Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Celebrities on Twitter

For me, Twitter is about microblogging and mediated social interaction, but not surprisingly, it also produces its own celebrities (one of my arguments, going back to my doctoral dissertation, is that every new medium results in a new kind of hero, or as we call them nowadays, celebrity), celebrities famous for their tweets and overall presence on Twitter. And Twitter also becomes a means of self-promotion for celebrities who, by definition, turn all that they do into "advertisements for myself," to use Norman Mailer's famous phrase.

Networks being ecologies by another name, as media ecologists should well understand, it is interesting to consider the niche that major celebrities make for themselves on this social medium. This was the topic of a New York Times article written by John Metcalfe appearing in the Sunday Styles section, March 29, 2009, p. 11, and entitled The Celebrity Twitter Ecosystem. Here's what Metcalfe had to say:

HONESTLY, does anyone care that Martha Stewart has a blog supposedly written by her French bulldogs, Francesca and Sharkey?

Snoop Dogg might, perhaps, because Ms. Stewart recently sent him a Twitter message urging him to visit “The Daily Wag.” “Yo Snoop,” she wrote, “check out MY doggies’ new doggie blog.”

Tha Doggfather received this dubious shout-out because Ms. Stewart follows him on Twitter — “following” being Twitterspeak for signing up to get someone’s musings delivered directly to your cellphone or computer. She is also following P. Diddy, Rachel Maddow and Jimmy Fallon and, in turn, is followed by Michael Phelps, Jane Fonda and nearly 200,000 other people; they were all alerted on March 4, for instance, when she had lunch with Ludacris, whom she found “just charming” and who “loved lunch — esp. choc cake.”

Now, of course, this use of twitter might make you titter, if not guffaw, but keep in mind that the celebrity industry has meant big bucks for a long time, from the early 20th century movie star fan magazines and gossip columns, to periodicals like the National Enquirer and People magazine, to television in general, not to mention celebrity news programming like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, and now TMZ on TV and online. But this celebrity twitter is something new, as we get to observe celebrities interact with each other, and celebrities behave like fans as they encounter other celebrities:

That Ms. Stewart recently broke bread with the artist behind “Pimpin’ All Over the World” is just one of the many weird bits of trivia that can be gleaned about famous people on Twitter. There are at least a hundred well-known actors, singers, business magnates, politicians and writers using the service, and their chitchat — most of it authentically written by the stars themselves, according to interviews with them or their publicists — is available for anybody to see. (Not to obsess too much over Martha, but just the other day she welcomed Emeril Lagasse to Twitter, sending him a note that said, “i am still loving the etouffee you made yesterday.” O.K., yes, she did buy up most of his franchise last year, but there you go.)

What is the sound of celebrities tweeting? Well, it might be Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails notifying Dave Navarro, a musical collaborator who now plays for Jane’s Addiction, that he’s “hanging on the bus.” Or maybe it’s Ashton Kutcher and John Mayer comparing notes on being 31 years old (from John to Ashton: “Let’s open a hip new restaurant together. ‘31 club.’ Where it’s always standing room only. It will fail but we will have had fun.”).

Most celebrities let anybody follow them on Twitter, but are pickier about whom they follow themselves. Mr. Kutcher, for instance, in addition to following his wife (Demi Moore) and a stepdaughter (Rumer Willis), follows a mix of boldface names from different walks of life, including Evan Williams (a Twitter founder), Soleil Moon Frye (remember “Punky Brewster”?), Maria Shriver and Ellen DeGeneres. (The latter two are not shown on the already-too-crowded chart below.)

It seems that — just like the rest of us — celebrities enjoy hearing about other celebrities, and Twitter lets them participate in a giant cross-disciplinary mash-up of a conversation.

Of course, the allure of celebrities on Twitter is the sense that we are allowed into their backstage, private lives that the papparazzi only provide a fleeting glimpse of. And of course, that they are offering themselves unscripted, unfiltered, un-thought-out, in candid moments of stupidity and failure:

To the delight of many, some celebrities expose themselves on Twitter in a way you won’t see in Entertainment Weekly. “I love it when they don’t talk with their publicists before posting things,” said Mario Lavandeira, who is better known as the gossipmonger Perez Hilton, “like Solange Knowles talking about how she was taking a lot of Nyquil and then ended up passing out at the airport.” (Erykah Badu and Q-Tip were among 23,000 people who received Ms. Knowles’s increasingly distressed alerts on Feb. 17, which culminated a day later with the tweet: “Woaah ...How’d I end up in the hospital?”)

