Are Celebrities Destroying Twitter?

On April 17, Oprah joined Twitter, topping off a several-month media frenzy around the new microblogging service that allows people to post 140-character messages for others, known as "followers," to read.

It’s been around since 2006, made a breakout run for geek-worship at 2007’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, and as social media services in general have made their mark on the culture, Twitter has taken the celebrity culture by storm. 

Ashton Kutcher, that scamp of a guy, is being widely criticized for storming the Twitter castle and bringing other celebrities, as well as his own ego, to the party. Ah, Ashton, you’re always up to something, aren’t you? While handing the keys over to Oprah, Kutcher also challenged CNN to a duel: to see who could reach 1 million followers first.  

Who cares? 

No, really: who? 

Well, certainly our celebrity-obsessed culture and media do, if most of America itself actually doesn’t. Certainly grumpy lefties who mark their disdain for pop culture by repeatedly noting the lack of televisions in their households don’t care. (If this is you: feel free to stop reading if you want. There are books to be read and butter to be churned.) And most definitely, many of the folks who’ve been happily romping on Twitter over the past couple of years have voiced their disdain for the arrival of celebrities, noting that they’re "ruining" it and destroying its authentic voice. 

There seems to be two things that everyone is forgetting about social media that make them unique compared to every other technological innovation: The users have the power to determine both what they want to get out of it (unlike newspapers or TV, where we passively receive a predetermined set of content), and the guidelines people use as they participate (See: the Facebook revolts of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009).  

Shorter: If Oprah being on Twitter makes you unhappy, don’t follow her. 

As Twitter has evolved, it has come from a service originally designed to keep friends updated with each others’ locations to a central spot for many people to have conversations with one another. Once a member of Twitter, you choose whose updates you want to appear (people you follow), and others choose if they want to follow you (although you can opt to control who follows you as well).

The most important thing about Twitter is that it’s absolutely not about broadcasting information; it’s absolutely about having multiway conversations. 

This was certainly not planned by the creators of Twitter; along the way, users found it useful to keep up not just with others' locations, but others periodic thoughts and short musings, as well. Soon enough, there came a standard code for how Twitter users communicate, and just as with other social media, authenticity of voice is critical for being considered a good citizen.

Because of that, as Jezebel noted, certain celebrity Twitterers like Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Russell Brand have been received well -- they communicate on Twitter in a way that represents who they are. Even Shaquille O’Neil, with his er, creative use of abbreviations sometimes, gets a huge round of Twitter love for just being himself. 

So, why no love for Ashton and the Oprah?  

One big no-no of social media spheres, besides blatant inauthenticity, is what I like to call shameful self-promotion. Social media rely heavily on some key principles of social capital, one being a version of karma that says you’re a better user for sharing useful information, not just promoting yourself. Kutcher’s stunts with CNN and Oprah’s arrival smack of signing up not to join in the fun, but to appropriate it make the fun theirs

Not to mention the hubbub around ghostwriters for celebrities on Twitter. No one summed that silliness up better than Shaq himself: "It’s 140 characters. It’s so few characters. If you need a ghostwriter for that, I feel sorry for you." 

The upshot of all this is that the exposure social media services like Twitter are receiving as a result of all the celebrity brouhaha is a Good Thing™ for the progressive media agenda. 

No, really! 

Here’s the thing: Media and all their trappings have long been the purview of upper-class straight white guys. That’s who has largely been determining which stories are important and telling them for as long as anyone can remember. Independent media have made inroads in the last century, but with the rise of social media, people are beginning to connect and share information in ways that were previously impossible.  

The more people we have participating in public discourse of any kind, the better it is for a populist agenda that represents and speaks to the needs of everyday folks. Look at what happened with Amazon when it accidentally removed 58,000 books from its Web site -- social media enthusiasts came along and called them out on it. Imagine how long that might’ve taken, and through how many gatekeepers it would have had to pass, in 1999. Thanks to enough progressive folk participating in social media, LBGT, feminist and sexual-health books were restored to the site within hours, if not a few days. 

So, if Oprah wants to talk about her workout, and Ashton wants to stunt his way along to millions of pieces of meaningless chatter, let them. You don’t have to follow them. But you should think about getting on board and talking about what’s important to you.

Editor's note: Check out AlterNet's Twitter feed here.

Deanna's note: If you're new to Twitter, consider reading two guides I've written: "Why Twitter, Anyways?" and  "A Non-fanatical Beginner's Guide to Twitter"


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