The Celebrity Moment

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Earlier this week Turntable.fm crossed a milestone. No, it wasn’t hitting a reported 140K users one month after launching, nor was it being added to the list of portfolio companies for First Round Capital (granted it was just a logo refresh from the company’s previous product incarnation, StickyBits).

In fact, the ultimate sign that the crowdsourced music service had arrived was more subtle than a milestone metric and ran under the radar for anyone who isn’t finely attuned to these things; On Tuesday the artist Sir Mix A Lot (of “Baby’s Got Back” fame) DJ’d a set on Turntable replete with a custom hacked avatar that differentiated him from the available cookie cutter options.

Paying tribute to celebrity may seem like a superficial and pointless endeavor in the tech realm, where most of the real work happens behind the scenes. But as anyone who’s built a startup knows, the narrative of how web services get and retain users is serious business, and is punctuated and proliferated by “celebrity moments” like Mix A Lot on Turntable, JJ Abrams on Quora or Ashton Kutcher’s race to a million followers with CNN. There are countless examples.

Like any other community milestone, these “celebrity moments” define certain web services. This Quora thread does a pretty good job of outlining some of the more notable ones like Ben Folds playing Chatroulette, Larry Summers asking questions about economics on Quora, Conan O’Brien hopping on Twitter (and only following one person), John Mayer abandoning Twitter for Tumblr, Snoop Dog on Instagram, Barack Obama setting up a LinkedIn profile and Ashton Kutcher on, um, everything.

Any startup founder with half a brain realizes that a celebrity user signifies mainstream acceptance. As silly as they sound, these milestones should be viewed almost as monumentally as anything hitting one million users — after all they both make headlines.

The significance of a celebrity moment is thus; It means that your service can be used for self-promotion, or for democratizing communication, or both. And in the most basic sense it’s like having the cool kids show up at your party.

And it’s no joke; Celebrity usage was so critical to Twitter’s eventual scale that the company used to blog about celebrities joining back in the day. Now, in a post-@CharlieSheen world, it’s news if a celebrity hasn’t joined Twitter.

Bre.ad founder Alan Chan, who boasts both Britney Spears and Lady Gaga as users (and Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter as an investor), explains, “Celebrities using your product is the ultimate testimonial for your product.  It proves that there is demand and need for what you’ve built and that your product is a level higher then other companies in your space.”

And yes it shouldn’t be surprising that celebrities, some of whom make careers out of endorsing products, would be first to hop on the bandwagon of innovative products. But the interesting factor in this equation is that they’re doing it for free.

So what’s in it for Ashton?

Well first of all these tools are definitely vehicles for self-promotion. In an age where so much media coverage originates on Facebook, and Quora and Twitter, it seems like celebs increasingly need to have a strong online presence in order to stay relevant. @-mentions and mutual follows have become a new sort of fame replicator, so basically it’s a symbiotic relationship; The celebrity gets the same publicity as the startup.

And the mass distribution aided by technology has redefined the concept of celebrity — Being attractive is no longer enough, and you actually have to be intellectually engaging via text on these platforms. Ashton Kutcher talking about what it’s like to kiss Natalie Portman on Quora is exemplary of this.

Former Twitter engineer and newly minted Foursquare employee Benjy Weinberger puts it best, “People now expect more from celebrities than just passively reading about them in magazines. Cultivating a direct relationship with your fans over the web is fast becoming the way not just to maintain fame but to create it in the first place.”