Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Twitter: A history
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 noteworthyleading 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.
More to the point, Twitter had him and his lovely wife. Moore and Kutcher were at the vanguard of the celebrity movement on Twitter: They glammed it up. Bizarrely, they achieved that by deglamourizing themselves. They were incessant tweeters, sending messages back and forth often while sitting in the same room. They turned their marriage into a kind of adorability exhibition; at times, it could feel like an epistolary sitcom. In the context of the times, you could say that they were scooping the tabloids by tapping directly into the public’s voyeuristic instinct. If you want to understand just how completely Twitter has broken down the old wall between celebrities and the public, then it’s helpful to consider that in 1991 Demi Moore could be photographed nude and pregnant on the cover of a major magazine, and Annie Leibovitz could capture her image with such radiance that she seemed to resemble a proto-Christian celestial Madonna. In 2009, her husband posted a TwitPic of her butt.
The other celebrities arrived. Twitter introduced the “verified account,” which was helpful for two reasons: First, because you never had to worry that “therealbritneyspears” was not, in fact, the real Britney Spears; and second, because now we finally had an uncannily precise metric for what, exactly, separated a celebrity from a non-celebrity. (You are no one if you don’t have a verified account.) Later that month, the Iranian protests broke out, and Michael Jackson died, and Twitter experienced its first real Moment. In October, Roger Ebert joined Twitter, loved it, became the site’s best argument for itself. Comedians discovered Twitter and gave it a jolt of must-make-you-laugh kinetic energy: Now, if you were tweeting about going to the gym, you had to be at least a little funny about it.
Through all of this, Kutcher and Moore began to feel a little bit like the First Couple of Twitter. For about a year, you couldn’t read an article about social media without at least one quote from Kutcher. Their streams maintained a nice, down-home quality. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Moore tweeted a photo of the happy couple in bed together. They were, she explained, just lounging around, having fun, watching Breaking Bad. The funny thing is that Moore and Kutcher were never particularly funny on Twitter. The attraction, I think, lay in their intimacy. Most celebrities make Twitter a one-way conversation: “I am celebrity. You are fan. We talk now.” The Moore-Kutcher dynamic was more complex — they let you into their intimacy. You got the feeling that Twitter was just a fun ride for them (Kutcher always referred to Moore as “wifey”) and so why not join in?
Of course, Twitter doesn’t create real intimacy any more than reality shows present actual reality. Somewhere along the way, Twitter’s first couple became uncoupled. You could argue that the magic was already gone earlier this year, when Kutcher successfully leveraged his Internet fame into a new lead role on Two and a Half Men. Kutcher’s character was a fabulated vision of Kutcher himself: Walden Schmidt is an Internet billionaire, where Kutcher just had a lot of Internet money. He quickly turned his role on the show into an embedded advertisement for some of his own companies: It was the same huckster impulse that got him on Twitter in the first place. Meanwhile, Kutcher’s Twitter stream was stumbling: He made an incredibly poorly-timed football tweet on September 11, and after Paterno-gate, he declared he’d hand the stream over to his PR peeps.
Kutcher’s and Moore’s followers never saw any of the things that precipitated their divorce. Moore made the announcement the old-fashioned way: With a carefully-worded press release. Perhaps it’s understandable that she wouldn’t want to do any tweeting just now: After all, her suddenly-inaccurate Twitter handle is @mrskutcher. Kutcher tweeted his farewell. “I will forever cherish the time I spent with Demi,” he said.
Reading that is oddly jarring: It’s hard to remember Kutcher ever calling Moore by her first name before. It’s a sad final note. For almost three curiously fascinating years, Kutcher and Moore talked to each other on Twitter. Now, like every other celebrity, they’re just talking to us.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich