Twitter adds to Dalai Lama's virtual virtues
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - Just a few days after the Dalai Lama met US President
Barack Obama at the White House, the Tibetan leader-in-exile embraced social
networking on the Internet, setting up an account on Twitter at the suggestion
of one of the site's founders.
"Met the Dalai Lama today in LA, Pitched him on using Twitter - He laughed,"
Evan Williams "tweeted" following the meeting. The next day, the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader's verified account, provided especially for public figures,
was visible to the world, launched with a "Welcome @DalaiLama" message.
The Dalai Lama's Internet presence and his support groups across social
networking sites have produced a growing fan base
that seems to defy China's attempts to control the medium. Within a day of the
launch in mid-February of "@DalaiLama'', the Nobel Peace Prize winner had
almost 50,000 Twitter followers, and the current total exceeds 1,320,000 - a
phenomenal rate of growth. Almost 50 million tweets are posted on a daily basis
on Twitter, an average of 600 per second, according to the site.
Young Tibetans are delighted to see their leader tweeting and hope they will be
able to interact directly with their spiritual leader wherever they happen to
be in the world. "His Holiness has again proved he can be a modern day teacher
while retaining the essence of tradition,'' said Lobsang Wangyal, a
photojournalist living in Dharamsala, the de facto capital of Tibetans in exile
in northern India. "This is a part of his belief that we must become 21st
The official website of the Tibetan government-in-exile also reported the
event. "His Holiness the Dalai Lama has joined the social networking line to
keep in touch with his followers,'' according to a post on www.tibet.net. The
as-yet fledgling account is mostly being used to post content from his existing
web site, but he is expected to tweet more actively and itís only a matter of
time before he addresses his Twitter audience more personally. There has so far
been no reaction from Beijing over the opening of the account.
Twitter closed an account set up by an imposter which attracted tens of
thousands of followers. "There may be a higher meaning if you meditate enough,
impersonation,'' the site said after the account was pulled.
World religions are enthusiastically embracing technology to spread their
messages. Itís on Twitter, the same social network that hosted the Passion
story of Jesus Christ for a New York church, that Jews can Tweet prayers to the
Western Wall; there's even a Web service that will pray for you. The Church of
England has a fully interactive website, a Twitter account, weekly podcasts and
a Facebook group. The Pope issues statements via video-sharing site YouTube,
which complements the Vatican Television and Vatican Radio. He is also on
Pope Benedict XVI has recently identified the importance of the Internet,
especially Google searches for church operations, according to CNN. The Holy
See wrote to church leaders that he regretted not using Google before
reinstating an ex-communicated priest. The Pope admitted "I have learned the
lesson that in the future the Holy See will have to pay greater attention to
that source of news."
Microsoft founder Bill Gates joined Twitter late in January and announced his
presence in typically businesslike fashion. "Hello World. Hard at work on my
foundation letter - publishing on 1/25," he tweeted. Since then, Gates has
posted regular updates on his tete-a-tetes with world leaders.
The Dalai Lama has nurtured modernity in a tradition-driven religious order,
asking his followers for a modern life. He has also called for reforms of
education systems to include studies on compassion and warm-heartedness. The
74-year-old monkís words of wisdom will not be available to more than
six-million of his followers living in Tibet, ruled as an automonous region of
China. Access to Twitter, like several other websites, is blocked. Nor can
Chinese visitors link to any Dalai Lama related sites.
To date, none of the 23 Dalai Lama tweets touch on the deeper mysteries of
life. The most recent update was his condolences to the people of Chile after
the recent earthquake there. It's clear, however, that the Dalai Lama is adept
at using technology to make more people aware of the plight of Tibet under the
Tenzin, a Tibetan blogger says he never dreamt the Dalai Lama would use such
social networking, but sees the Twitter account as a message to the world that
Buddhists are keeping up with the times, and that there is no schism between
science and religion.
Internet users see the Dalai Lama's increased Internet presence as a welcome
challenge to Chinaís censorship. The leader has said Western search engines
such as Google are important to the free flow of information within China, but
noted they had ceded to pressure from the government there to limit what users
can see. Google last month said it planned to stop censoring results on its
China-based search engine, reversing its years-long compliance with the
country's rules. Google cited concerns over hacking and censorship.
The Chinese leadership is also keen to use the Internet to spread its message.
Premier Wen Jiabao has taken time to chat online with netizens from all over
China, many of whom were anonymous. The event, entitled "I have a question to
ask the Premier'', was conducted jointly by the central government and Xinhua
News Agency. Some of the questions revolved around thorny issues such as rising
property prices, corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, the rights of workers and
limited job opportunities.
Premier Wen did not insist that participants identify themselves before they
asked their questions in the brief experiment on free debate. It will be
interesting on how China's leadership will finally respond when the Dalai Lama
tweets for Tibet.
Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India. She can be reached