Update: Benedict sends farewell tweet before Vatican wipes account

Next pope will decide whether to keep Twitter account up and running

As Pope Benedict XVI prepared to leave the Vatican for retirement today, he tweeted his farewell.

In the last hours of his nearly eight-year papacy, Benedict spoke with the cardinals who will elect his successor, said his goodbyes to people inside the Vatican and reached out to his more than 1.6 million Twitter followers.

"Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives," the pope or one of his aides tweeted.

Shortly after he stepped aside, all of Benedict's tweets were deleted. And instead of the Twitter account using Benedicts name, it now says, "Sede Vacante," which means the pope's seat is vacant. The tweets were moved to the Vatican webpage. The account still has more than 1.6 million followers.

Earlier this week, Benedict tweeted: "In these momentous days, I ask you to pray for me and for the Church, trusting as always in divine Providence."

That tweet, along with all of his tweets since the account became active in December, is now gone.

It's not clear whether the next pope, who is expected to be selected in the coming month, will continue to tweet. The Vatican announced this week that the pope's Twitter account would be inactive once Pope Benedict stepped down and became known as pope emeritus.

Once selected, the new pope will decide whether he wishes to continue tweeting.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said it's noteworthy that one of the last things from the pope's office, which is steeped in tradition, was a tweet.

"It says that even the church has found social media is as an important way to reach people as traditional media," he added. "It certainly helps appeal to younger people, where religion is arguably being lost. This helps them reach millions of people."

Pope Benedict, who has made social media inroads at the Vatican, began tweeting in December. His first tweet sent a blessing to the approximately 648,000 people who had begun following him before he had even made his first Twitter appearance.

Using an Apple iPad, the pope launched his Twitter presence with seven tweets on that first day, even answering questions that people sent to him on Twitter.

At the time, Archbishop Claudio Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told Vatican Radio that the pope joined Twitter, not to gain online popularity, but to reach the faithful in a modern medium.

Twitter helped the Vatican develop a Twitter presence, sending its manager of social innovation, Claire Diaz-Ortiz to Rome to help get the pope started.

Twitter, though, wasn't the Vatican's first foray into social media.

In 2009, the Vatican established its own YouTube channel. The channel has offered video and audio clips of Benedict XVI's addresses, along with news about the pontiff.

And in 2010, he asked priests around the globe to adopt social media to take their ministries online. He encouraged priests to begin using blogs, websites, videos and images to communicate with people.

Pope's Twitter page
After Benedict stepped aside as pope, his past tweets were cleared out of the official Twitter feed and moved to a Vatican website.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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