Text Alerts, Twitter, “Smoke Cams” Bring Conclave Spectating to the Social Media Age

When any smoke is emitted from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, even nappers will know

While the cardinals gathered in Rome to elect the new pope are bound by centuries-old procedures—writing and counting ballots by hand, burning them in a chimney to communicate the outcome of a vote—those outside the Vatican walls have already put a modern spin on the spectating.

In addition to the various Twitter accounts, like @PapalSmokeStack, and round-the-clock livestreams that will offer far-flung spectators real-time access to election results, there is now a service that will send email and text blasts when the white smoke goes up.

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Popealarm.com, the brainchild of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, a Denver-based Catholic outreach group, notes that "you could be asleep, or busy doing something and miss the "Habemus Papam!"—the Latin proclamation declared when a pope has been selected.

In an effort to solve that potential problem, the free wesbite will send alerts to users "when the smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel chimney turns white so you know when a new Pope has been elected."

By late Tuesday morning, just four days after launch, Popealarm.com already had 60,000 registrants, FOCUS spokesman Jeremy Rivera said.

The concpet, thought up by Kevin Cotter, the group's web director, took just days to implement.

"We thought it was worth a try, and did some Google searches to see if anyone else had done it," Rivera said. Other than "Adopt a Cardinal," a German site that randomly assigns users a cardinal to keep in their prayers, the field was wide open.

Days later, after enlisting third-party assistance and slapping up a donations page to help cover the $10,000 cost, they were up and running.

By Tuesday, so many people had signed up for text alerts that site administrators posted a message indicating they they cannot guarantee that all who sign up going forward will be able to receive them. Email alerts, the site notes, are still functioning.

Cardinals were expected to cast their first ballots Tuesday evening (between 11:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. EDT) after taking an oath of secrecy. If any contender wins a two-thirds majority, a new pope can be immediately named, though it's more likely that a successor to Pope Benedict XVI won't be named in the first round.

If the vote does yield a new pope, the ballots will be mixed with chemicals and burned, sending a plume of white smoke out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and triggering an explosion of social media, email and cell phone alerts.

If no candidate has two-thirds of the vote, however, the ballots will be burned with another chemical that should send black smoke into the sky and force to cardinals to vote again in successive rounds. (See the full voting schedule here.)

NBC News is providing a livestream from its "smoke cam" beginning at 12:45 p.m. ET as the world awaits the result from the first vote.

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