Unlike the heroes of previous media environments, celebrities are often ironic figures, especially when they lose control of their images, and come across as inferior to us, their fans, in many ways, their lives out of control, unable to manage their emotions or remain in a stable relationship, and are prone to accident, injury, addiction, sickness, and suicide.

On that subject, one of the students in my Interactive Media class at Fordham University, Dominic Caponi, posted on our class blog, The Social Moose, a short piece, That's how I beat Shaq, which identified an interesting article in Time magazine entitled Celebrity Twittering: Is That Really You, Shaq? written by Claire Suddath, and dated March 24, 2009. This one focuses on the interaction between celebrity and fans via Twitter:

He wasn't really Shaq. He couldn't have been. The person known on Twitter as THE_REAL_SHAQ sometimes posted more than 50 Tweets — 140-character dispatches — daily, broadcasting his thoughts, actions and feelings to some 327,000 subscribers to his Twitter feed. Surely the four-time NBA champion had better things to do than tell random people what he was up to more than twice an hour.

That's what Phoenix software engineers Jesse Bearden and Sean Neden thought — until they used THE_REAL_SHAQ's Tweets to find out.

Enticing lead, and now for a bit of general information:

More than 6 million people mini-blog about their lives on Twitter, including a surprising number of celebrities. Sean (Diddy) Combs recently Twittered about a tantric sex session, a 48-hour juice fast and taking a bubble bath with an Oscar statue. John Cleese has written about his pet chickens, while MC Hammer has mused on the economy ("We just fed the nation 15 [years] of evil soup. Now we're throwing up"). Other celebrities, including Shaquille O'Neal, post actual information about where they are and what they're doing. And they encourage fans to meet them.

And back to this partciular story about Shaq:

When THE_REAL_SHAQ wrote that he was eating at 5 & Diner — a chain of 1950s-themed restaurants throughout the Southwest — Bearden and Neden drove over to the downtown Phoenix location to see if it was really him. They found the 7 ft. 1 in., 320-lb. Phoenix Suns center seated alone in a corner booth, futzing with his cell phone. "He looked just like a random guy at a diner," says Neden. "Except, you know, he was Shaq."

The men ignored the superstar as they walked to a nearby table, where they proceeded to argue about whether they should approach him. "We tried to act cool," says Bearden, "but I guess he could hear us arguing." Suddenly Neden's phone vibrated with a Twitter message. "R there any twitterers in 5 n diner wit me?" asked THE_REAL_SHAQ. "Say something." So they slid into the booth next to their idol, talked about Twitter and cell phones, and got their photo taken with the man whose hands, they say, "were like bear claws."

Now here comes a brief acknowledgement of how crazy it is for O'Neil to be doing this. Very brief, because the story is mostly a celebration of the democratizing effect of Twitter, so it would be a bit of a downer to bring up the fact that this would be a great medium for stalkers, kidnappers, and assassins:

It's debatable whether O'Neal, who commands a $20 million salary from the Suns and has earned more than $250 million during his NBA career, should be giving out his real-time location on the Internet. But it's clear that he isn't the only celebrity for whom Twitter has changed the relationship between object of adulation and adulator.

Earlier this month, actor Levar Burton sent a message to his 146,000 Twitter followers inviting them to a "Tweetup" at a Toronto bar. About 40 people showed up, some because they were die-hard Star Trek fans, others because they had nothing better to do. Burton says he felt safe because of the type of fans he attracts. "Star Trek, Roots and Reading Rainbow had great cultural impact and inspire great fondness in people," he explains. "I don't have the type of fans who come up to me and want to put a cigarette out on my arm."

John Hodgman, an author and the PC in the Mac ads, uses his 50,000 Twitter followers, whom he refers to as "Hive Mind," as a focus group for his books. He considered removing a reference to Tron in the paperback version of More Information Than You Require, but Hive Mind unanimously asked him to keep it in. "So I will," he says. "And I will probably note that the Internet liked it."
Of course, at this point we get into a whole other phenomenon, the hive mind or crowd-sourcing, use Twitter responses as a source of information. This does suggest some interesting possibilities for collaboration between celebrities and fans. But somehow, I suspect that this boosterism will last only as long as it takes for the next David Chapman to come along (just in case you're not familiar with the reference, he's the guy who killed John Lennon). But for now, well, here's the deal:

"I see this whole Twitter thing as a social experiment," says Burton. "When I meet fans, normally a studio or somebody has set up an event and there is an agenda. Now I can do it myself." Burton plans to host another meetup in the future, though he has to be careful, he says, because his wife doesn't like them. "She said it was dangerous," says Burton. "Then again, she's from Indiana."

