From left to right: social strategist Julia Roy (31,000 followers), publicist Sarah Evans (33,000 followers), travel journalist Stefanie Michaels (1.4 million followers), actress Felicia Day (1.6 million followers), lifecaster Sarah Austin (24,000 followers), and marketer Amy Jo Martin (1.2 million followers). Photograph by Michael Halsband.
By endlessly typing 140-character messages, Stefanie Michaels, Amy Jo Martin, Felicia Day, and others have gained millions of Twitter followers. It’s a new kind of fame–twilebrity–with its own rules, risks, and pecking order.
By Vanessa Grigoriadis
Whether you consider Twitter a worldwide experiment in extreme narcissism or a nifty tool for real-time reporting—a plane ditches in the Hudson, millions take to the streets in Tehran—it may not yet have dawned on your text-saturated brain that it’s also a path to becoming famous. Not real fame, mind you, or even Internet-celebrity fame, but a special, new category of fame: twilebrity.
Twilebrities are people—“tweeple,” in twitspeak—who spend their days typing 140-character messages into a digital rumpus room of about 55 million monthly users. A lot of them are already celebrities: Ashton Kutcher, Ellen DeGeneres, and John Mayer rank in the Top 10 Twitterers of all time, with millions of tweeps following their every tweet. Britney Spears is up there, too—slightly ahead of Barack Obama—though, given that 140 characters net out to almost 15 words, her tweets are most likely the handiwork of a proxy, a luxury known in the business as “ghost-tweeting.” (In fact, Obama, a poignant tweeter—after hearing he’d won the Nobel Prize, he wrote one word, “humbled”—is guilty of this, too. He recently admitted he’d never personally sent a tweet.)
For tweeple, e-mail messages are sonnets, Facebook is practically Tolstoy. “Facebook is just way too slow,” says Stefanie Michaels, a twilebrity from Brentwood, California. “I can’t deal with that kind of deep engagement.” It’s a strikingly swift mode of communication, though not as quick as the much-hyped Google Wave (a program so demonically fast that it broadcasts each letter as you type it). Twitter doesn’t even require real sentences, only a continual patter of excessively declarative and abbreviated palaver. “Sometimes,” says Julia Roy, a 26-year-old New York social strategist turned twilebrity, scrunching her face, “when you’re Twittering all the time, you even start to think in 140 characters.”
Twittering all the time—the act of text-messaging the world (why wouldn’t you talk to everyone, if you could?)—is the essential feat of a twilebrity. And because Twitter uses simple technology, it’s a utilitarian vehicle for ambitious extroverts, without any previous distinction, to become digital superstars. In order to stay in touch with, and keep intact, their legions of “followers”—that’s twitspeak for the number of people who have signed up to read one’s tweets—these civilian twilebrities must, you know, tweet a lot. Each day, these women speed easily across the Twitformation Superhighway on their iPhones and laptops, leaving droppings in their wake: “getting highlights before class,” “I hrd u had fun!,” “Wah, missing my twittr time!” They use a lot of “hashtags,” which is a way of identifying posts on a certain topic—like Twilight or Tiger’s mistresses—and often participate in chain-letter-style tweets, adding their haiku to such threads as OMGFacts. (Sample OMGs: “You’ll eat 35,000 cookies in your lifetime”; “banging your head against a wall uses 150 calories per hour.”) And somehow this fascinates millions of readers.
But when it comes to listening, well, that’s where these twilebrities shine. It so happens that they are nice girls—the Internet’s equivalent of a telephone chat line staffed by a bunch of cheerleaders—and it’s all free. Any tweep who wants to talk to them will likely get a reply to his tweets (“u r so funny!”). They may also re-tweet for you (that means referencing one of your droppings on their Twitter feed). They have been known to occasionally tweetdrop (that’s subtly dropping the names of the truly famous into one’s tweets, as in “Ashton LinkLove 4ever”). “Twitter is like going to a giant cocktail party, every day,” says Sarah Evans, 29, a publicist and self-described “Twitterholic.” “Except you don’t ever have to get dressed up!”
According to a study of 1.5 million tweets, released this year by Oxford University Press, the words “cool,” “awesome,” “wow,” and “yay” are among the most common on Twitter—and it’s a safe guess that most twilebrities use them as freely as Laguna High freshmen. Just like high school, Twitter is an enormous popularity contest. Evans has 33,596 followers, a lofty total (slightly more than California lifecaster Sarah Austin) but far lower than, for example, that of the laid-back Amy Jo Martin, 30, a marketing executive with 1.2 million followers, who taught Shaquille O’Neal to tweet (“We just put his big thumbs on his Shaqberry, and he got really into it!”). Elfin redhead Felicia Day, 30, a geek-Webisode actress, has drawn 1.6 million followers for her tweets. “Doors were closed to us before,” says Day. “Now the tools for success have been democratized. It’s just me and whoever wants to talk to me, wherever they are in the world.”
Twitter’s Most Famous
More than 3 million followers
More than 2.5 million
More than 2 million
More than 1.5 million
More than 1 million
Soleil Moon Frye
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
More than 500,000
Fewer than 100,000
The Backstreet Boys
Real-world friends, and even spouses, can be left in the cold. Michaels’s husband, a real-estate appraiser with horn-rims and a crew cut—a “normy”—calls himself “the Twidower.” “My wife found Twitter and dropped me,” he says. “I basically lost my wife.” Then he sighs. “Sometimes, during dinner, it gets to be too much.”
There may be no better example of twilebrity than Michaels, a freelance travel journalist—“I was the most unemployed journalist ever!“—who has gathered more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter, the 98th most in the world, ranking her, at press time, between Serena Williams and Denise Richards. After joining in March 2009, she tweeted “more than all of the founders combined”—that’s what they told her—and earned the status of suggested user, which means every new Twitterer is asked if he or she would like to follow her. Like a lot of twilebrities, Michaels uses her significant influence to push her followers toward those she deems cool enough, and looks down on those who don’t follow the rules. “She doesn’t engage, or RT” (translation: re-tweet), she snipes in an e-mail about a rival twilebrity. “She has one-sided conversations, and that is completely frowned upon in our world. She’s a self-promoter, and that’s not social media.”
It’s worth protecting one’s empire on Twitter; one never knows where the next billion on the Internet is going to be found. But there are indications that what you say on Twitter will soon become more important than who is listening, now that Google has signed a deal to prominently add tweets to its search-engine results. This is the “real-time Web,” where search results are ranked by chronology, making the most recent sources the most relevant. Geeks love this idea, but should we? When we type “Obama” into Google, do we want to see results from random Twitterers telling us, “I dreamed abt Obama at an important function, he gave me a warm hug”? Those of us who still read are hoping this is a jump-the-shark moment—could this be the Internet’s version of reality TV?
Even Twitter has started to put the brakes on the culture of twilebrity by suspending the accounts of those who Twitter too excessively (more than 1,000 tweets per day)—a punishment commonly known as going to Twitter Jail. Plus, like the company itself, which is valued at $1 billion, despite little revenue and zero profit, not one of these women is making a fortune off Twitter. They’re waiting for corporate sponsorships and all sorts of newfangled Web synergies, but the best that marketers have come up with so far are “sponsored tweets” (such as a small payment for hawking McDonald’s Happy Meals) and corny stunts, like novelist Rick Moody’s “microserializing” an original short story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” through continuous bursts of, you guessed it, 140 characters—a three-day task. “There’s no money in Twitter yet, it’s true,” Evans says, “but that’s O.K. The validation of having so many people listen to you is reward enough.”
Vanessa Grigoriadis is a Vanity Fair Contributing Editor.
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