Bright Lights Project: Ashton Kutcher

futurelab default header

Kutcher, long a pioneer in “celebrity tweeting” and the amasser of 8 million+ Twitter followers, has announced he will no longer type his own messages but rather rely on his PR team to come up with fodder to fill his stream. Social media evangelists are bemoaning the possible end of authentic tweeting because other celebs and brands follow suit.

“Authenticity” was never a synonym for “truth” or “relevance” until the folks who promote social media technology started calling people who opted-in to electronic distribution lists “friends” or “followers.” 75 years ago, fanzines used to reveal what stars liked to eat or do only nobody gave the stuff much credence. It didn’t matter if huckster publicists or sleazy editors created it because it just didn’t matter. Fans could subscribe to this media – yes, they paid for the stuff – and I’m sure they were entertained by what they got. But it certainly didn’t matter if it was true, relevant, or authentic.

It’s fascinating how difficult it is for us to understand Twitter in this historical context. The drivers of Kutcher’s list were far more pedestrian than we realize, namely:

  • He was first: As an early adopter, he benefited from uniqueness
  • It was free: Much of the “engagement” cited in social overall is worth what people pay for it
  • He said nothing meaningful: The only way to tell 8 million strangers anything is to tell them nothing of any note.

I think so much of Ashton’s followers were inert, which makes avoiding engaging them (and thereby risking offending them) his greatest accomplishment. Interestingly, it was when he chose to share an opinion on a topically contentious issue that he felt pressured to back off and stop tweeting himself.

So back to the PR people generating the hype, just like they’ve been doing for almost a century.

It’s what its always been about, regardless of the source, really. We never know who is actually doing the tweeting, and the nature of the medium means there’s an inverse ratio between the volume and reach of tweets and the utility or meaning of what’s tweeted. It’s quite an accomplishment to spread Kardashian goodness far and wide but it ultimately produces nothing meaningful or lasting. We really don’t want to know what Ashton thinks about Joe Paterno or global climate change. It’s actually quite funny that pundits assume otherwise.

I’d wager that the vast majority of Ashton’s subscribers won’t notice the different, or don’t care if there is one.

I actually think this far more authentic and honest approach than presuming that a celebrity accomplishes anything when they Tweet. It turns out that truth and relevance require far more specific actions and qualities, and Ashton could lead a new phase in celebrity communication if he considered the following:

  • Continue speaking his mind: I wonder if he has the guts to tell people what he really thinks about things. This would entail sharing his opinions about everything from politics to favorite foods, which would by definition entail risking offending people. If he declared that it didn’t matter — that he was going to tweet his conscience — now THAT would be a revelation.
  • Stop talking and start agitating: 8 million followers and he hasn’t convinced them to recycle their plastic bottles or move their checking accounts from big banks to local credit unions (or whatever?). An offshot of the “speak your mind” approach would be to risk prompting actions among his followers…give them things to actually follow, in reality. Risk being a conservative, liberal, or nutcase.
  • Shut up: I’ve got an idea…we’re interested in celebrities because of what we DON’T hear from them, not because of what we do get, so maybe the most radical thing would be for Ashton to consider retiring from the micro-blogging world entirely and do his best to stay a secret. It would drive fans wild with curiosity and desire.
As it stands, our presumptions that tweeting is a good thing are based on a misunderstanding of history and an inadequate perception of what it takes to build and sustain celebrity. Ashton’s latest move is a good example of what works…and why none of it really matters.
What do you think?
(Image credit: Mr. 8 Million)