Religious leaders outshine Lady Gaga in Twitter popularity


Success on Twitter is not measured by how many followers a user has, but by what they tweet, a new study has found, revealing an intriguing insight into who actually is popular on the microblogging site.

Ask any Twitter-savvy person who the top “Tweeps” (users) are, and they’ll probably be able to reel off the names of a list of the most-followed celebs and politicians. Pop culture powerhouses Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Britney Spears, actor Ashton Kutcher and U.S. President Barack Obama are just some of the site’s household names.

But they are not the most successful, nor the most influential.

The recent study, carried out by a Twitter staff member, found a set of particular messages that were ricocheting around the site “being forwarded and responded to at a rate that was off the charts,” the New York Times reported this week.

At first, the names behind the tweets were unrecognizable, said Twitter employee Robin Sloan. Then the surprise hit: they were evangelical Christian leaders whose inspirational messages of God’s love perform about 30 times as well as Twitter messages from pop stars such as Lady Gaga, the study found.

They had built “loyal ranks of followers well beyond their social networks,” the report stated, naming some of the influential Christian leaders on Twitter as Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado and Andy Stanley.

The average number of reactions to ministers’ often positive messages is staggering, especially when compared to Twitter celebrity heavyweights. Meyer topped the list, with 170 reactions per every 50,000 followers.

American televangelist Joel Osteen came in a close second with 147 mentions, followed by Lucado. On average, their tweets got 30 times as much attention, according to the newspaper.

One tweet by the U.S.-based Bishop T.D Jakes, which read: “Your words will tell others what you think. Your actions will tell them what you believe,” was forwarded 2,490 times. The retweets were just shy of the 2,491 that pop singer Katy Perry generated the same month with this message to her fans: “Sometimes jet lag makes me feel like a cross eyed crack head #muststayawake.” The key difference here, however, is that Bishop Jakes has 450,000 followers, while Katy Perry has 20 million.

After the anomaly was discovered, Twitter sent senior executive, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, on a mission to bring more pastors and their ministries into the Twitter fold and investigate exactly why Christian leaders’ followers were so engaged with the site.

“Pastors tell me, Twitter is just made for the Bible,” Diaz-Ortiz told the NYT, after she led a workshop session during a major Christian conference last month in Dallas with the help of Twitter. She posted conference highlights on Twitter and met with pastors who, she said, have 3,000 or 4,000 followers at their church; a built-in network of potential Twitter users.

The reverberations of religious messages within the tweeting world present Twitter as a platform for people of all religions to engage with others, much like the social media site was an arena for heated political talk across the world during last year’s Arab uprisings, for instance.

Muslims have also applauded the rise in social media-inspired discussions on Islam.

“Social media has opened up the opportunity for young Muslims to engage with their faith and their co-religionists,” writes UAE-based journalist Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.

“Where once the Ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) was a spiritual notion, with Muslim communities separated by distance, language and geography, social media has broken down barriers and allowed young Muslims to connect irrespective of where they are. It allows them to discuss what it means to be Muslim in a modern age, and to access a wide range of religious scholarship,” she added.

But unlike the popularity of Christian pastors on Twitter, most of the influential Muslim users are not Islamic leaders, but popular Muslim figures who have risen to Twitter fame (based on forwarded messages, not follower numbers) by preaching Islam and advising on Islam-related issues.

“During Ramadan [the Muslim holy month of fasting], people often ‘tweet the Quran.’ During Hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage] there are passionate Twitter feeds offering emotional and intimate accounts of what it is like to be present.

“Both give people around the world the opportunity to engage with important rituals and to share their experience with their co-religionists,” Janmohamed said.

Christian pastors on Twitter have also acknowledged that the site is a great tool to connect pastors with smaller congregations as well, the Christian Post reported.

For Pastor Rick Warren, named by Forbes as one of the world’s most influential Twitter users, the idea is to use Twitter to build real relationships.

“Hopefully, these new channels help begin conversations that will lead to deeper, face-to-face community, through our small groups and one-on-one friendships,” he recently told the Christian Post.

While it may be impulsive to judge a Twitter user’s success by their amount of followers, it’s what is tweeted that counts, and where religion attracts the micro-blogging crowds.

(Written by Eman El-Shenawi)