(CNN) — As Ashton Kutcher becomes the first to collect 1 million followers on Twitter and Oprah Winfrey sends out her first tweet, tech observers are debating: Does Friday mark a new peak for the microblogging service? Or the beginning of its demise?
“It’s a big milestone. This brings Twitter mainstream,” said Andrew Cherwenka, a Huffington Post contributor and Web developer at Trapeze.com, referring to Kutcher and Winfrey’s Twitter breakthroughs.
“A lot of people are saying this is going to be the death of Twitter, and I don’t understand that at all,” Cherwenka added. “It’s just another stage in Twitter’s acceleration.”
“The challenge for Twitter — besides, of course, getting a business model in place to handle the infrastructure required to sustain this kind of growth — is going to be maintaining the fact that it’s the community at large, not the celebrity users, that’s at the core of this service,” said Caroline McCarthy, who writes a CNET News blog about social media.“The power of Twitter is about the millions of people using it and how easily it is to filter and aggregate their thoughts and conversations,” McCarthy told CNN. “It can’t be all about Ashton and Oprah.”
In a much-publicized duel, Kutcher’s Twitter account crossed the 1 million mark on Twitter about 2:13 a.m. ET Friday, narrowly beating CNN’s breaking-news feed, which had 998,239 followers at the time. CNN passed the mark at 2:42 a.m. ET.
Some eight hours later, Winfrey sent her first tweet from the Chicago, Illinois, set of her TV show. The all-caps message was sent at 10:10 a.m. ET and said, “HI TWITTERS. THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY.”
Winfrey drew more than 73,000 Twitter followers before she sent out her first tweet. By Friday afternoon her Twitter following had climbed above 100,000.
“Twitter has experienced watershed events over the last two years since we founded the company, and momentum continues to build,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said Friday in an e-mail to CNN. “Certainly having Oprah and Ashton embrace Twitter so enthusiastically will be another big moment for us.”
Kutcher had challenged CNN to the Twitter race, saying he would donate 10,000 mosquito bed nets to charity for World Malaria Day in late April if he beat CNN, and 1,000 if he lost. CNN agreed to do the same.
The battle between @aplusk, Kutcher’s Twitter handle, and CNN’s feed gained much attention on Twitter, with fans pulling for both sides.
Web junkies watched Kutcher on a live video stream as he celebrated with champagne, surrounded by his wife, Demi Moore, and friends.
“We are over a million. CNN is still trying to get there. And that is just how it goes,” Kutcher told the camera as his friends screamed. “There are a million people that need to be thanked for this.”
No single Twitter account had previously reached 1 million followers, according to two Web sites that track popularity on Twitter, a site on which users post 140-character messages that are distributed to groups of followers.
“Kudos to Ashton and all those in the @aplusk camp. Now more than ever, the consumer is in the driver’s seat and we couldn’t be more gratified than to be part of this historic social media milestone,” said CNN spokeswoman Jennifer Martin.
CNN maintains more than 40 official Twitter accounts, with a total of more than 1.5 million followers. Kutcher was racing the network’s breaking-news feed, @cnnbrk. That account provides only brief updates about breaking news, therefore CNN doesn’t send a lot of alerts — just those for major events the network believes its audience will want to know.
“We’d like to thank every one of our followers for helping CNN reach the 1 million mark, and we are delighted to raise our donation to 10,000 bed nets for World Malaria Day in recognition of them,” Martin said.
Not to be outdone, Winfrey said in a tweet Friday morning that she would donate 20,000 mosquito bed nets to charity. “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, another popular Twitter user, also agreed Friday to make a donation of mosquito bed nets, which help prevent the biting insects from spreading malaria in tropical countries.
“Ashton’s ‘Twitter race’ is an amazing example of how we can leverage new technology to battle an ancient disease,” said Scott Case, CEO of Malaria No More, the charity expected to benefit most from the mosquito bed net donations. “Not only is Ashton helping Malaria No More raise awareness. . .he’s also galvanizing his Twitter army to help end malaria deaths.”
The online feud between CNN and Kutcher also drew attention to the popularity of Twitter, which has seen breakneck growth over the past year. Twitter saw 131 percent growth in March alone, with 9.3 million unique U.S. visitors that month, according to comScore. The group attributes the increase to media attention on the site.
Some online writers told CNN that the contest is symbolic of the state of Twitter, which gained media attention because of its applications for news organizations, but is starting to be dominated by strong personalities with cult followings.
Kutcher reiterated this view.
“This is David versus Goliath,” said the actor, who was scheduled to appear Friday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “This just shows how people want to get information. It is about us. It means that one man can have a voice as loud as a media network.”
Cherwenka, the Huffington Post blogger, believes Kutcher may be one of the first people to leverage the power of online social networking for widespread social good.
“It’s a turning point in media. He’s one person who uses a free media platform to reach a large audience. And that really hasn’t been done before,” Cherwenka said. “He didn’t spend a penny on this. And that’s kind of the point of any kind of social activity on the Web.”
But will all this celebrity-driven hype turn off longtime Twitter users? Time will tell, observers say.
“I know some Twitter early adopters and loyalists are feeling a bit ambivalent about this influx of mainstream attention, and are likening it to when their favorite indie band gets big overnight,” said CNET’s McCarthy. “They’re excited to see this service really take off, but at the same time are concerned that it’s turning into a sort of novelty fad.”