It’s easy to forget that nobody really cared about Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher a few years ago. The intrinsic tabloid appeal of their May/December coupling faded away soon after their 2005 wedding. They weren’t movie stars, really. Kutcher’s only noteworthy leading man role came in the forgettably successful rom-com What Happens in Vegas; he was mostly working behind the scenes, as a producer of Beauty and the Geek and as the grinning face at the end of every Punk’d sketch. Moore hadn’t seemed particularly interested in acting since the ’90s (with the noteworthy exception of her non-comeback role in the Charlie’s Angels sequel). More importantly, they just weren’t that interesting. They seemed like a normal couple, a pair of functional adults in a happy relationship, with Bruce Willis reinvented as a kind of charming godfather uncle. You could imagine them inhabiting a quiet domestic existence in the outer reaches of showbiz, happy together forever, living off sitcom royalties and perfume ads and camera commercials and cameo roles and all the other ways that formerly successful people keep making a living in Hollywood.
Then they joined Twitter.
And here you have to remember that – as with so many great and terrible inventions throughout human history – Twitter was not supposed to be what it has become. As noted in a recent issue of New York Magazine, the microblogging website was originally intended to be a kind of group-texting experiment: “An adrenalized Facebook, with friends communicating with friends in short bursts.” In the site’s early days, you followed people you actually knew, and you read their tweets about eating lunch and going to the gym. The simplicity was appealing, especially since Facebook was quickly transforming into a vomit-orgy of ad-sponsored info-cartoons. But Twitter’s purpose was unclear. Hipsters joined and tweeted about how cool it was to be on Twitter. Politicians joined and crystallized their generic policy positions into much shorter generic policy positions. There was a strong “So what?” quality, a sense that it was a fun service with even less actual society utility than most social networking sites. In March 2009, burgeoning net sage Roger Ebert wrote a beautifully extended anti-Twitter rant, concluding definitively, “I will never be a Twit.”
Now, Ashton Kutcher wasn’t the first celebrity on Twitter. (I don’t know who it was, though I’ve always enjoyed the urban legend that it was Wil “Wesley Crusher” Wheaton.) And in early 2009, Kutcher – then best known as a grinning Nikon spokesperson – was no one’s idea of a superstar. And to anyone paying attention at the time, his first tweet seemed simple to the point of abstraction, which is another way of saying it seems utterly pointless. “Dropping my first tweet,” he tells us, in a moment forever timestamped to Jan. 16, 2009. Considering what came later, though, I would argue that a tweet-about-a-tweet is nothing sort of genius. He’s not using Twitter to tweet about his life; he’s using Twitter to tweet about tweeting his life. He’s letting you in on the machinery. (Note how he uses the term “dropping,” which is one of those words that white people can only say with implicit quote marks.) You can already see the canny self-awareness that would mark the entire second act of Kutcher’s career – the same stealth genius behind Punk’d that figured that Candid Camera would be more interesting with celebrities.
The missus joined 11 days later. Moore’s first tweet is less savvy, slightly bemused, but nevertheless excited: “Trying to figure this Twitter deal out!” (Reading between the lines, you can picture 11 strange days in the Moore-Kutcher marriage: Kutcher giggling into his laptop, Moore peeking anxiously over his shoulder trying to figure out why he’s so addicted to a website that looks like a sky-blue chat-room.)
It’s unclear when, precisely, Kutcher figured out that Twitter could essentially become his new business model. He had only been on the site a few months before he challenged CNN to a Great Race: Who could reach 1 million followers first? Kutcher won. For a time, he was the most-followed person on Twitter. He has since been surpassed, but it’s important to note that the nine people who currently have more followers than him all had some reason to be followed. Lady Gaga was a musical phenomenon; Justin Bieber owns your children; Kim Kardashian has a reality show; Barack Obama is the freaking President of the United States. Kutcher just had Twitter.