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April 19, 2009 / Amy Bradney-George

Follow the Leader

The competition between Ashton Kutcher and CNN to see who could reach 1 million followers on Twitter raises some interesting questions about social media. What stands out to me is what it says about the people using and engaging with different forms of social media online.

As a celebrity, Kutcher is actively engaging with a community of fans and others interested in his work, allowing him to give updates without the spin a media source might have on what he’s up to. On Twitter, he can speak for himself and clear up any misunderstandings without worrying so much about how it will be perceived by others.

It’s clear that taking a ‘celebrity’ like of the biggest critiques of the race to 1 million is that it comes off as egotistical at first glance, especially where Kutcher is concerned, as this analysis from Nieman Journalism Lab notes. But underneath the “let’s see if I can beat a well-known news network on Twitter” assumption is a means of raising money for malaria relief efforts and, at last update, it’s “close to $1 million”.

But more curious than how it works for Kutcher is why CNN engaged in this race. What was their purpose in trying to get to 1 million followers before him? Perhaps it was reflective of a struggle between “old media” and new, as Daniel Terdiman’s article on cnet news suggests. But does it really give any indication that television or film will give way to the web? While this is a new perspective on the situation, I’m not so convinced it represents the old vs. new media discourse. 

One angle barely touched on is what CNN’s participation implies from a journalistic perspective. Here is a news network prolific in reputation and close to omniscient in presence, effectively going up against a well-known celebrity. What would be the purpose of CNN getting to 1 million followers before Kutcher? What would they gain from that? How is it, in any sense, a journalistic act?

A news network that is perceived as competing with an individual, regardless of whether it was intended to be competition, highlights a change in the role of media organisations. Journalism is supposed to be a way of watching over the estates, a voice for the people, a way of transmitting information of public interest. Over time it seems as though changes in society have affected what is considered of “public interest” and how the journalism industry works.

Ratings, and sponsorship and various other factors now play a part in the media landscape which has, in turn, affected what news networks cover, how they cover it and how the public perceive it. There is a reason so many news websites now offer ‘comments’ and ‘opinion’ sections, and why they do so well. People want to express their opinions, but often they also want to criticise what a journalist has reported (or correct spelling and grammar, as the case may be). This relationship between journalism and the public hints at a mass cynicism towards the industry that was once partly a voice for the people.

The final question here is whether news networks actually consider every thing they do, whether they think about what will be in the public’s interest. Among other things, Twitter has given journalistic organisations like CNN an opportunity to hear from the people and improve based on that feedback. But are they actually considering their role as journalists when they seem to be playing in a popularity contest?

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