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What Ashton Kutcher can teach us about the evolution of media


The standard response from many people on Twitter this week to the news that Ashton Kutcher wanted to get a million followers was thinly veiled (or not-so-thinly veiled) disgust. Long-time Twitter fans were outraged that anyone — let alone a two-bit TV actor — would be so blatantly egotistical, and trivialize such a great social-media tool in that way, just so he could get on the Oprah show. Shane Richmond said that it wasn’t clear who was the bigger “Twitter tool,” Ashton or Oprah. All of these comments, of course, ignored the fact that Kutcher was using his campaign to raise money for malaria relief efforts, and has in fact raised a total of almost $1-million, according to a recent tweet.

So Ashton is more or less using Twitter as the 21st-century version of Jerry Lewis’s telethon for muscular dystrophy. That isn’t the interesting thing about his use of the social network, at least as far as I’m concerned. Far from being just an egotist who wants to take advantage of a medium to promote himself — although there could well be an aspect of grandstanding to it, as there is for many people — it seems clear that the actor has thought fairly seriously about the implications of Twitter from a media-industry standpoint (my friend Andrew Cherwenka seems to agree). And as a celebrity who is in the public eye almost all the time, he also has a somewhat unique take on the media industry and how it is being transformed.

In his video discussion with Oprah about Twitter, for example, Kutcher says he believes that “we’re at a place now with social media where a single person’s voice can be as powerful as an entire news network — that is the power of the social web.” (although obviously it helps if that one person is a celebrity). He then talks about how his life is “somewhat on display anyway, and not always by choice… so instead of them publishing pictures and videos I don’t like, I can publish pictures and video of myself… that I’m happy with. If there’s some sort of fallacy that’s out in some magazine or that some blogger has written about, you can respond to it, and you can actually respond to it in a genuine way, directly with your fans, as opposed to having to go through the whole rigamarole of publicists and so on.”

I’ve heard and read similar thoughts expressed by actress Brea Grant, one of the stars of Heroes, and others. Social-media tools allow them to go direct to their fans, just as it allows musicians to connect directly with fans, avoiding the PR machine and all the distortions that it produces. This is the same kind of media-channel disruption that allows people like billionaire Mark Cuban to post the transcripts of media interviews on his blog when his comments are taken out of context — and that allows anyone involved in a news event to tell their own version of the story, rather than the one that is constructed by the media. Ashton Kutcher may be a two-bit TV actor, and he may goof around on Twitter posting snapshots of his wife’s backside now and then, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong about how media is changing.

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  • John

    I guess I was sort of annoyed at first to hear of Kutcher wanting to be first to 1,000,000 – but once I got over that and took the time to learn what he was doing, it all made sense. With so many of those “Hollywood types” I think it is all about the ego. I can’t say if Demi changed him or not, I simply don’t know him well enough, but one this is clear to me, he’s genuine and using his celebrity to help others. For that I applaud him. I don’t have $100K to donate, but you can bet I donated a few nets myself on Friday… I challenge everyone to buy at least one – they are only $10 each.

  • AGORACOM – George

    I have to admit to being impressed with these very same comments by Kutcher.

    Going into the interview, I was thinking that Twitter could be in danger of being perceived as just another “cool” but useless tool for kids, gawkers and celebrities to chat. Not a good image to have, especially when you are looking for ways to monetize your business.

    Kutcher’s comments shed some light on Twitter’s greater possibilities. In fact, he did more than Twitter co-founder Evan Williams who failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to talk about Twitter’s greater uses.

    I love Twitter for the market and web 2.0 intelligence it provides me everyday. We all know there are thousands of other great uses as well. Twitter needs to do a better job of talking these up to make sure it doesn’t get pigeon-holed as a great tool for seeing shots of Demi’s ass – which is one great use :-)


  • Dan Jeffers

    Not sure what difference it makes if Ashton Kutcher is “genuine” or not. Most of the people who claim they want to follow me on Twitter aren’t all that genuine. Either they’re trying to sell something, promote something or they want to project an image of themselves that’s probably beyond what they’re doing in real life. Me too, actually. What Kutcher is, in Twitter terms, is effective.

  • Gina Chen

    I think Kutcher’s quote, which you quote sums up the power of the Web: “We’re at a place now with social media where a single person’s voice can be as powerful as an entire news network — that is the power of the social web.”

