Are Oprah, Ashton Kutcher taking the geek out of Twitter?

Co-founder Biz Stone says Twitter can appeal to many different communities

With Ashton Kutcher racing CNN to be the first to have 1 million Twitter followers, and Twitter Inc. CEO Evan Williams sitting down with the ladies on Oprah today, what's becoming of the Web site that has garnered such techie love?

Is all this mainstream media attention changing Twitter? Are the likes of singer Britney Spears, actor Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey taking the microblogging site in a different -- and arguably frivolous, nontechnology or nonbusiness -- direction?

Some longtime Twitterers may just feel like they're being punk'd.

"The attention that the competition for followers is getting is not a great thing," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. "Anyone thinking of Twitter as something useful in business or in journalism is going to be kind of put off by this."

Twitter became a scene for a junior high school-style popularity competition this week. Kutcher, host of MTV's Punk'd television show, was in a head-to-head battle for followers with media giant CNN. With the media tracking the Kutcher/CNN competition like it was a retelling of the Obama/McCain presidential race, each was trying to be the first to capture 1 million Twitter followers. Kutcher edged out the news channel to be the first to hit the Twitter milestone.

Today, Kutcher will also make an appearance on the television show of Winfrey, who joined the Twitterverse and made her first Tweets today, including a request for a Reuben sandwich and an update on her dog's rabies vaccine. With only six Tweets under her belt, Oprah already has more than 106,000 followers.

It's not as if Twitter just made a headlong dive into the mainstream media this week. Actually, analysts at market research firm comScore Inc. said just yesterday that a good part of Twitter's recent traffic boom can be traced back to everyone from the hosts of The View program and disk jockeys to sitcoms talking about the Web site.

"It seems you can't get through a typical newscast anymore without some mention of Twitter," said Andrew Lipsman, a comScore analyst, in a blog post this week. "It just goes to show you how much social media, and specifically a site like Twitter, has become woven into the fabric of our daily media lives."

And with that kind of widespread attention, Twitter had a 131% increase in U.S. visitors just from February to March of this year, according to comScore. And last week, the same analysts reported that Twitter traffic jumped 700% in February compared with the same month last year.

And all this celebrity attention can only be heating up the ire of some of the original hardcore Twitterers.

"It's thought of as having serious uses," said Gottheil. "This popularity contest ... shows the real junior high school aspect of Twitter. It's the wisecrack over the insight. They're highlighting the potential downside, which is valuing flash over insight. I would think that someone who sees Twitter as a potentially serious tool will be bothered by the popularity stuff."

In a recent interview, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said it's natural for people to be protective of the serious Twitter community, but he predicted that the site will grow and expand wherever its users take it.

"People talk about the Twitter community, but I think there are a lot of Twitter communities," he said, adding that there are features they could add to the site that might help ease the growing pains. "As it grows, it breaks up into many, many sub-communities. In general, I trust folks to work things out on their own."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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