How to decide which celebrities are worth following on Twitter.

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April 22 2009 12:54 PM

Tweet Styles of the Rich and Famous

How to decide which celebrities are worth following on Twitter.

Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Click image to expand.
Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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?"

Other celebrities use Twitter as a form of crowd-sourcing concierge. Ludacris does some Kinsey-style data gathering ("who likes sex more in the day[time]?"). Sweet-toothed Shaquille O'Neal cries out for enablers: "Can I plaese [sic] cheat on my diet and go to dairy. Queen pls pls pls." P. Diddy polls on reincarnation ("Ptwitty question of the day!!!!! if you had to be born again as an animal what animal would you wanna be? And why??"). These calls for response can ring a bit hollow—does P. Diddy really have an active interest in his fans' spirit animals? The exception is Shaq, whose diligent upkeep of his Twitter fan correspondence—a trait he shares with Ashton and Demi, the Hardest-Working Tweeters in Show Business—is convincingly affectionate.

Type 4: The Motivational Speech

Because the limited character count is suited to the kinds of aphorisms and affirmations that would otherwise find immortality on an embroidered pillow, Twitter can awaken the celebrity's inner life coach. P. Diddy is forever encouraging his readers to "LOCK IN!!" (his variation on "Just Do It"). Demi Moore leads both by motto ("important to always go forward learn from the past seize the positive opportunity in it and create what you want now!") and by example: She is so unrelentingly nice even to her rudest detractor that her feed gives cheery passive-aggression a good name. John Mayer often seems to be floating ideas for his own line of inspirational posters, as when he announced, "I just had a beer with the unknown, and it's actually really cool if you shut up and listen to what it has to say." Or: "1. Take the fear. 2. Ask it why it would be so terrible if it were true. 3. Ask it 'and THEN what?' Chances are your fear has no answer." And yet Mr. Mayer claims that he doesn't smoke pot.

On evidence, becoming one of the great famous tweeters may depend somewhat on breaking free of this classification system—to avoid stereotyping yourself as a Motivator or a Name-Dropper or a Plane-Taker. The celebrity who most indelibly achieved this feat was, as it turns out, not a celebrity at all: The faux Christopher Walken account offered not just the irresistible novelty of the high-haired, glassy-eyed cowbell enthusiast on Twitter; each tweet seemed to capture the Ding an sich of Walken-ness as pristine haikus of everyday epiphany. ("I was filling the bird feeders as a squirrel watched & waited patiently. The sense of entitlement in my backyard is of my own doing.")

For readers who prefer their celebrity Twitter feeds as fiction experiments, cult-figure-of-sorts Brent Spiner (Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation) maintains an ongoing ruse—or so one assumes—in which he checks into and out of the "Betty White Clinic" as a publicity move; this conceit then becomes a fantasy-within-a-fantasy in which the clinic is actually an institution. Most recently, Spiner (or, rather, his Twitter persona) has fallen into a cryptic, vaguely sinister relationship with his bitchily mysterious next-door neighbor, Amber. Spiner has a knack for detail (and name-dropping—he spots James Woods in the Betty White rec room, and they later watch Girl, Interrupted together), and his tweets can at times evoke a stirringly Walken-esque flavor of serene non sequitur.

Other famous tweeters do work largely within the confines of the taxonomy yet manage to make it new. Though David Lynch is not immune to thinking that "Leaving for the airport soon" is a viable tweet, unlike most of his fellow luminaries, he understands that Twitter posts can also be weird and fun and tone-poemlike. Alongside semiregular weather reports and the odd piece of video memorabilia, the filmmaker and meditation educator will post a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita or an occasional mind-priming "Thought of the day," such as "You can't fight city hall" or "Ancient pond. Frog jumps in. Splash!" (Lynch's "Thoughts of the day" gain more transcendental power when you imagine him delivering them as the hearing-impaired FBI agent he played on Twin Peaks.)

Likewise, Russell Brand is technically easy to Twitter-type—except he flips those types on their heads, strips them naked, and dresses them up in boas and bondage gear. This is, for example, how he name-drops: "@jimmyfallon Now that I've found you I shall follow you. Everywhere—it's going to be like 'Don't Look Now' but the dwarf has an erection." This is how he signs a Twitter autograph: "@Rebeccasaurus You are like scuba diving in pink honey." This is how he has a beer with the unknown: "If we detach ourselves from the material we will become enlightened and live in perpetual, blissful, endless orgasm—but imagine the mess." And this is how he tweets his bedtime: "I'm off to gargle with oestrogen till I become a gorgeous treble-gendered-cyborg—then we'll see who ought run the country. NIGHT."

Whether he's pondering his "deeply authoritative" cat, Morrissey (whose affections Brand compares to those of "a lap dancer with a meth habit"), or cutting a deal with fellow Tweeters ("Those of you I don't follow on Twitter I shall follow in life, breathing on your windows and photographing your stools"), Brand has a firm, sticky grasp of Twitter as more than a promotional tool, public journal, or not-quite-interface with the masses; he knows that it's a performance—a creative opportunity—unto itself. Or to put it another way: Like his fellow celebrities, Brand tweets his current projects, his fan love, his famous friends, his words of inspiration, and the fact that he's going to bed. But—and here's the winning distinction—he's the only one who does so while summoning the mental image of Noam Chomsky in a flesh-colored bikini.