So far, O'Neal's fan encounters have been safe. Sometimes when he plays hide-and-seek, no one even comes to find him. But as Twitter user and host of VH1's Best Week Ever Paul F. Tompkins puts it, "Anything's easier to do if you're a giant."

So far. The celebrity-fan relationship is a very tricky one, because there is so little distance between the two to begin with, in contrast to the heroes that emerged out of print culture, manuscript culture, and oral culture. But celebrities will always be happy to associate with one another, as this reinforces their celebrity status. To return to The Celebrity Twitter Ecosystem for the end of the article, Metclafe concludes:

The accompanying chart shows a small and idiosyncratic sample of the celebrities who follow one another on Twitter. It represents a snapshot taken from March 18, and should be read with the caveat that allegiances can change quickly on Twitter (followers can drop follow-ees with a simple keystroke, and vice versa). Except for a few obvious fakes (Vladimir Putin), these accounts are all authentic, even if they might not seem like it.

And here now is the chart, which is rather extraordinary, after all, as an illustration, that is, not for the significance of its content:

Is there an obsession with Twitter these days? Sure seems like it. Over in the New York Times Week in Review section, they featured an editorial cartoon by Mike Keefe of the Denver Post on the subject:

As a communication scholar, I'd like to applaud Keefe for addressing the subject. Of course, writing does not go back to the "caveman" days, but rather to the first city-states of the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who invented cuneiform, which was originally written on clay tablets, not stone. But hey, A for effort Mike, you know? And a good commentary on what well could be taken as the advancement and decline of verbal communication--Neil Postman would approve. And what could be more highly evolved in all of the twitterverse than celebrity tweets? Indeed, what more is there to say?


david kovacs said...

Haha i enjoy the fact that these celebrities behave like fans around other celebrities...makes them seem more human than some would think...

Nico said...

"R there any twitterers in 5 n diner wit me?"

haha. shaq, you're the coolest.

Matt Thomas said...

I currently follow a number of celebrities on Twitter, and in the past followed more than I do now, and I have to say, most celebrities aren't very good at Twitter. A few are, but most aren't. That is, I find very little of what they say interesting, clever, or particularly illuminating. (Though one could probably make the case that nothing anyone says on Twitter is that interesting, clever, or illuminating.) And they hardly ever, if ever, link to anything good. One wonders if they read online at all. More than anything, then, Twitter functions to expose their vapidity. These people truly are celebrities in the Daniel Boorstin “well-known for his well-knownness” sense of the term. Stars? Hardly. Heroes? No way.

Lance Strate said...

Matt, I applaud you for getting the Boorstin quote right. As for whether they are heroes, it depends on your definition, and Boorstin's definition, while persuasive, is rooted in literate culture, and overlooks the distinction between those heroes and the heroes of oral culture, as well as the heroes of electronic culture, who he calls celebrities. I call them heroes, because I adopted a neutral perspective in which heroes are defined as any figures that are treated as such within a culture.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lance,
I can't leave a response on my own site to your question because I want my students to actually refer to their book and notes. (we can hope right?)

Basically I want them to get into a debate on Postman and McLuhan. Both men are credited, who should it go to really? why? (Again, I didn't want to give that all away on my site, for the hope they study over break.)

Dominic C said...

Thanks for the shout out. I think what I enjoy most about witnessing celebrities interact with other celebrities as well as their fans is the breaking down of that barrier between Hollywood and the "Real World." Some people make celebrities out to be these iconic figures and I think this type of interaction helps to make them more human. The fact that you can see them make mistakes, such as typos, has a humbling effect.

Also, I liked what you said about how the medium can create heros. You saw this with the YouTube and Myspace celebrities and now it's already occurred with Twitter.

Hot Cover Girls Central said...

I agree to david kovacs said, these celebrities also a fan of a fan, haha, these means everyone could actually be a star, lol

-cathy young
please visit me at: