Celebrity Twitterdom

Is it me, or has there been a sudden influx of celebrities to Twitter in the past week or so?

It’s often hard to tell whether someone’s ‘new’ to Twitter or whether it’s simply that a chance connection with one of the people you’re following has put them on your radar for the first time. The beauty of Twitter in many ways is the random connectivity, how one follow can lead to another and to another – it’s like a practical application of ‘six degrees of separation’ at times.

But in the last few days I do seem to have stumbled across – and started to follow – a number of fairly big name celebrities. And I’m not sure how I feel about it!

I’m not talking about cyber-celebs – people like the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, for example, or author and blogger Scott Rosenberg, or online community pioneer Howard Rheingold. I’m talking about real, honest-to-God, you’ll-know-them-from-the-real-world type people, like Red Dwarf and Scrapyard Challenge star Robert Llewellyn.

Obviously Stephen Fry recently caused a huge stir by jumping into the Twitterverse. But there was something inevitable and so right about his arriving on Twitter that the only surprise was that he hadn’t been there all the time. He’s such a technology freak and all-round good-geek that he fitted in right away and is a total natural. Have you ever come up with a list of ideal dinner party guests? Did it include Mr Fry? Mine did: and his arrival on Twitter confirms that he’s as perfect a guest as you imagined when putting together that dinner party list.

If Stephen Fry has an American counterpart, it’s probably actor Wil Wheaton – best known for his roles in Stand By Me and as a series regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s a good few years younger than Mr Fry, and speaks in a fluent dialect of California tech/surfer-dude, but again he’s one of those people so right for the world of blogs and Twitter that there is no question of either him or Stephen Fry being there for anything other than the fact that they like it – just like the rest of us. Thanks to following his Twitter feed I came across a wonderful series of posts he did about the whole process of auditioning for and filming a guest spot on Criminal Minds, one of my favourite TV shows. The posts give a fascinating insight into a world that most of us only ever glimpse through tabloid stories.

In politics, Barack Obama is famous for his use of all digital channels during his run for the Democratic nomination, and with 140,000 followers he’s probably the biggest name on Twitter – even though, alas, the updates abruptly stop on November 5th as the result was announced. Twitter might be fine for political candidates, but it seems not to be quite the thing for President-Elects.

Probably the earliest ‘celebrity’ that I followed was Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson. Okay, he’s probably not a household name for most people, but he’s much-mentioned where I work as he holds the portfolio for Transformational Government. His Twitter feed (and blog entries) have been wonderful in getting to know something about the person behind the job title. As far as I’m concerned, all Government ministers (if not all MPs) should blog (or micro-blog on Twitter) as it’s a way of opening up, explaining to and engaging with the electorate they are there to represent, instead of shutting themselves away in Westminster and communicating through Parliamentary speeches, TV interviews and press release.

Mr Watson last week encouraged his blog readers and Twitter followers to compile a list of fifty people who should Tweet but currently don’t, and that he would then write to them personally to see if he could persuade them to join up. Number five on that list was the veteran left-wing politician Tony Benn – and, by coincidence, Mr Benn duly showed up on Twitter. He hasn’t quite matched Stephen Fry in take-up, but he’s picked up an impressive 680 followers within 24 hours.

I felt oddly reticent to hit the ‘follow’ button, simply because I was aware that I was jumping on the “oh, it’s a celebrity, let’s follow him”. And it turned into an evening of such celebrity following, as I also found Heroes actors Greg Grunberg and David H Lawrence – and also British businessman and tycoon Richard Branson. I suddenly started to fear that I was becoming a bit of a Twitter-chav, using Twitter as my own personal online copy of Heat magazine. I felt … Cheap!

At least it’s not as though I’m charging in and asking lots of fanboy questions. I did post an early reply to Mr Benn (and British people of a certain age will know why it’s difficult for me to type ‘Mr Benn’ without thinking of shopkeepers appearing – sorry), but that was really just to make a reassurance that it would settle down after a while and just to stick with it and not get frightened off by the sudden frenzy of attention. That, yes, I was adding to with my own reply …

Not that Mr Benn seemed to need much reassurance, he was handling his debut evening on Twitter extremely well. Like a natural, especially since he’s not exactly known for being especially technologically aware in the way that, say, Stephen Fry is. In fact … is he a little too adept at all this new-fangled Twitter stuff? And is his appearance on twitter so soon after being suggested on Tom Watson’s List of 50 also just a little suspiciously coincidental?

In other words: is this the real Tony Benn, or is this an impostor? How can you tell one way or another?

The jury is still out on Mr Benn (although if it is a fake then whoever it is is doing a very good, realistic job of it.) There’s no way really of proving it. Whereas with Stephen Fry there was no question: linking back to the official and very well known website, there was the Twitter feed right there on the home page. Case closed.

Similarly, no problem with Wil Wheaton. As for Gregg Grunberg, a quick set shot and some vaguely indiscreet comments about what’s coming up on the Heroes TV show pretty much sorted out any reservations there. But as for Richard Branson – maybe I should ask him searching questions about my cable service to validate his bona fides? In the celebrity Twitterverse, proof of identity is as difficult to prove as … Well, as proof of identity is in the real world.

The surprising thing is that celebrities are being quite as open and visible using Twitter. You’d think they’d want a quiet life online and not having to ward off geeks and fanboys or political cranks and wonks every five minutes, and would adopt a pseudonym or a non-obvious username, so it’s interesting to see so many of them coming out and being quite open about who they are. And it’s great for fans to have access to them in this way.

But should we be worried about the ‘celebrity-isation’ of Twitter? Does it take something away from the rest of us if it suddenly becomes a medium about famous stars and politicians?

I wouldn’t think so. Twitter is so large that you could cheerfully hang out with your own circle of friends without ever coming into contact with any type of ‘celebrity’, so it’s hard to imagine Twitter being spoiled by this. It’s just another strand of community being woven into fabric of the very oddly complex Twitterverse. Twitter remains, as ever, what you make of it: it’s just that this week, I’ve been making my own corner of it a little more celebrity star-studded.

UPDATE: And it turns out that the Tony Benn Twitter user is definitely not genuine. As the article above shows, I was rather suspicious about @tonybenn so I’m not really surprised – but at the same time, it was a good impersonation that managed to avoid most of the usual ‘alarm bells’. On the plus side, now that Tom Watson MP has discussed Twitter with him, maybe Tony Benn will be tempted to try it out for real …


  1. Seb Crump

    Just FYI you can tell how long they’ve been tweeting and all sorts of other lovely stats and data about any account (including how many ‘twooshes’ – 140 char tweets) at the rather excellent tweetstats.com

  2. sharp2799

    It still annoys me that @hughlaurie is being written by someone writing as him–this seems like such an insidious form of identity theft. If a person did not follow back to the writer’s home page, they would never know it’s part of a RPG.

  3. andrewlewin

    That’s been going on for ages, though, with forum users taking user names of their favourite characters/celebrities. This isn’t much different.

    I never believe anyone is who they purport to be – unless and until there’s supporting evidence. With Stephen Fry, the Twitter feed was echoed on the official site so it was instant verification, whereas nothing about the Hugh Laurie account makes me think that’s anything other than a wannabe.

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