Online authenticity: Pop stars reign supreme on Twitter
Katy Perry arrives at the Cannes festival palace on Dec. 14, 2013. Perry is the most-followed person on Twitter, beating out fellow pop stars Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Nick Patch, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, December 30, 2013 8:02AM EST
TORONTO -- On Nov. 28, Justin Bieber tweeted the word "now" followed by 11 periods. More than 90,000 people retweeted or favourited the one-word missive.
That's roughly the same number of people who passed on his Dec. 8 bulletins "hanging with the team" and the insightful "gym before tonight's last show."
By comparison, when CNN's breaking news account tweeted that beloved world leader Nelson Mandela was dead at 95 years old, only about 15,000 people saw fit to pass the tweet on.
Bieber isn't even the most-followed person on Twitter anymore, having ceded a small lead to Katy Perry sometime during the 19-year-old's ongoing enfant terrible phase. But they're 1-2, with Perry's more than 48.4 million followers giving her a lead of roughly 700,000.
Next is Lady Gaga, with 40.9 million followers and after U.S. President Barack Obama -- whose relative mastery of social media was singled out as a factor in the last two elections -- four more pop stars follow in the Top 10, including Taylor Swift (37.5 million), Britney Spears (34.6 million), Rihanna (33.1 million) and Justin Timberlake (29.1 million).
Five more musicians follow in the next 10-most followed, and those numbers easily eclipse the acolytes amassed by the top-followed TV personality (Ellen DeGeneres at 24.0 million), athlete (Cristiano Ronaldo at 23.2 million), actor (Ashton Kutcher at 15.3 million) and news organization (the aforementioned CNN Breaking News at 14.6 million). Twenty-one of the top 30 most-followed accounts on Twitter belong to pop stars or bands.
Which begs the question: why are we so specifically fascinated with the musings of pop stars, above all other public figures? Leave it to a musician to explain.
"A lot of musicians, we tend to be loud mouths," said electronic musician Moby, who possesses 1.3 million Twitter followers.
"Actors are generally well-known for sayings things that were written by other people. A good actor is by definition a cypher, meaning most actors are quite, at their core, they're nice people but there's a neutrality to them.... So maybe they just don't have as much to say.
"I mean," he adds later, "a lot of actors really strive to be neutral so as not to offend anyone."
Some musicians do tweet with a candour rare for brand-conscious athletes and actors, who insist upon a path of comforting blandness.
Rihanna, for instance, has a bawdy, seemingly unfiltered presence on Twitter and Instagram that has become downright notorious -- even once tipping off Thai authorities to a lewd sex show described in lurid detail on the Barbadian pop titan's account. She posts pictures naked and she posts pictures faded (her fondness for weed being well-established) -- and, according to social media experts, she's doing it right.
"Rihanna's a great example of somebody who's constantly talked about," said Hamza Khan, digital community facilitator at Ryerson University in Toronto.
"(It's) because her account is not cookie cutter, it's not generic. You don't have interns tweeting about the fact that she has a concert coming up. 'Oh, go buy tickets over here.'
"Despite the shenanigans that she's up to -- the smoking, the partying, the drinking, the hooking up -- it's very real and you know it's coming directly from Riri," he added.
The 25-year-old thus stands out from certain peers, Khan points out.
"You look at someone like Eminem's Twitter account -- I'm a huge hip-hop head, and Eminem's Twitter account frustrates me because it's clear that there's a handler," he said. "It's not actually Eminem tweeting, and the same goes for Drake as well. It's clear that someone is tweeting on their behalf.
"It comes across as really inauthentic. It comes across as really disingenuous."
And yet Eminem has 16.5 million followers and Drake isn't far behind with 13.5 million. So clearly it's not only unadorned honesty that draws followers.
There are other factors. Musicians tend to have an international appeal that eclipses more regionally relevant stars of sport and screen, Khan points out. And with record sales hurtling downhill faster than Lindsey Vonn the past few years, creating and nurturing a strong Internet following via Twitter accounts that double as marketing tools is increasingly crucial.
Take sunny Burlington, Ont., pop outfit Walk Off the Earth, for instance, whose members maintain a seemingly endless dialogue with their thousands of followers -- an army that has helped drive traffic to their wildly popular YouTube channel.
"There's so many characters in our band, with beard guy, Gianni (Luminati) and Sarah (Blackwood)," said the band's Ryan Marshall. "It's like a TV show to some of our fans."
Still, most musicians prefer a less pragmatic explanation for their Twitter magnetism.
Burgeoning British talent Ed Sheeran -- 8.4 million followers to his name -- mused recently in a telephone interview that there's a collective curiosity about pop stars that doesn't necessarily apply to entertainers of other stripes, pointing specifically to his good friend Swift as an example.
"People want to know what's going on through a musician's mind," said the cheerful 22-year-old. "I think that's why someone like Taylor has such a large Twitter following, 'cause she writes these songs that are from the heart and from the soul.
"I think people want to understand her as a person. And I guess following someone on Twitter is getting to know them and I think that's probably why musicians have the most followers, because people want to know what makes them tick and what inspires them, I guess."
It's a notion that, perhaps unsurprisingly, appealed to other musicians.
"It goes to show you how important music is in people's lives," said Barenaked Ladies drummer Tyler Stewart recently, seated in the booth of a Toronto diner. "A song can speak to you on so many levels, whether it's the lyrics or the emotion of the music or whatever. I think people want more -- any glimpse inside.
"(And) most musicians are pretty funny and they know how to bust off a good tweet."
Chimed in his bandmate, Ed Robertson: "The convention in songwriting ever since the Beatles has been 140 characters per verse -- it's a milieu we're used to working in."
Well, not all of their peers are convinced.
Death From Above 1979 singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger has more than 8,000 followers and tweets in a puzzle-like cadence -- "If you just write straight, there's no rhythm to it," he says. He admitted he was frankly mystified by the widespread social-media appeal of the biggest pop stars, but searched for an answer regardless.
"I don't know why anyone would want to follow Rihanna," he said. "It's interesting. I guess there's an inclination to listen to them because their voices are broadcast in such a huge way. If you hear someone sing on the radio eight times a day and you watch their videos, then their voice is already in your head.
"So it just makes sense to keep the narrative going, I guess."
Grainger, for what it's worth, follows no one.
The Toronto native juggles projects with a deftness that would impress a street performer and he found that Twitter was simply too much of a time-suck.
In other words, a tool that has become so crucial for musicians was preventing him from making music, so he opted to block out the noise.
"If I follow people, I'll just read the feed. I spent too many mornings waking up and spending an hour checking Twitter and Instagram and it's such a waste of time, because there's no end result. It becomes compulsion, and at a certain point that's unhealthy.
"My excuse was that I'm just finding out about the world, reading news. No I'm not. I'm just compulsively swiping my finger against my filthy phone with my disgusting morning hand.
"So I decided to try to eliminate that and be more productive. And I'm working on a million records. So I guess it's working."