First, I saw the tweet.
“I miss having a real connection w/ real people. My Community. From now on you can just text me. I won’t be able to respond to everyone but at least we can be real w/ each other & I can share the unedited latest & greatest in my world,” wrote Ashton Kutcher, the celebrity and tech world adjacentist, on Tuesday afternoon. And then he posted his phone number: 10 digits that held the promise of so much more.
I threw the link into Slack and then did it. I texted Ashton Kutcher.
“Hi Ashton Kutcher (or the person who hacked his Twitter account)”—look, I may have been throwing words into the void but I didn’t want to look gullible—“my name is Caitlin Kelly and I’m a journalist at Wired Magazine. Hope everything is going well! We here at Wired are curious: How many texts have you gotten since publishing this number online? And if you feel comfortable sharing: roughly what percentage of them have contained indecent photographs and/or proposals? Thanks.” And then I prepared to wait.
I didn’t have to. I immediately received a reply.
“hey it’s Ashton. this is an autotext to let you know I got your message, everything else will be from me. make sure you click the link and add yourself to my phone so I can respond to you.” This bizarrely capitalized message was followed by a url: in.community.com/lotsofrandomnumbers.
“Ashton …” I texted back. “Are you launching a social media platform or a phishing scam?”
Sadly, the former appears closer to what’s going on.
Met with silence this time, I threw caution to the wind and clicked the link. It took me to a sign-up screen—”powered by community,” it read at the bottom—confirming my phone number and asking for my name, birthday, city, the usual. Now, Community.com’s homepage is currently useless if you want to know anything beyond what the word looks like in sans serif. But the Terms of Service more helpfully reveal that Community “provides its clients (including influencers, musicians, athletes, brands, actors, their agents, and others, collectively, ‘Clients’) the ability through a non-exclusive, revocable license to send and receive text messages from users of the Service by using a ten-digit phone number provided by COMMUNITY (the ‘COMMUNITY Phone Number’).”
The TOS also told me, “You understand and acknowledge that conversations using the Service are not private conversations with Clients but are intended as messages sent and interactions solely for purposes of promoting and/or advertising the Client and the Client’s products and service.”
Turns out, Community is the new name of Shimmur, Inc., which launched in 2014 to connect social media celebs with their fans. After downloading the Shimmur app, users could find their favorite YouTubers and Instagram stars, join their “Tribes,” and create posts aimed at that particular influencer (henceforth known as a “Tribe Leader”). Then, according to Shimmur’s FAQ, “The Tribe Leader will see the MOST UPVOTED posts in their Tribe FIRST – so the more upvotes your post gets, the higher the chance that your favorite star will respond!”
In other words, if Reddit and the thirstiest Instagram comment had a baby, it might look like Shimmur; a Forbes contributor described it as “a Gen-Z focused media company” in June 2017. According to Crunchbase, Shimmur raised $100,000 in three rounds, but the app no longer appears to be available to download. Its Twitter feed and Squarespace blog have not been updated since 2017. Shimmur.com now redirects to digits.chat, which is something in Private Beta. Between that and Community, it seems like a pivot to SMS.
Matthew Peltier is listed as co-founder of Shimmur (until November 2018) and founder and CEO of Community (as of December 2018) on LinkedIn. I messaged Peltier for more information about his company and Kutcher’s involvement over LinkedIn and email, but did not immediately hear back.
Obviously I should have known better when I texted Ashton Kutcher. “My Community” alone should have tipped me off—rather than a mark of the importance of community to Ashton, that capital-C “Community” carries the whiff of a trademark. OK, yes, fine, in retrospect I should have been skeptical that a celebrity with an estimated $200 million net worth would just tweet out his personal number to 18 million followers. In my defense, though, private messaging is making a comeback, as WIRED’s Lauren Goode noted earlier this week. Confronted with the wilderness of our howling feeds, people seek shelter in the warm fires of group chats and private DMs. And if any Hollywood celebrity wanted to do that on a national scale, why not the guy who played Kelso on That 70s Show?
But for those same reasons, the text is potentially valuable real estate for brands, politicians, spammers, and anyone else with a message they really want you to hear. And apparently that includes Ashton Kutcher.
As of this writing, no one has gotten back to me about how many messages the masses have texted to Ashton Kutcher. Which leaves me no choice but to speculate that it was so many people, it crashed the whole system. Three hours after he shared “his number” on Twitter, Ashton Kutcher had an update. He had taken down his original tweet sharing the phone number. “I will repost soon,” he tweeted. (Repost what? His number? The reason he did this to us?) “sms is a fragile beast.”