Is Twitter giving stock options to celebrities?

I’ve just watched Dick Costolo, COO at Twitter, at the Real-Time CrunchUp (on Nov 20th 2009). twitter-logo-smallMichael Arrington‘s excellent cross-examination skills and subtle pokes make it a thoroughly enjoyable interview (if not comedic) and in the process reveal some interesting challenges facing the Twitter team. The key one internally is about on-boarding, which makes me wonder: why are they incentivising celebrities and how are they doing it?

Let’s take step back first and break this down.

“On-boarding” is a Twitter management term, which is to convert a new user that signs up onto the service into a persistent and return user. With all the hype by the Ashton Kutcher/CNN race and the subsequent Oprahfication of Twitter, we’ve seen this little startup transform from an early adopter tool into a mass culture icon. The key to the transition, was the sudden onslaught of celebrities using it. And if you closely examine the Twitter documents, it’s clear there is a very strong relationship with celebrities and the management team.

Why do people start using Twitter?
I first used Twitter on April 15th 2007, which was about 4-6 weeks after I started meeting people in the tech industry. And then six weeks later, I gave it another ago and made a remark implying I didn’t get it. I subsequently starting using it because at a meetup in May 2007, Mick Liubinskas and Marty Wells both urged me to get on Twitter as everyone in tech was on it. I essentially forced myself because two people I highly respected in the industry and who held the most status, told me it was crucial for working in tech.

So that’s why I started using it. But what about my sister? She doesn’t get it. Neither does my brother. Both don’t use it. I look at my friends who have signed up and their girlfriends, and the people they follow are all celebrities. They Tweet status updates and don’t really engage in discussions which is where the real value of Twitter is. Facebook’s a much better environment to post your status with friends, which means watching the flow of Tweets is the only reason why non-techies would use it initially.

Twitter magazine
So it’s quite logical to assume the sole reason they are using it is to “stalk” these celebrities. This may be anecdotal evidence, but it surely makes sense: celebrities are key to the growth of Twitter.

Why are celebrities using Twitter?
I can understand it from a broader trend in society where many-to-many communication is how our world is evolving into. I can understand why brands are using it – what started as a defensive PR strategy is now evolving to this broader trend of personal relationships with customers ala Project VRM. But celebrities – really? Do they really want more attention?

Aren’t celebrities battling the paparazzi to give them some privacy in their lives? Of all the people who benefit from the trend that is lifestreaming, what do established celebrities have to gain from it? When Kutcher did his one million follower stunt, my Luddite sister claimed it was simply a way for him to re-emerge in the world (as pop culture she gets). But I don’t buy that – as that only explains Kutcher – something else is happening. And that something has to be a financial incentive, because giving up privacy is not something celebrities do.

So Twitter, who exactly has stock or options in your company? I know the answer to how you made yourself mainstream, but what did it cost you to get there?

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