[30 April 2009]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
On April 15, Britney Spears used a break in her arduous concert tour to play “Slip ‘N Slide” with her sons. A couple of days earlier, John Mayer found himself pigging out on M&Ms. That happened to be around the time MC Hammer was gazing at sea turtles in Hawaii, and Rainn Wilson was thinking about getting a tattoo in the likeness of a “mid-‘70s Elvis.”
Innocuous showbiz items culled from People Magazine or “Entertainment Tonight”? No, they’re bits of blow-by-blow minutiae provided by the celebrities themselves via Twitter, the social micro-blogging service that enables users to share their musings with their “followers” in 140-character posts known as “tweets.”
The phenomenal growth of San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. continues to make jaws drop. According to Compete, a Web analytics firm, Twitter.com had 14 million unique visitors in March, up from 8 million in February. Not bad for an upstart startup founded just three years ago without a business model.
Much of that rapid growth has been fueled by celebrities using the service to open a new line of communication with their fans. The stars send out messages about their latest projects - or what they happen to be doing at the moment - and more people seem to be hanging on their every word.
On April 17, actor Ashton Kutcher beat CNN in a much-ballyhooed race to be the first Twitter account-holder to reach a million followers and promptly sent out a tweet proclaiming, “Victory is ours!” But his reign might not last for long. On the same day, Oprah Winfrey made her Twitter debut and had more than 73,000 followers even before issuing her first tweet. By Monday, that number had soared to nearly 400,000.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone knows that kind of big-name endorsement is promotional gold.
“We didn’t expect celebrity interaction (when we started), but it does help make more folks aware of Twitter, which is a positive for us,” he says. “... There seems to be two reasons why celebrities enjoy it - a more direct connection with their fans and the fact that they can control their own messaging.”
Indeed, Twitter essentially allows celebrities to sidestep typical media outlets - and even their publicists and agents - to go straight to the people with bite-sized messages delivered to a computer or cell phone.
“Stars can use it to not only build their brand, but to control their brand,” says Rodney Rumford, a new media expert who has written a book on Twitter. “They don’t have to wait to be written up in People Magazine. They can make their own news.”
Sure, but is it really news? After all, why should we give a tweet that Jimmy Fallon is playing “Mafia Wars” on his iPhone, or that Ryan Seacrest warily admits he likes the new Miley Cyrus song, or that Vanessa Hudgens is jonesing for an In-N-Out burger?
Clearly, a lot of people actually do care, insists Lee Goldberg, a veteran television producer and writer. He says that, for many celebrity-obsessed fans, the glory of Twitter is all in the details.
“I’m astounded by how mundane some of the interactions are,” says Goldberg, who joined Twitter three months ago. “But it seems that the more mundanity there is in the tweets, the more personal and intimate the experience is for those involved. It’s like, ‘Hey, Madonna’s having her period, and I know about it!’”
Even better is when celebrities occasionally go beyond the one-way declaration to actually reply to a fan. Case in point: Amber Tsuchida, a Northern California Twitter user, recently asked Kevin Spacey if she could get a hug. The actor responded by sending a “big cyber hug” and Tsuchida was thrilled.
“It’s cool that you can be in direct contact with someone like him - to have a connection you couldn’t have had any other way,” she says. “It’s easier than trying to walk up to them at a restaurant and ask for an autograph.”
On the other hand, some scoffing skeptics characterize Twitter as a mere gimmick and say it creates relationships that give off the illusion of being more intimate than they really are.
Among the detractors is Simon Cowell, the cranky Brit of “American Idol,” who was quoted in a TV interview as saying, “Why would you want to talk to people like that? It’s like phoning someone randomly whose number you don’t even have and saying, ‘Hi, it’s Simon. I went out with my family this weekend.’”
Regardless whether it’s gimmicky and frivolous, the Twitter craze rages on. And it’s intriguing to see the various ways in which stars are making it work for them. Some, like Spears, tend to leave the tweets to staff members who mostly post messages that hype a concert or album. Others, like MC Hammer, type up their own messages several times a day and often respond to fans.
“It is taking down the velvet rope and doing away with elitism,” says the rap star. “It’s making (celebrities) realize that, yes, we’re blessed, but we’re not too big to talk to the regular, hard-working guy. It’s humanizing us.”
Hammer apparently has no problem exposing his private life - he’ll star in a reality series this spring on A&E - and that accessibility has enabled him to amass nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter.
“I love the fact that you have this instant kind of communication happening in real time and a culture that is alive and breathing around the clock,” he says. “And I love the idea that some ordinary guy in some little town is saying, ‘Wait man, I’ve gotta talk to Brad Pitt.’”
Or perhaps even taking part in a rare, impromptu get-together. A couple of months ago, basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal used Twitter to clue in fans to his whereabouts in Phoenix. Shortly after, several of them joined him for a meal at a local diner.
But it’s not all fun and games. Increasingly, the famous are using their tweets to raise awareness for charities or causes they back. Kutcher, for example, has been drumming up support for Malaria No More, an organization that provides mosquito bed nets to needy residents in tropical countries.
But whether they’re harnessing the power of Twitter for social good, or just providing little peeps into their private lives, celebrities are clearly taking over the Twitterverse. As recently as January, the rankings of the site’s top users were dominated mostly by geeks and technophiles. Now, Kutcher leads a star-studded parade that includes, among others, Lance Armstrong, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Ellen DeGeneres, Al Gore, Martha Stewart, Dave Matthews, and Kutcher’s wife, Demi Moore.
During the next few months, the Twitter celebrity bandwagon is expected to get even more crowded.
“You know how Hollywood works,” Rumford says. “Stars will sit there and say, ‘Well, if he’s on it, I need to be on it.’ If not, you look like you’re getting passed by.”
Whether they’re posting messages about their current activities or just tossing about some random thoughts, an increasing number of celebrities are doing the micro-blogging thing via Twitter. Here’s a random sampling:
Ashton Kutcher: Stomach flu, Be gone! Who can say that they’ve thrown up and had diarrhea at their rabbi’s house? 2 pts for me. (April 19)
John Mayer: If you were driving northbound on the southbound lane of a highway, how many exits do you think you could make it before disaster? I say 2. (April 20)
Shaquille O’Neal: Started my diet the other day, I haven’t cheated yet, I wanna b a calvin klein underwear model, pls dnt laugh, lol (April 19)
Britney Spears: Just got some new costumes made! R U Ready Los Angeles??? (April 15)
Jimmy Fallon: Photo shoot right now at Katz’s Deli, site of Meg Ryan’s famous ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene. I’m not having that. (April 17)
Oprah Winfrey: Worked out an hour. And now going to read the Sunday papers and have a skinny cow or 2! (April 19)