The Real Meaning of Ashton Kutcher's 1M Twitter Followers

If This Dude's at the Pinnacle of the Attention Economy, the Attention Economy Needs a Bailout

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As media market-share wars go, this one's epochal. This week Ashton Kutcher -- the former "That '70s Show" star and "Punk'd" auteur now mostly known for being married to Demi Moore and doing Nikon commercials -- declared his intention to beat out CNN in the race to become the first Twitterer with one million followers. At midday Tuesday, when ABC News first reported on the throwdown, it counted 858,660 Kutcher followers; by Wednesday afternoon he was up to 903,508, coming within spitting distance of top celebrity Twitterer, Britney Spears; by Thursday he overtook her. By the time you're reading this -- well, check for yourself.

Candid camera: Kutcher's busy selling Nikons ... and himself.
Candid camera: Kutcher's busy selling Nikons ... and himself.
Kutcher's, um, triumph has me thinking that it can't be a good sign for the so-called Attention Economy that a million people are following Mr. Demi Moore. Don't get me wrong, I like Kutcher -- I was a fan of "That '70s Show" and "Punk'd" (and his 2000 movie, "Dude, Where's My Car?" is a forgotten masterpiece), plus I admire his work as a multimedia mini-mogul. But geez, consider some recent Kutcher tweets:

Waking up is never as brutal when u do it before the sun comes up. I think it's a light thing.

tonight is the anniversary of the splitting of the redsea! Mind over matter, we can make miracles happen!!!!

I feel like I'm running for class president. I'll get us pizza 4 hot lunch on Tuesdays AND Fridays!

If this guy's at the pinnacle of the Attention Economy, then the Attention Economy needs a bail-out.

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 -- this time in the statusphere. That's gotta be good for something, right? That basic self-marketing function works too, of course, for other public figures (politicians, authors, etc.) who have thousands of "followers" -- or "friends" on Facebook. They get to build personal-brand mind share, and sometimes actually push product. Yay. Good for them.

But what about the millions of people who have been sucked into Web 2.0 who aren't live-and-die-by-the-media figures with agendas to advance or products to push or personal brands to burnish? Well, that's where the supposed social-networking value equation starts to get a little wonky. Sure, plenty of civilians find value in investing a lot of time in virtual friendships. And for them, social-networking is its own reward. Yay. Good for them, too. But the reality is that the Attention Economy works much like a bubble economy in the way it redistributes the "wealth," or value, of attention.

Take Ashton and Brit, for instance. He's only "following" 70 Twitterers. But more promiscuous Britney is following 77,554 -- which is, of course, insane. It's humanly impossible to follow that many Twitter streams.

Either way, Ash and Brit are evidence that something rather retro is happening to the social-networking realm. The most successful Twitterers and the most-friended users of Facebook with really active news feeds are reverting to a rather pre-Web 2.0 paradigm: broadcasting. The Few speaking to The Many.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. Except that Ev Williams and Biz Stone at Twitter -- not to mention Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook -- can almost sound like revolutionaries in the way they talk about the leveling power of social networking. But really, not that much has changed! I know I will get bashed for saying that. Honestly, I'm not forgetting that tools like Twitter can facilitate immediate human connectedness and sometimes even aid actual revolutions. But those who think the mass protests central to the so-called Twitter Revolution in Moldova couldn't have happened without Twitter are forgetting Harper Magazine Senior Editor Bill Wasik's 2003 invention: the Flash Mob, a phenomenon that got the word out mostly by e-mail -- which, of course, can be as instantaneous as Twitter. (Perhaps you were involved in celebrating the latest iteration of flash mobbery -- World Pillow Fight Day, on April 4.) Electronically-assisted word-of-mouth, whether pro-pillow or pro–Moldovian democracy, is inspiring, no doubt. But let's not forget that the core activity here is the marketing of an idea -- getting people to act, either logically or illogically -- through broadcasting.

My point? Just that the utopian rhetoric of social-networking aside, the lesson of media history is that, regardless of the rise and fall of media conglomerates, media is almost always about The Few profiting at the expense of The Many's attention. To put that another way, The Many are actually investing their mind share -- their currency in the Attention Economy -- in a way that leads, for the most part, to the enrichment of The Few. To put it rather cynically, a certain portion of The Many are getting ripped off -- deprived of more and more of their mind share for little or no gain (or possibly a big loss).

There's a parallel, of course, to the housing bubble. At some point it suddenly dawns on millions of people that they've paid way too much for way too little actual value. (If you're one of the people who has read every one of Mr. Kutcher's more than 1,400 Twitter updates ... well, just realize that you'll never, ever get that time back.)

Anyway, here's hoping Ashton Kutcher makes good on that pizza promise.

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