@a(plus)K – Ashton Kutcher’s Evolved Twitter Presence

It should be taboo to talk about twitter celebrities without mentioning Ashton Kutcher and his immediate attraction to Twitter back when the platform was first launched.  It can even be said that the heartthrob marked a turning point for the social media site when he challenged CNN to a Twitter battle.

The Challenge: to see which one of the two profiles would be Twitter’s first to reach 1 million followers.

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The Outcome:

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Ashton, or rather, @aplusk, stole the crown.  Nowadays the site has grown tremendously and the top profiles have about 45 million followers, but Ashton’s initial ‘campaign’ can be seen as the turning point for the company.

After he reached his follower quota he celebrated on UStream ‘in front’ of fans with champagne and in the company of his – then – wife, Demi Moore, and friends.  As reported by CNN (quite ironically), he was later quoted saying:

“I defined Twitter as an ego stream when I first saw it. But then what I realized is if we can transform that into something that’s positive that can actually effectively change the world, that can be a really valuable tool.” – Ashton Kutcher

This approach, defined by Nancy Baym as “social construction of technology” is a user-shaped perspective of technology, which puts the power in the users hands.

It is clear that his ‘taste statement,’ as Hugo Liu discusses, is one that conveys authenticity.  In order to convey this authentic voice, one must approach it from a relaxed, consistent, and laid-back mindset.  This is one of four approaches that Liu discusses; the other three are the Prestige, Differentiation, and Theatrical approaches.  These all embody different kinds of presentation behaviors, but lack what Ashton deems most important – being himself, no strings attached (pun is most definitely intended).  He even directly addresses the issue of celebrity identities online as quoted by CNN:

“I think it’s really important that Twitter is not about celebrities. It’s not a platform for celebrities…It’s really about everyday people having a voice. And I don’t want it to be dwarfed by celebrity.” – Ashton Kutcher

This comment shows how he sees the potential in creating a voice for himself in conjunction with his celebrity presence, but not overcome by it.  Baym mentions how these networks allow us access to “multiple audiences” as well as different aspects of our own personalities and it is clear Ashton recognizes this and looks to use his Twitter presence as a way to express an honest self to fans.

However, this initial utopian perspective is unfortunately not the way he feels today.  Following a Twitter scandal where the actor awkwardly tweeted against the dismissal of Coach Joe Paterno, he decided he wouldn’t take the same approach he once embraced.  The issue was a misunderstanding, as he hadn’t realized the serious nature behind the coaches dismissal – a child molestation charge – prior to his tweet.  Once Kutcher realized this he repeatedly apologized and immediately deleted the initial post.  However, the damage was done.  Nothing leaves the internet.

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This traumatized the actor who, according to Michelle Costello of CBS News, “self-imposed a tweeting ban.”  She goes on to quote Kutcher’s tweets:

“As an advocate in the fight against child sexual exploitation, I could not be more remorseful for all involved in the Penn St. case. As of immediately I will stop tweeting until I find a way to properly manage this feed. I feel awful about this error. Won’t happen again.” – @aplusk

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What he announced days later, and reported by TMZ, was that he was going to continue tweeting, but all of his thoughts would be filtered through Katalyst Media, who would “ensure the quality of it’s content.”  He reasoned this by saying:

“Up until today I have posted virtually everyone of my tweets on my own, but clearly the platform has become too big to be managed by a single individual.” – Ashton Kutcher

**More can be read from his blog post – now deleted:

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It seems that after two years of tweeting, Ashton finally realized that presenting his authentic voice to his followers wasn’t as simple as it may have initially appeared.  Baym discusses how we form our identities on SNS (social networking sites) to this ‘imagined audience,’ but how we are inclined instinctively to form our perception of this audience around ourselves.  What lead to Ashton’s abrupt undoing is that he wasn’t catering to the ‘Lowest Common Denominator’.  While this shows us he truly was creating an authentic voice for himself online, it also leads us to question our ability to be completely authentic.  What we see in his shift to filtered content is the beginning of his acknowledgment of these “nightmare readers” (term coined by Marwick and boyd) who make forming online presence difficult.  Some censoring seems to be inevitable.

Ellison and boyd discuss the “perpetual beta,” the constantly changing nature, that is the internet.  With this we can turn to Anthony Giddens, who discusses the “Reflective Project of the Self” online and how “reflexivity,” this constant revision of content, is what distinguishes this project – our ability to constantly be changing.  This is what Ashton had to do in order to adapt to the environment.

Less than a month ago, two years after he changed his approach, and four years after his initial Twitter success, CNN Money’s David Goldman reported Kutcher’s explicit but blunt statement: “the media f***ed Twitter up.”  Clearly there are some things he refuses to filter (good for him!).  He elaborates and states:

“When I first got on, it felt like the democratization of media. Now it just feels like media. The bigger vision for Twitter when Jack [Dorsey] created it was to empower communication to happen as things were taking place.  Now it’s just a bunch of companies and people constantly pitching crap.” – Ashton Kutcher

Unfortunately it seems that @aplusk’s initial utopian view of the platform has shifted to the dystopian perspective of “technological determinism,” which Baym explains as the view that technologies have the ability to control and change cultural society.  Those that see this from a dystopian view see this power negatively.

So what can we take from Ashton’s experience?  For one that being a successful, attractive, Hollywood hearththrob does not spare you the pain of being attacked by online audiences.  But more importantly, that there is still a lot of progressing these online platforms need to do.

The third social discourse Baym mentions is what she deems the most effective – “Social Shaping.”  This is a combination between tech determinism and social construction, and can best be described as a ‘co-construction’ between technologies and users.  This is the ideal direction these SNS need to take.

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@aplusk as of 11/03/13
**Screenshot by author**

Unfortunately, we see with this example the way the technology lead to the demise of the highly-reputable @aplusk; but Ashton’s initial approach is one that should be acknowledged.  His focus on remaining a humble, genuine voice online says a lot about his true character, but what lead him to gain so many followers – his celebrity fame – could easily be what held him back from being able to be the authentic self he strived for.  The more eyes watching, the more mouths talking.  Inevitably this comes with the good, as well as the bad…and sometimes the very bad.

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