Conclave 2013: Electing a Pope in a Social Media World

Millions may feel involved in the conclave, but only 115 will vote.

March 10, 2013— -- When white smoke billows out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney, the centuries-old signal that a new pope has been chosen, thousands of people will get a text message and an email.

It's not a service from the Holy See, but rather Pope Alarm, a new website launched before the start of the conclave on Tuesday that promises "when the smoke goes up, you'll know what's going down."

Once the new pope is introduced to the world on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, thousands more will then check their Fantasy Conclave picks to see how they fared.

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"I love the fact contemporary media is giving people access to new ways to the conclave," said Matthew Bunson, general editor of the Catholic Almanac. "It demonstrates that there is intense interest all over the world."

When the 115 cardinal electors enter the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday for the start of the conclave, they'll have the prayers and support of people who have registered to "adopt a cardinal."

After someone enters their email address on the Adopt a Cardinal website, they're assigned one of the 115 cardinal electors to keep in their prayers. The cardinals know about the site, and they seem to approve.

"To all participating in 'Adopt a Cardinal' project: 'Thank you very much for 'adopting' us. Your prayers are helping us discern God's will," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa tweeted.

Once the conclave begins, the cardinals will live detached from the outside world until a new pope is chosen.

Cell phone jamming devices are installed in the Sistine Chapel in order to insure the utmost secrecy, and for the approximately nine cardinals who are active on Twitter, that means taking a social media vacation.

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"When you finger down the list of tweeting cardinals, many of them are considered pabaile (papal contenders)," Bunson said. "Cardinal Angelo Scola (of Italy) tweets aggressively. Cardinal Odilo Scherer (of Brazil) has a Twitter, and of course Cardinal Timothy Dolan (of New York) is very popular online."

The cardinal electors will vote four times per day -- twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon -- until they reach a two-thirds majority.

If the next pope were chosen by an online popularity contest, three social-media-savvy cardinals would have to duke it out for the top spot.

The Twitter and Facebook accounts of Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York, Luis Tagle of Manila and Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy have accounted for more than 85 percent of cardinals' social-media use, according to Decisyon, an Italian start-up specializing in social media analysis.

While Bunson called being social media savvy "a plus" for the contenders, he said it's essential the new pope embraces Twitter, as Benedict XVI did, and other forms of digital media.

"Certainly popes have embraced the use of radio, film, and television and then the Internet," he said. "Social media is the next area of communication that has to be used and understood if the church is going to evangelize and get the gospel out there."

ABC News has put together a Twitter list, including some of these cardinals and our own reporters who are on the ground in the Vatican. You can follow them all here.

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