5 Twitter stars you've never heard of

Sunday, December 20, 2009

(CNN) -- Sure, everyone knows that Oprah, Shaq and Ashton Kutcher are huge on Twitter. They're famous -- they should be huge on Twitter.

But Heather Armstrong? John Dickerson? Adventure Girl? These people can stroll unmolested through a paparazzi convention, and yet each has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers -- enough to rank them in the top 200 overall and more than Stephen Colbert, Snoop Dogg or Paris Hilton.

To thrive on the popular micro-blogging site, celebrity isn't always enough. You also must have something to say.

"You can't be Moses shouting down the mountain on Twitter," says Brandon Mendelson, a blogger who has amassed almost a million Twitter followers. "You need to be that friend everyone wants to hang out with."

Here's a look at five Twitterers you may not have heard of. They don't show up in the tabloids or on Leno. But they have the power, through the viral effect of their retweets, to make things happen, and maybe even nudge the national conversation a little.

Heather Armstrong: @dooce

If her real name doesn't ring a bell, the name of her blog might. Armstrong launched Dooce.com in 2001 and soon built an audience for her deeply personal, brutally honest posts about married life, kids and a postpartum depression that landed her in a mental hospital.

Some Bay Area friends turned Armstrong onto Twitter in early 2007, but her popularity on the site didn't really take off until this year.

"Since February it's sort of exploded," says Armstrong, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and two daughters. "I find myself enjoying it more as my audience has grown. I also feel more pressure to do it -- to keep things updated and to keep things interesting."

Armstrong's tweets find sardonic humor in mundane domestic life, such as a recent one about offering to be her resistant daughter's "personal booger servant" by cleaning out her nose.

"It's a different muscle in the brain than the one you use to blog," she says of Twitter's 140-character limit. "And I had to learn how to exercise that muscle." Asked what makes a good tweet, she said, "Something profound. Something very funny. It's an art form, I think, to do it really well."

Armstrong checks Twitter first thing every morning on her iPhone, and often learns of breaking news there before she hears it anywhere else.

Two recent incidents awakened her to Twitter's growing influence. Armstrong spent $1,300 on a washing machine that broke almost immediately. After the manufacturer balked at fixing the problem, Armstrong began ranting on Twitter. The company sent someone to repair the washer within 24 hours.

Armstrong also reached out to her nearly 1.4 million Twitter followers for help in locating her assistant's mentally disabled brother after he went missing last month in Phoenix, Arizona. He was found several days later and identified by people who'd seen the news on Twitter.

"I sort of feel like that's one of my callings now, finding missing persons through Twitter," Armstrong says. "The power of it is really mind-boggling."

Stefanie "Adventure Girl" Michaels: @adventuregirl

This former bikini model branded herself as Adventure Girl and launched a second career as an online travel journalist in the mid-1990s, well before the Internet was in every household. Despite being late to Twitter -- she joined in March -- Michaels has amassed more than 1.2 million followers.

"I pinch myself every morning," says the Los Angeles, California, resident, who was an unemployed magazine writer last fall until she discovered micro-blogging. "I can't believe that even one person wants to hear what I have to say. I really owe everything to Twitter. It changed my life."

Michaels believes she found a niche on Twitter because few people were writing about travel. Her enthusiastic tweets mix travel tips and suggestions with details about her personal life and plugs for charitable causes such as Operation Smile, which provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates.

Twitter's quick bursts of thought fit Michaels' on-the-go lifestyle perfectly.

"If you can't say it in 140 [characters], you shouldn't be saying it. It's made me a better writer ... because you find a way to get to the point," she says. "People don't have time to read those lengthy, self-serving blogs anymore."

So how did she get so many followers?

"I'm on all the time. When you start doing this all the time, and you engage [with people], and people know you care ... that's when you grow," she says. "It goes viral very quickly. And once you go viral, you're golden."

Michaels posts up to 50 tweets a day, often from her ever-present BlackBerry while she's on the road.

"It's fascinating to take your tweets along with you [when you travel]," she says. "It's like you're never alone."

Brandon Mendelson: @BJMendelson



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