Why Are Celebrities in India Obsessed with Twitter?

I have seen that the three drivers of Twitter’s growth in each country are:

1. Citizen reports on Twitter during national crisis situations like earthquakes and terrorist attacks.
2. Celebrities like actors, sports stars and politicians who engage with their fans on Twitter.
3. TV channels and newspapers that use Twitter to encourage direct response from their audience.

India is no different, and events like the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack (#mumbai) and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections (#indiavotes09), celebrities like Shahrukh Khan (@iamsrk) and Shashi Tharoor (@shashitharoor), and media organizations like NDTV and IBNLive are important drivers of Twitter’s growth in the country.

In fact, the list of top twenty Twitter users in India (from Tweeple) looks like a who’s who list of Indian celebrities –

– Shashi Tharoor (@shashitharoor, >890000 followers)

– Priyanka Chopra (@priyankachopra, >716000 followers)

– Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt, >714000 followers),

– Shahrukh Khan (@iamsrk, >703000 followers)

– Amitabh Bachchan (@srbachchan, >491000 followers)

– Salman Khan (@beingsalmankhan, >483000 followers)

– Hrithik Roshan (@ihrithik, >442000 followers)

– Deepika Padukone (@deepikapadukone, >438000 followers)

– Preity Zinta (@realpreityzinta, >432000 followers)

-Vir Sanghvi (@virsanghvi, >426000 followers)

– Abhishek Bachchan (@juniorbachchan, >400000 followers)

– Aamir Khan (@aamir_khan, >381000 followers)

– Shahid Kapoor (@shahidkapoor, >370000 followers)

– Karan Johar (@kjohar25, >355000 followers)

– Deepak Chopra (@deepakchopra, >340000 followers)

– Sonam Kapoor (@sonamkapoor, >294000 followers).

What’s more, many of these celebrities have doubled or tripled their fan base in the last six months.

Celebrities love Twitter because it’s short, mobile, easy-to-use, public, one-to-many and very viral. So, celebrities can build a huge fan following in days and keep both fans and journalists tantalized with short messages. Fans love Twitter because it allows them to speak to celebrities in public, even though the celebrities themselves reply back only intermittently.

Twitter has about four million users in India now, which is bigger than the reach of several English TV channels in India. Celebrities in India use Twitter not only because they can talk directly to a few thousand fans, but also because they can make provocative statements in public, which journalists can pick up for new stories. So, the real reach of Twitter is much higher than the number of Twitter users in India.

Celebrities use Twitter in ten distinct ways –

1. To share the mundane trivia from their lives.
2. To engage in one-to-one conversations with their celebrity friends on Twitter.
3. To promote their blog or fan community.
4. To promote a project or cause they are engaged in.
5. To comment on a news item or a public debate.
6. To comment on news item related to them.
7. To shape public debate with a strong point of view.
8. To engage in a public cat-fight with other celebrities or journalists.
9. To answer questions from their fans on Twitter.
10. To connect their fans with each other through memes and contests.

Any of these ten types of Twitter conversations can go viral or become newsworthy, depending upon the celebrity and the context. Some recent examples of viral memes related to Indian celebrities include –

– The September 2009 controversy around politician Shashi Tharoor’s comment about economy class in Indian airlines being the cattle class.
– The December 2009 #chetanblocks meme when writer Chetan Bhagat blocked a few Twitter users after a heated discussion on pirated books.
– The March 2010 public fight between Shahrukh Khan and the Shiv Sena, related to the controversy around the movie ‘My Name is Khan’.
– The March 2010 public catfight between Hindu editor N Ram (@nramind) and other members of his family, related to succession issues.
– The April 2010 public catfight between politician Shashi Tharoor and IPL chief Lalit Modi (@lalitkmodi), around irregularities in IPL contracts.

The IPL public controversy has done serious damage to the credibility of both Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi, and even led to their ouster. In most other cases, the controversy died down quickly, only to be referred to in year-end news roundups and academic case studies like this.

Celebrities often fail to understand that the power distance between them and their fans is lower on a platform like Twitter than in real life. The same is true for brands and consumers.

So, while most fans only wish to derive vicarious pleasure from reading their favorite celebrity’s tweets, some fans want more. They want to talk to the celebrity, they often expect the celebrity to respond, and they demand that the celebrity responds to them respectfully, even treats them as equals. So, when a celebrity doesn’t respond, they feel let down. Worse, when a celebrity responds in a high-handed manner, they feel offended, and often respond in kind.

Most brands and celebrities also don’t understand the nature of Twitter flash mobs. Most Twitter users tend to behave responsibly on the platform because they use their real identities and are connected to at least some of their real-world friends and business associates. So, they behave responsibly, because they have to protect not only their online reputations but also their reputations in their real social networks. However, if brands or celebrities offend Twitter users, with words or actions, Twitter users tend to transform into a self-righteous mob. The #amazonfail meme against Amazon banning books with adult content and the Motrin Moms meme against an insensitive ad campaign are good examples of such Twitter flash mobs. Chetan Bhagat found himself in the middle of one such Twitter flash mob in #chetanblocks.

There are three typical hot buttons or triggers for such flash mobs –

1. A celebrity of brand offends Twitter users with their actions or policies, and then doesn’t respond to criticism fast enough or adequately enough.
2. A celebrity or brand is rude to a Twitter user and continues to be rude even when others point to the unsuitability of such behavior.
3. A celebrity or brand threatens to or actually deletes or blocks negative comments or users.

As long as celebrities stay away from these triggers, they should have a good experience on Twitter. In general, each celebrity has a unique personality and they should use Twitter in a way that suits their personality.

What do you think? What are the most important dos and don’ts for celebrities using Twitter? Do share you insights in the comments below.

A version of this article appeared as a case study in IIM Ahmedabad’s Vikalpa Journal (PDF).

If you would like to interview me for a story or invite me to speak at a conference, please e-mail me at [email protected], call me at +91-9999856940, or connect with me on Twitter.

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