Ashton Kutcher is a movie star, except his name doesn’t sell movies. He’s a TV star, except he doesn’t star in TV shows. He’s a producer, but his new production, The Beautiful Life (a trashy TV drama about models) just premiered to very low ratings. And yet he and his wife, Demi Moore, are as famous a celebrity couple as David and Victoria Beckham, whom they reportedly befriended on a recent vacation. Why, when he doesn’t seem to do a lot, is he one of the most-discussed stars in the world? The answer is Twitter. Kutcher was one of the first celebrities to make aggressive use of the social networking site that has a 140-character upper limit for messages. This year he became the first Twitter user to have one million “followers” subscribing to his short messages or “tweets,” beating out CNN with the help of a billboard company that put up “Follow Ashton Kutcher” digital billboards for his benefit. Only a few months later his Twitter account, “aplusk,” has over three million followers, in part because Twitter has started automatically sending his messages to new users: “Sometimes people don’t even know they’re following him,” explains Sarah Milstein, author of The Twitter Book. Kutcher has said that Twitter isn’t a great business site because “it’s not a very advertising-friendly community just yet.” But it’s effective for advertising Ashton Kutcher.
Unlike some of the other celebrities who have become prolific “tweeters,” like Spencer Pratt (a non-actor known only from reality TV’s The Hills), Kutcher does have legitimate credentials as a star, though mostly old ones. That ’70s Show was a hit sitcom, and even in one of the best casts of the era—which included Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3) and Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall)—Kutcher immediately stood out as one of the most popular performers. He played a big, handsome all-American boy who never seemed to realize that girls were taking advantage of his stupidity. He leveraged his popularity into a series of movies in which he played a similar character, like Just Married and Dude, Where’s My Car? (whose plot was more or less borrowed by this year’s hit The Hangover). Then he moved into producing with Punk’d, a modern Candid Camera that turned its title (with its inexplicable apostrophe) into an international catchphrase. But by the time he started using Twitter, his career wasn’t what it had been: his most successful recent movie was What Happens in Vegas, where he was second-billed to the film’s real star, Cameron Diaz. With older co-stars and his marriage to a woman 15 years his senior, he was getting typecast as the sidekick to older women; his target demographic of young males couldn’t have liked that much.
He turned things around by realizing that Twitter, more than any other site, is the best place for a celebrity to be if he wants to become cool again. Celebrities have traditionally had a problematic relationship with the Internet. Most of the things it offers—websites, blogs— require an amount of free time most stars don’t have. So they’ve kept their distance from the online world; meanwhile, gossipers and paparazzi have used their own sites to tear down stars’ reputations. But Twitter was different. Because of its 140-character limit on every post, tweeters not only don’t have to spend a lot of time writing their messages, they literally can’t. “It doesn’t require a team of PR people or writers or editors,” Milstein explains. “It’s something that anybody, including celebrities, can do themselves.” And, she adds, “it’s simple. It doesn’t require a lot of writing skills.” Kutcher’s new online visibility may have helped make him more marketable than he’s been in some time: according to Variety, when the TV Guide Network recently started showing old reruns of Punk’d, it increased ratings in its time slot by 63 per cent among viewers 18-49. Twitter has a young-skewing audience, and some of Kutcher’s followers might actually watch his stuff.
The weird thing about this is that the tweets that have changed Kutcher’s life are not of any special quality. Most of his posts are declarations of what he’s doing at the moment, like “Throwing a party in ny tonight for The Beautiful Life.” Sometimes he’ll use Twitter for a good cause, usually if it helps promote himself (as winner of the race for followers with CNN, he agreed to donate mosquito nets to malaria victims), but sometimes he uses it to admit his ignorance, which isn’t too far from the characters he plays: “I’ve been researching this Health Care bill all day looking 4 facts,” he wrote. “Not sure what to think.” And sometimes he’ll link to a video or photo; when Patrick Swayze died, he directed us to a video clip of the actor on Saturday Night Live. There are few insights or revelations on his feed. Milstein says a business person should be “funny, or interesting, or share valuable links” to be a success on Twitter, but that rule doesn’t apply to Kutcher.
