The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Twitter lost the celebs

Elon Musk was right that Twitter’s most popular accounts have gone quieter over the years. Hollywood insiders explain what happened — and why Musk’s ownership might only make it worse.

(Getty Images/Reuters/Washington Post illustration)
11 min

In April 2009, Ashton Kutcher publicly challenged CNN to a race to be the first to reach 1 million followers on the buzzy, three-year-old social network Twitter. Kutcher tweeted that if he won the race he would “ding dong ditch” CNN founder Ted Turner’s house.

Kutcher won. As he live-streamed himself popping champagne (“I found it astonishing that one person can actually have as big of a voice online as what an entire media company can on Twitter,” Kutcher said), famous people began rushing to join Twitter. The app’s infrastructure buckled under the traffic.

Thirteen years later, Twitter is firmly established as a global hub for news, politics and culture. Its most popular accounts — from former president Barack Obama to pop star Lady Gaga to soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo — boast more than 75 million followers. Yet many celebrities have downgraded their accounts to thin promotional tools or stopped using them entirely, leaving a kind of celebrity graveyard.

Last month, prospective Twitter owner Elon Musk pointed that out. “Is Twitter dying?” he mused (on Twitter), noting that some of the site’s top users no longer seemed very active.

Twitter isn’t dying: It’s used by some 229 million people each day, up from 217 million three months ago. Yet Musk’s observation about its most popular users was not wrong.

Data from Social Blade, a social media analytics site, shows that the 10 most-followed Twitter accounts, not counting Musk himself, sent roughly 35 percent fewer tweets in the first four months of 2022 than in the same period four years earlier. Musk and Obama were the only two who sent more in 2022.

But Musk will have a hard time reversing that trend.

Interviews with 17 people who represent, consult and tweet for celebrities show that Twitter is viewed as a high-risk, low-reward platform for many A-list entertainers. It’s a place where the discourse has become so politicized that many prefer not to engage personally at all, delegating tweeting duties to underlings or outside agents who post anodyne promotional messages. They have also been turned off by harassment or abuse.

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Instead, they’ve turned to platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, which offer slicker video tools and more-robust safety features that give users more ways of blocking out unwanted interactions.

Twitter declined to comment but pointed to examples of celebrities who remain highly active on the platform. For instance, the actress Zendaya, who has nearly 21 million followers, tweets during each episode of the TV show “Euphoria,” and rapper Kendrick Lamar, with almost 12 million followers, announced his new album via tweet.

Now Musk, who is buying Twitter for about $44 billion, is poised to restore former president Donald Trump’s account and has pledged to loosen the site’s restrictions on speech, assuming the deal goes through. (Whether Trump returns is another question.) At the same time, Musk hopes to triple the site’s active user base and persuade many to pay for a service that historically has been free to use, according to a presentation to investors that the New York Times obtained.

It’s not clear whether those goals are compatible. If anything, the history of “celeb Twitter” suggests that Musk’s laissez-faire speech policies could scare away more of the site’s most popular figures. He has talked about Twitter as a “de facto public town square,” but it’s hard to imagine that without the participation of many of its biggest names.

When Kutcher won the race, online observers and journalists proclaimed it a watershed moment that marked the “changing of the guard: old media to new media.” (Kutcher now has 17 million followers.) Stars like Ellen DeGeneres, Paris Hilton and Nicki Minaj saw their follower counts balloon. Charlie Sheen’s fame reached new heights after leveraging the platform at the height of his “Tiger Blood” moment.

This changed the site, and the culture. As the platform was taking off during the Obama years, Twitter became filled with top celebrities sharing commentary, observations, bits of their personal lives and other gems that helped dismantle the barricades behind the red carpet. It was part of a general belief that a little revelation could attract a lot of attention — or just become an outlet for creators who couldn’t wait for their next release to express themselves.

In 2012, for example, performer Rebel Wilson regularly offered endearing tidbits on Twitter like “I’m thinking of opening up a dessert only restaurant and calling it ‘The Gym,’ ” helping her movie “Pitch Perfect” become a social media and then broader cultural phenomenon. A decade later, the Australian comedian has nearly 3 million followers. But when they open her feed these days, they mostly see sanitized plugs for her next media appearance.

The pinnacle of celeb Twitter may have come in 2014, when Academy Awards host DeGeneres strode into the crowd to snap a selfie with Meryl Streep, a stunt that Twitter’s TV partnerships team had orchestrated. Then, impromptu, Bradley Cooper snatched the camera and a slew of other A-listers photobombed the shot. The resulting tweet by DeGeneres literally broke Twitter on its way to shattering retweet records.

But in the mid-2010s, two big things changed. The rise of Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, gave celebrities a way to engage fans visually without inviting the verbal jousting that Twitter was becoming known for. And in the United States, the 2016 election further polarized Twitter as Trump-related news began to crowd out other trending topics.

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Embracing the shift, Twitter began billing itself as a news app and changed its category in app stores from social networking, where it had been listed alongside rivals such as Facebook and Instagram, to news. But entertainers balked at hurling themselves into online discourse and the news cycle.

“Once Trump came into office, politics became such a huge thing,” said music executive Freddie Morris, former VP of digital at Career Artist Management, who ran celebrities’ social strategies on Twitter. Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine “went from Twitter to Instagram, like a lot of artists, and never came back.” While Levine still has a Twitter account, posts are primarily from his team and he’s not nearly as active or candid as before. He has nearly twice as many followers on Instagram as on Twitter.

