So It's Official, Then: Ashton Kutcher Got Punk'd (Sorry, Twit!)

Ad Age Readers Speak Out About Everything the Supposed Twitter King -- and the Media -- Got Wrong

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Consider this to be Round Two. On the morning of Friday, April 17, I published a column titled "The Real Meaning of Ashton Kutcher's 1M Twitter Followers" -- the same morning news broke that Kutcher beat out CNN -- and it prompted a flood of comments, e-mails, tweets, etc. My point was basically this: When social media gets bloated, it can very easily revert to a pre-Web 2.0 paradigm: broadcasting. The Few speaking to The Many. All the frothy utopian rhetoric of social networking aside, and regardless of the rise and fall of media conglomerates, big media is almost always about The Few profiting at the expense of The Many's attention.

A CHANGING OF THE GUARD? Sorry, Ashton ... not quite.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD? Sorry, Ashton ... not quite. Credit: AP
Why'd I write such things? Because I just don't get it! Because I'm an idiot! Et cetera, et cetera -- according to some feedback I got, at least. But I'm happy to report that overwhelmingly, readers were able to look past Kutcher's media stunt -- and the mass media's celebration of his "triumph" -- and parse what having 1 million Twitter followers really means and doesn't mean. In fact, all the reader response helped me crystallize my understanding of everything the media -- and Kutcher himself -- got wrong about his "win." To wit:


1. Kutcher's win was a triumph for the little guy.

Um, wrong. Kutcher ain't no little guy. To state the obvious, he's a genetically blessed professional performer (before he was an actor, he was a Calvin Klein model). He had a prime-time TV sitcom that ran for eight seasons on Fox and remains in syndication in dozens of countries around the world, was the creator and star of MTV's "Punk'd," and is a multimillionaire reality-TV mini mogul (e.g., "Beauty and the Geek"). As Dr. Michal Ann Strahilevitz, professor of marketing at Golden Gate University, put it in a comment on AdAge.com: "Ashton Kutcher is not famous for his Twittering, but for his TV shows. If he had never been on TV, he would not have a huge Twitter following. ... If Oprah and Ashton stopped all TV appearances and just moved to Twitter as their only method of communicating with their followers, I am pretty darn sure their Twitter followers would start to drop off."


2. In Kutcher's words (in his streaming video announcement of his win): "One man can have a voice that's as loud as an entire media company."

Um, wrong. As a CNN employee in New York wryly e-mailed me, "Last I checked, CNN is still on the air 24 hours a day around the globe." Yeah, turns out that's true. See, in addition to its assorted semi-useful Twitter streams, CNN is available on TVs in not only 93 million U.S. households, but in more than 200 countries. Just because Ashton Kutcher and CNN both use a free tool, Twitter, to promote themselves doesn't mean they have "voice" parity, for chrissakes. If access to cheap or free digital megaphones were all that mattered, Estonian spammers would be more powerful than God.


3. Maybe he was just punking us?

Well, sure, we all got conned into paying way too much attention to Ashton Kutcher, but I think it's pretty clear that Kutcher allowed himself to get punk'd. He drank his own Kool-Aid. Consider his video statement the night of his win: "Look, at the end of the day, what's this about? This is about the changing of the guard, from the old way of consuming media to the new way of consuming media. We, together, can decide -- we can make the news on our cellphones, on our iPhones, on our cameras, on our video cameras. We can edit the news, we can broadcast the news and we can consume the news. We can decide what news we want to hear, how we want to hear it, when we want to hear it. And we can get it faster on the web."

Uh, has Kutcher ever heard of CNN.com? Most Twitterers "breaking" news of consequence are, duh, just grabbing it from mainstream media websites like CNN's. Also, as commenter Suzanne Lainson of Boulder, Colo., put it, "As a number of you [other commenters] have pointed out, people have had blogs for a while now. So the ability to bypass mass print, radio and TV has been with us for a long time. So what makes Twitter a better replacement of old media than anything else on the internet? ... And the fact that everyone went on 'Oprah' to discuss Twitter seems to confirm that old media has clout."


4. Kutcher's win was symbolic of a paradigm shift: the replacement of centralized, concentrated media power with a democratized two-way dialogue -- after all, that's what "following" and having "followers" is all about.

As of this writing, Kutcher has 1,356,058 followers and is following 95 Twitter feeds. I rest my case.

As a New York commenter who goes by Stevewax wrote, "Seems to me what's useful with Twitter is creating a small, two-way community with people who aren't busy running a Twitter team and who have time to SHARE ideas. Rather than broadcast them." Amen.


5. Kutcher did good by making a donation to No More Malaria to celebrate his win.

Sure, absolutely. As commenter Jean Levasseur, who said she doesn't follow Kutcher but glanced through his tweets, put it, "I see him doing more than just inane babble. I see him trying to help people, donating to causes, giving poor people mosquito nets, encouraging philanthropy by engaging in it himself."

But, hey, back up for a second! How do privileged Westerners like Kutcher tend to learn about the health crises in the Third World? From old-guard media companies like CNN! An old-guard media organization, that is, with hundreds of reporters around the world who sometimes literally risk their lives to bring us actual reporting about the sorry state of the world.

Old-guard reporters who need and deserve to be overtaken by self-congratulatory Twittering celebrity jackasses, apparently.

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