Picking a pope may be one of the last vestiges of the pre-Internet age, with black smoke and white smoke being the world-side signal of success or failure in the vote. Granted, this is a tradition dating far back in history, but is also a sign of what puts the Catholic Church in a tough spot these days.
Growing up Catholic
I grew up Catholic in France, like nearly everyone we knew. Before the Internet, the Church was a prime source of communication in every French village and town. Going far enough back, it was a greater authority than governments and its decrees decided rulers, geographic boundaries and set the boundaries of science. The Catholic Church even managed birth registries across Europe and had its fingers on the pulse of information.
Loss of data supremacy
Somewhere along the way, long after Galileo and Copernicus, the Church stopped being the source for information. This loss of data supremacy lurched toward a cliff as the Internet spread rapidly across the Developed World, where the Church was already in decline, to the Developing Worlds of Africa and South America, where the Church is still expanding (they correlate, no?). Consider this: Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, when the Internet was mostly pre-expansion and certainly pre-Big Data and only joined Twitter this past year.
The Catholic Church has a Big Data, social media and marketing problem. The Church hasn’t embraced the modern information age, doesn’t show up in social media, and doesn’t own its public message. Despite membership in the millions and passion as a core belief, members aren’t harnessed as a social force. Consider how that enormous network could be used to expand their message and increase membership and relevancy. They could be performing analysis on vast data sets and matching up messages just like any other organization (many non-profits are all in).
I doubt Internet savvy, social media skills and marketing experience will be a criteria for choosing the new leader of the Catholic Church…but maybe they should be?