Some personalities got in hot water for political tweets, according to the social media consultants who spoke to The Washington Post. Others were told by managers to tone it down or lose even more of a fragmented audience. Many celebrities decided to play it safe and outsource their tweets to professional brand managers.

One by one, boldface names either quit Twitter, like singers Lizzo and Ariana Grande, or scaled back their presence to forgettable promotional activity. Personalities such as John Mayer, Aubrey Plaza, Kumail Nanjiani and many others are no longer always the colorfully candid tweeters they once were. Though some have trickled back as the site began instituting more controls, the unfiltered-celebrity quotient has notably diminished.

“I would love to be on Twitter 'cause I could connect with you people who positively support me,” Lizzo said upon quitting in January 2020. “But now I’ve gotten to a point where I’m not just dealing with Internet bullies.” (Her Instagram account has 12 million followers.)

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Many of the outspoken people who remained became quasi-professional provocateurs, like the ’80′s pop star Richard Marx and the novelist and screenwriter Don Winslow, who have turned needling the right into a kind of personal brand.

There are certainly exceptions. The SNL comedian Leslie Jones and actress Anna Kendrick, for example, regularly offer wry personal observations. But the site is, by and large, not a place one goes to anymore for colorful windows into Hollywood lives.

To kick-start the kind of growth Musk envisions for Twitter, bringing the celebrities back would certainly help. But it wouldn’t be easy. By now, Twitter is seen as problematic enough that some Hollywood gatekeepers actively discourage clients from using the platform.

“First I ask them why they want to be on Twitter — ‘Do you really think you can positively engage with fans, or is it an ego stroke?’ ” said a publicist for several of Hollywood’s biggest actors and filmmakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to jeopardize industry relationships. In most cases, the publicist advises them it’s not worth the risk: “ ‘There are so many ways to get canceled now. Do you really want to give the world another way?’ ”

Jamin Jamming, a celebrity social media manager for several reality show stars, said that unless you're a political commentator or someone in the news business, being on Twitter can make you seem less aspirational, not more.

“A lot of the appeal of some celebrities is how they look,” Jamming said. “Their makeup doesn’t translate, how fashionable they are doesn’t translate, the clothes, the shoes, it doesn’t translate to Twitter.”

“To succeed on Twitter,” added Wynter Mitchell-Rohrbaugh, a celebrity digital strategist, “you have to be clever, have to have something to say, and you have to be in the zeitgeist. It’s hard for celebs to meet people there.”

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And Twitter’s relatively open forum, compared with more tightly controlled competitors, forces an encounter with the wider world. “They like being in their bubble, and Twitter is too much of a peek outside of that bubble,” Mitchell-Rohrbaugh said.

Against the downsides of engaging on Twitter, the benefits can look a bit meager, especially compared with other big platforms.

“If you look at what internal levers Twitter can pull if you're a celebrity promoting your latest film, there's not really a ton of smart product integrations outside of reminding people to buy tickets,” said Kai Gayoso, partner and co-head of digital at talent-management company Range Media.

And Kendall Ostrow, a veteran celebrity social media consultant, said Twitter is hard for celebrities to monetize. “The Kardashians aren’t getting paid a million dollars for a sponsored tweet,” she said. “Twitter might be able to make you culturally relevant, but Instagram, YouTube and TikTok get you paid.”

Many celebrity social media managers said that the platform’s failure to address harassment and abuse was a leading cause of their Twitter abandonment. While Instagram and TikTok offer robust comment filters, Twitter offered far fewer safety controls, until a recent push that made “healthy conversations” part of the company’s mission.

Twitter’s top lawyer long weighed safety and free speech. Then Elon Musk called her out.

Musk’s tweets, in which he has equated the site’s content moderation efforts with left-wing bias, indicate that he may reverse that progress.

“Twitter has become a breeding ground for trolls,” said Dolly Meckler, a social media consultant who runs an A-list celebrity’s account. “People can talk back in a way they can’t on other platforms. Celebrities that I’ve spoken to have said that it doesn’t feel like a friendly place.”

If Musk takes over, “Twitter is the last place I’d tell a celebrity to invest in, even more than before,” said Liz Stahl, who as president of the Los Angeles-based boutique social agency In Haus has worked on campaigns for Grande and Jay-Z. “Everything with Elon Musk is going to be complicated — even more given the kind of people who are going to be activated and excited to be on there.”

After Musk tweeted about celebrity inactivity in April, one user replied: “The cost of ‘tweeting your thoughts’ on twitter is too high for celebs. Concerns of getting canceled turn them into passive users.” Celebrity comedian Kathy Griffin added: “Can confirm.

Even bona fide Twitter stars such as DeGeneres and Chrissy Teigen have felt the sting of backlashes to their tweets.

Still, some in Hollywood push back on the idea that Twitter is a dead end for celebrities.

“If I was casting a movie and an actor had an outspoken Twitter presence it would only enhance their appeal,” said Michael Shamberg, the veteran Hollywood producer behind such films as “Gattaca,” “The Big Chill” and “Contagion,” who has been an advocate for Hollywood institutions to use social media more boldly. “It means they have something that can truly connect them to an audience.” He said that in most cases this would outweigh fears of a backlash.

Even so, most celebrities find the time and effort required to succeed on the platform in its current form isn't worth it.

“Twitter is becoming what Facebook is,” said Morris, the celebrity social media strategist. “Which is: ‘I’m going to have my team do it.’ ”