Pope Francis joined the photo-sharing site Instagram March 19 using the account Franciscus. As of April 1 the pope has more than two million followers

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Pope Francis joined the photo-sharing site Instagram March 19 using the account Franciscus. As of April 1 the pope has more than two million followers

April 18, 2016
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

With a simple tap, Pope Francis joined Instagram and quickly set a record for gaining one 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 one 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 "favourite" 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.

Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, 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."

ICONIC IMAGES

While the @Pontifex twitter account is "institutional" - it was launched by 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, 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, deputy 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."

PAPAL VIDEO

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 greeting each other.

The video was among the first on Instagram to be 60 seconds long, 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.

Spadaro told Catholic News Service 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.