Still, the very boringness of his feed might be what’s made it so popular. Julio Ojeda-Zapata, a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who wrote the book Twitter Means Business, says that Twitter readers “like to know who’s behind the byline or who’s behind the movie marquee.” Kutcher’s feed satisfies that desire; it gives people the feeling they’re looking at his everyday life, complete with the occasional spat with his wife; he got in much-publicized trouble when, after the words “don’t tell wifey,” he linked to an unflattering picture of Moore in her underwear. Other celebrities try to build their brand by making themselves seem more successful than they are, but that doesn’t work, Milstein explains: “Twitter is not a good medium for trying to be something you’re not. It plays to authenticity and a reflection of reality.” Kutcher took that and ran with it, making Twitter into a reality show about his own life and habits. There’s something fascinating about seeing what mundane people celebrities are.
And, because this is a multimedia era, that reality show isn’t just restricted to Twitter. After he “researched” health care, Kutcher appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher to discuss what he’d learned, and wound up exclaiming that “I don’t want to pay for the guy who’s getting a triple-bypass because he’s eating fast food all day and deep-fried Snickers bars.” The outburst was bizarre considering that he had just appeared in a widely publicized YouTube video where he asked people to “serve” President Obama, but it got him plenty of attention on blogs, and YouTube, and of course on Twitter, where right wing followers came to his defence and liberal followers felt betrayed. With the power of Twitter to cross-promote, to drive people to see his TV appearances and send each other his YouTube videos, Kutcher is making himself unavoidable even to the people who would never go to see an Ashton Kutcher movie, simply because he’s on their computer screens all the time in some form. “I’m not an Ashton Kutcher fan, I don’t really care about him,” Ojeda-Zapata admits, “but some of the stuff he’s done, raising money for mosquito nets, that’s cool. It’s made him more interesting to me than anything he’s done in show business.”
But that doesn’t mean we have become more interesting to Kutcher. As of now, Kutcher has over three million followers, but he himself is following only a little over 200 people. He wants people to read what he says, but he doesn’t necessarily want to read what other people say. Ojeda-Zapata says that refusing to follow people is “not very effective because it’s very difficult to have direct interactions with your fans. If there’s a reciprocal following, that allows for direct messaging back and forth.” But that’s true only for people who use it that way. For Kutcher, and many other celebrities, Twitter is a way of confirming their status as show business demigods: they speak, others follow them intently, and they never have to know or communicate with the millions of people who are hanging onto their every word. Milstein says that she considers Twitter “an intimate medium” that can be used “to further relationships,” and that’s what it is for many people—but not Kutcher, or for all but a few celebrity tweeters; even Britney Spears, who follows most of her Twitter followers, doesn’t usually respond to what they say. When Kutcher beat CNN to the million-follower mark, he wrote that this was really a victory for his fans, because “I can’t follow myself.” You could be forgiven for thinking that he almost sounded disappointed.
Of course, Kutcher’s increased fame doesn’t necessarily translate into increased success in fields that require more than 140 characters’ worth of thought: like TV, movies or business. In 2007, the year Twitter took off, he started an Internet-based phone service called Ooma. Kutcher lent his celebrity status to lots of commercials and promotional interviews, but by 2008, the business was failing and Kutcher and all the other executives had pulled out of the operation. Rich Buchanan, the current chief marketing officer of the company, says that “no one here now was involved with Ashton and his role at Ooma.”
But his name on a disastrous business venture didn’t really hurt his fame any more than his name on a disastrous movie; that’s not the way celebrity works these days. What matters is Kutcher keeping up his Twitter feed, or linking directly from that feed to his series of Web videos, “Blah Girls” (a South Park knock-off with crudely animated girls instead of boys). These ventures might keep him one step ahead of other publicity-friendly stars like Kanye West, who wrote earlier this year that he doesn’t like Twitter because he’s “busy being creative most of the time.” Kutcher may have realized that the key to continued fame is not creativity, but just making sure that millions of people follow your every movement online. As Simon Dumenco lamented in Advertising Age when Kutcher reached the million mark, “using a new-media tool, Kutcher is leveraging his fame to make himself more famous by declaring his intention to become, well, even more famous.” He makes that sound like a bad thing. For Kutcher, it’s all part of the plan.