Brave New Media World

How Ashton Kutcher beat CNN on Twitter


"Dropping my first tweet," exclaimed Ashton Kutcher at 11:50 PM on January 15, 2009. At the time, it may have sounded as if the Hollywood gadfly had simply invented a new euphemism for human elimination. In fact, he was launching a revolution. For many years, only The New York Times had the power to drive the national discourse. Then, for a few years after that, only The New York Times and a handful of bloggers did. Using Twitter to broadcast a series of scoops about his noisy neighbor, however, Kutcher vividly illustrated how the media landscape was shifting once again. Now, even ordinary celebrities can reach the masses just as effectively as CNN or the only son of a recently deceased Nigerian millionaire: All they need is a cell phone and some fingers.

Just three months after Kutcher discovered Twitter, he found himself in a race with CNN to see who would reach a million followers first. The easily excitable movie star declared this "crazy" and "astonishing," and for once his hyperbole was warranted: How the hell had CNN managed to attract so many subscribers? Sure, it had a two-year lead on Kutcher, having created a Twitter account in January 2007. But while Kutcher was roping in new fans with random philosophical musings, CNN was all business, grunting out overly wordy bulletins like "Britain's chief terrorism officer has resigned, the London mayor's office says, after he revealed a sensitive document."

Scroll through CNN's archive of more than 700 tweets, and you will not find a single instance of exhibitionistic pandering or fake intimacy. There are few if any misspellings to lend the urgent, real-time, hyper-authentic quality so apparent in the work of Kutcher and his fellow celebrity tweet-droppers. Instead, the news organization presents itself as serious, focused, impersonal, and remote—i.e., everything Twitter doesn't reward you for. Are they making some valiant, pig-headed stand in the name of old-fashioned journalistic piety? Or are they just that clueless?

Of course, if there's one place in the digital world where you can act as if blogging, YouTube, and all the rest of that Web 2.0 crap never happened, it's Twitter, a rare triumph for broadcasting in the Internet era. Everywhere else, empowered individuals time-shift, trade files without permission, and generally behave as if they're in charge of determining their own media consumption experiences.

At Twitter, they're still somewhat herdable. If you long to push a button and reach a million people at once, on a regular basis, Twitter can help you do that.

Or, rather, it can help P. Diddy do that. Peruse the Twitter elite, and what's striking is how familiar most of the names are. This nascent, radical, paradigm-shifting medium is being dominated by…Britney Spears? Ryan Seacrest? Fred Durst? On YouTube, we're willing to take chances on unproven novelties, because YouTube is primarily a one-night-stand medium. Wham-bam-thank-you, Susan Boyle—we'll always have "I Dreamed I Dream." Twitter, on the other hand, asks for a commitment. And not a commitment from your Sony Vaio. It asks you for a commitment from your cell phone, which you carry around in your pocket all day, mere inches from your junk. As a consequence, Twitter is an intimate platform, a platform designed for communicating with people with close familial bonds, people whom you know and trust—which is to say, celebrities.

If you're on the transmitting end of the equation, and you're not using Twitter to simulate intimacy, then you're not doing it right. Ashton Kutcher gets this. John Mayer gets this. Kim Kardashian gets this. Even Larry King, operating in off the reservation mode, gets it. They understand that Twitter is essentially reality TV rendered in text, 140 characters or fewer at a time. CNN, on the other hand, insists on treating it as nothing more than a newsticker without the screen space to accommodate King's tremendous noggin. The New York Times and NPR employ the same uninspired approach.

Based on the evidence he presents in his Twitter stream, Ashton Kutcher spends a lot of time surfing the Internet and Twittering. He goes on vacations, has lunch with his dad, and sometimes just sits around being happy to be alive. Truth be told, he's pretty boring. But because he provides such a seemingly candid, seemingly minute-by-minute look at his life, he's generated tremendous interest in it. Every second of the day now, someone somewhere is checking to see if there's a new update from him—is he over the flu yet? How's his dog Bama doing?

At CNN, far more entertaining things are happening behind the scenes, but the only time we get to see them is when someone accidentally forgets to turn off a switch and suddenly we hear Wolf Blitzer bashing Cingular or engaging in awkward banter with White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. If CNN used Twitter as the channel for regularly transmitting the informal, random, and dramatic moments that happen during the process of producing the news, ultimately more people would get interested in the news itself. To industry veterans committed to the notion that news-gathering is a serious endeavour that should not be mixed with attempts to entertain, the idea of turning their working lives into a variant of reality TV is no doubt undignified and unprofessional. But is it any less undignified and unprofessional to make the news so boring even Ashton Kutcher's dog seems more compelling in comparison?

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.