    Granted, he has more power as a celebrity, but social media, particularly Twitter, can help even the little guys get their voices heard.

    Consider the recent #amazonfail campaign. People on Twitter — using that hashtag — criticized for LGBT books disappearing from the best-seller’s list because Amazon was dubbing them “adult.” (Read more: blamed a cataloging glitch.

    Or consider the #motrinmoms campaign last fall, where moms were upset about Motrin’s commercial about baby-wearing (slings to hold an infant.) Their angst went viral on Twitter, and Motrin pulled the offending commercial.

  • Zachary M. Seward

    I have no problem with Ashton Kutcher, his Twitter fame, or his defeat of CNN. It’s just that his preexisting celebrity kind of undermines the idea that any individual voice “can be as powerful as an entire news network.” He’s right — I agree with all your points above, Mathew — but Kutcher might be the wrong example to prove it.

    So it was with that in mind on Thursday that I pointed Josh to Kutcher’s tweet:”Today we decide if we want gatekeepers for social thought or democratization of media.” I found it ridiculous, and still do. But then again, when Josh went to view the tweet, he noticed another one from Kutcher about how John Madden had retired, which was news to both of us. So, yeah, the Ashton News Network FTW. —Zach

  • Mathew Ingram

    Good points from all — and your comment made me laugh, Zach :-)

    Maybe all that Ashton teaches us is that there are a whole range of influencers and gatekeepers and filters now — even two-bit TV actors — instead of just the traditional ones we’ve gotten used to.

  • Mark Dykeman

    I didn’t see Kutcher’s Twitter quest from this perspective, Mathew, but I wasn’t really focusing on the charity angle. It looks like there was something worthwhile there.

    The part that ticked me off had to do more with Twitter itself. The fact that they inhibited the unfollow functionality for both Kutcher’s account and the CNN account ticked me off. I was getting a bit tired of this whole thing and just wanted to stop following (yeah, guilty) and I couldn’t, at least until I found Rafe’s article which explained how to use the “off” command. To me, it was a cheat to ensure that Kutcher or CNN hit the 1 million goal and I don’t recall them telling anyone that this was what they were going to do. I even Tweeted Ev and Biz to express my displeasure at this (they’ll probably get to that Tweet around 2015, but still…)

    Oh, and apparently Oprah Winfrey used Twitter yesterday, too, but that seems to have been overshadowed a bit… ;)

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  • Suzanne Lainson

    I’ve enjoyed following Ashton and Demi on Twitter. I didn’t pay too much attention to them as movie celebrities, but started following them when they joined Twitter. They quickly won me over as smart, fun people who know how to use Twitter. I always include them in my reasons why people might want to check out Twitter.

    A few weeks ago a friend suggested that perhaps they and some other Hollywood and sports types might have been hired by Twitter to generate buzz. And certainly the apparently well-orchestrated Kutcher/CNN/billboard advertising/Oprah campaign seems to suggest that some effort has gone into pumping up Twitter.

    That’s fine, too.

    Where I get hung up is any talk that Twitter itself has somehow given people power to overthrow mass media or that it is revolutionary.

    (1) Mass media has played a major role in this, with publicity on TV and in print. And Oprah and Ashton have fame because of old media.

    (2) Tweets are too short to cover a story, so a lot of what Twitter provides are links to blogs, YouTube, news sites, etc. Twitter wouldn’t be much of a news source without places for people to go for more info.

    (3) People have been publishing their thoughts and communicating with each other since I’ve been online, starting in 1993. And I know people were doing it before then. So Twitter is today’s form of BBSs, usenet, mailing lists, IM, etc.

    (4) Celebrities may now have more direct access to their fans via Twitter, but they are still publishing to a large group of people like they have been doing on their websites and in their newsletters. The delivery system has changed a bit, but the dynamics are still the same.

    (5) Because people can only converse with so many people, they either choose to follow relatively few people on Twitter, or they miss or ignore a good chunk of the messages they get from Twitter. I am following about 800 people and I read all of their posts (not just the ones directed to me personally). It takes me hours a day to do that. When Ashton sends out a message to his one million followers, he is using a one-to-many delivery system. By definition, that’s mass media.

    Twitter is fun and has been helpful as a networking, marketing, and publishing tool, but the bigger it gets, the more people will put up their walls and filters. How is Twitter going to outlast all the other forms of online communication we have had over the years? There will be something else before long.

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