Late last week, Twitter reached a fame-driven tipping point when Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to 1 million followers and Oprah Winfrey garnered 40,000 of her own in the time between signing up for the microblogging service and making her first-ever Tweet. (Full disclosure: I am an editor at O, The Oprah Magazine.) Twitter is now officially a quasi-public celebrity hub, like the Ivy or Kitson or Los Cabos, Mexico, or anywhere Us Weekly keeps an investigative bureau—a place where civilian rubberneckers might happen upon a nasty breakup or snag the Twitter version of a personalized autograph. More likely, though, the plebes will eavesdrop on the equivalent of small talk, Twitter-style: quotidian blurts familiar from the feeds of the unrich and unfamous, powered by real-time reportage on food intake and flight arrivals and noteworthy naps.
As is often the case offline, commercial success—as measured in number of followers—is not necessarily an index of artistic merit. (Miley Cyrus! Your 300,000-plus apostles deserve better than this! Or this!) In fact, virtually every boldface name on the site sometimes falls into standard types of Twitter traps (four are outlined below). Some celebrities take that plunge more gracefully than others, as we shall see, and a select few have managed to transcend Twitter's perils and come close to mastering the tricky 140-character format.
Type 1: The Name Drop
The basic template is self-explanatory: Lance Armstrong thanks Takashi Murakami for the flowers he sent. John Lithgow transcribes his calendar ("90 minutes with Bill Moyers [my neighbor!] for his show, then Denzel and Pauletta"). Paula Abdul establishes her bona fides for seeing 17 Again ("Zack [sic] Efron is a friend of mine so I def want to check it out").
More entertaining, though, are the tweets that cast one celebrity as the supplicant to another. Jane Fonda sounds like a schoolgirl invited to eat at the cool table when she tweets, "So excited!! Jeff Daniels asked me to join him, Dianne Wiest and other friends of his for dinner after our plays." Courtney Love also name-drops—far less endearingly—as a means to affirm her shaky position in the celebrity firmament, though it's hard to determine how much of her libel-scented tattling and us-versus-them solidarity (she has "nonsense lawsuits" in common with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and larcenous maids in common with Sharon Stone) is based in reality as most of us recognize it.
Type 2: The Very Literal Status Update
Vanessa Hudgens is awake. Lance Armstrong is working out. Lindsay Lohan is a bit scattered ("my phone is missing…in my house. not okay"). Nicole Richie wants a burrito. Not that there isn't a certain frisson that comes with knowing that Nicole Richie wants a burrito, akin to the helpless thrill of poring over "Stars: They're Just Like Us!" in line at the supermarket. But once Nicole Richie tells you for a third time that she wants a burrito, you may begin to wonder why she's telling you this, and why you're reading it, and why you're thinking about why you're reading it, and how—of history's every artifact of written communication currently awaiting your eyes and mind—you chose to alight upon Nicole Richie's Twitter feed, and suddenly you realize that Nicole Richie has opened a Pandora's burrito of existential crisis within you.
Type 3: The Big Question
The Twitter status box is always empty, always hungry, and the blinking cursor lulls many celebrities into the free-associative mode familiar from the collected works of Andy Rooney. "Who decided that pink slips would be pink?" Ashton Kutcher asked recently. "Why not orange slips or blue slips?" When a theatergoer is overheard saying that he "knows" Jane Fonda on Twitter, the actress stops short at a crossroads of semantics and epistemology to ask, "That's kinda great except—what has 'know' come to mean?"