd November 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010