1 Million Twitter Followers: Backstory on CNN v. Ashton Kutcher

Actor Ashton Kutcher challenges CNN to a Twitter race. He reached the 1 million follower mark first.

Actor Ashton Kutcher challenges CNN to a Twitter race. He reached the 1 million follower mark first.

Just after midnight mountain time on April 17 actor Ashton Kutcher became the first Twitter user to accumulate more than 1 million followers — winning the race he challenged CNN to by video on Apr. 14.

As Kutcher cross the 1 million follower mark, CCNbrk, which posts current headlines (but not links) from CNN breaking news stories, had just over 998,000 followers.

So what? Is this a publicity stunt and a popularity contest, and mostly trivial? Yes — even though Kutcher did agree to donate $100,000 to the charity Malaria No More when he reach 1 million followers. (However, Ethan Zuckerman pointed out that this charity’s initiative to donate bednet to Africans may be misguided.)

However, there’s an interesting backstory: The CNNbrk account was only recently acquired by CNN.

A Web developer named James Cox independently created CNNbrk in 2006 because he wanted to get news headlines by text message on his cell phone.

As noted in a new Nieman Labs article, How a CNN user propelled the network into Twitter’s top slot — or why CNN headlines are so short, in 2006, “…if you can remember that distant age, getting the latest headlines on your mobile device wasn’t yet trivially easy.”

The advent of Twitter, which allows users to elect to receive tweets from certain accounts via SMS text messaging, made this technically easy. Cox set up the CNNbrk account, wrote a five-line script in the Ruby programming language to convert CNN’s popular e-mail headline service into tweets, and that was the genesis of this now hugely popular service. (Note: CNN now offers its own breaking news text message service.)

On Apr. 16, April 16 Silicon Alley Insider reported:

“CNN confirms that it has has taken control of the @cnnbrk account — and its [at the time] 944,000 followers. CNN didn’t disclose any financial details, but said it’s been working with previous owner James Cox on the account for more than two years.

This is no-brainer for CNN, and we hope they paid Cox a lot of money for the account he’s nurtured. By adding more stories to the feed — and links to CNN’s site — CNN.com could generate hundreds of thousands of extra pageviews per day. (CNN isn’t sure if it’s going to add links in the near-term.)

Did Cox violate CNN’s copyright and trademark by launching the CNNbrk service without authorization? Quite probably. Does CNN stand to benefit amply from this effort? Also yes, quite probably. CNNbrk’s audience vastly dwarfs that of CNN’s official Twitter account, which as of last night had just over 67,000 followers.

CNN seems to be considering Twitter important to its online strategy. Cox noted to Nieman Labs that recently CNN now edits its headlines to conform with Twitter (140 characters max). Also CNN was apparently willing to pay Cox for the CNNbrk account. Nieman Labs’ Zach Seward confirmed with CNN that “Cox had entered into a consulting agreement with [CNN] and that CNN now owned @CNNbrk, so you can put it together.”

…Which just goes to show that when fans of your news take initiative to amplify your brand, this should neither be automatically dismissed, feared, or quashed. Figuring out a way to work with such independent efforts sooner rather than later might be more efficient and effective for everyone in the long run.

(NOTE: CNET speculated that Twitter might have been gaming the competition by making it difficult for people to unfollow the AplusK or CNNbrk accounts. I didn’t have that experience, and I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’d be curious to learn whether other people had this experience. Also, this is an expanded version of a story I originally posted on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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2 thoughts on 1 Million Twitter Followers: Backstory on CNN v. Ashton Kutcher

  1. Thanks for ousting this… I was preparing a defense for some of the comments in my article but I see you’ve done a much better job.

    How CNN and Twitter gamed the system is under-reported. And yes, there were wide-spread reports that you couldn’t unfollow Kutcher. A bit disengenous I believe. And I believe the Malaria No More saw an opportunity to cash in on this as soon as they heard about it. Think about it, Ashton would have had no idea what a bed net was… his original promise was to “ding dong ditch” Ted Turner’s house. And that’s completely within the repertoire of pranks he’s known for.

    If malaria and bed nets were his original aim, then he should have said so. MNM saw a chance to grab some PR for World Malaria day. Ashton could have donated to MNM without this silly stunt. He didn’t, because he’d never heard of them.

    Kudos to social media and their PR team. I stand by my criticism in my article…

  2. Pingback: Roundup: The Latest on Social Media for Nonprofits | Step By Step Fundraising

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