In my last blog post I discussed the significance of Ashton Kutcher beating CNN in a race to be the first account to amass 1 million Twitter followers. After this accomplishment, Ashton went on Larry King Live and proclaimed “We now live in an age in media that a single voice can have as much power and relevance on the Web, that is, as an entire media network.” This insinuates the individual has transcended the traditional power dynamics imposed by the structure of corporate media.
While this may be partly true, we must remember that Ashton Kutcher is a celebrity and celebrities are brands — and to understand this whole ordeal we must define brand. I like Marty Neumeier’s definition of brand, “the customers gut feeling about a product, service or company".
A Celebrity is both a product and a company. Ashton used Twitter as a platform for brand management — as he should — and did so very effectively. Until now corporate media controlled almost all influence of a celebrities brand; Ashton demonstrated that he can take matters of branding into his own hands. This is great but at the same time he may have a disproportionate amount of influence on social media channels similar to the influence differential in corporate media.
As for the charity of donating 10,000 mosquito nets and bringing awareness to the horrors of Malaria — Bravo — I cannot commend him more! It was a beautiful thing to do and a highly effective move for his brand. But that is said and done. Now there are more issues to raise, things to talk about, and inequities to understand.
My premise was that while this event signifies a milestone of relevance for social media it simultaneously signifies the imbalance of power inherent within. With that I conducted an experiment to see how much influence I could exert by attempting to activate my Twitter followers and coordinate the action. I designated Monday April 20th, 2009 as Unfollow Ashton Kutcher Day, wrote a blog post about it, and used social media to get the word out.
Unfollow Ashton Kutcher day was not about Ashton Kutcher — it was an attempt to understand the power imbalances inherent to Social Media. Honestly, I think that if Ashton Kutcher were to read this blog he would agree. That said, I am glad that he did not or at least did not make any mention of it as it would have skewed the results of this experiment
While I did not to reach the goal of reducing Ashton Kutcher's follower numbers back below 1 million, I succeeded in bringing attention to and generating conversations about the issue of power imbalances inherent to social media. Ashton Kutcher had net gain of more than 50,000 followers. The Oprah effect and net momentum that Ashton built dwarfed the amount of media attention that I was able to generate through my 1200 followers.
The more followers a person had, the more they seemed to resist helping with the effort. In fact, it was clear that some folks understood and approved of the action as a test, but were reluctant to be vocal. They had personal brands (images) to manage and did not want to take sides as they were unsure how their followers to react.
When I look at many folks with lots of followers I notice one thing in common, they have distinct personalities, actively engage with their audiences, but rarely tweet about issues that may be controversial. This is unfortunate as taking a position is demonstrative of authenticity. It shows who you are and what you believe in. A lot of folks build huge followings by being benign while others build more targeted group of followers by taking positions and openly communicating them.
So Ashton, you are right about social media — the little guy does have a voice no matter how many followers they may have. And this voice has the potential to engage and influence others to take action. It is just that the voices of a “popular few” have much greater reach.
Imagine what would have occurred if Ashton Kutcher were to take the same steps that I took above to promote an issue… How many blog hits, retweets, diggs, stumbles and ultimate effect would he have. I suspect he would have crushed my achievements and that is illustrative of the power imbalance inherent to social media. A “popular few” have a much greater potential to influence the community at large than the average member of the community.
The fact that I was unable to bring Ashton's following back below 1 million does not mean that an individual with relatively little influence cannot generate a social media groundswell that could have viral impact on a mass scale but rather that this attempt did not succeed in achieving its stated goal. It is much harder to prove something impossible than something is possible.
I must confess here that this was an imperfect experiment but, nonetheless, I believe I succeeded in demonstrating both the amazing democratizing effect of social media and its inherent power imbalances.
I encourage your comments on this blog or tweet me at http://twitter.com/andrewmueller
“Andrew is my go-to guy for all things social.”
David Hoffman, Corporate Communications Innovator
“Andrew is an incredibly keen strategist.”
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