The Psychology of Twitter: Doubly Addictive

BLOG The Psychology of Twitter


OK, let me start by saying I’m a Twitter user and fan. But something about it disturbs me. Like the near-defunct Usenet, the now-collapsing MySpace, and the soon to collapse under its own weight Facebook, Twitter doesn’t make sense. For that reason, I predict it will soon suffer the same fate, replaced by tools that will do all the same good things, and which do make sense.  

For those unfamiliar with Twitter (and users who haven’t really thought about it), here is what Twitter is in a nutshell:

Twitter is an instant messaging tool where the recipients of the messages are determined by the recipients, not by the sender.


So you sign up, and send a bunch of IMs (instant messages — short electronic messages that are delivered immediately and pop up on the recipients’ laptops or phones) into cyberspace, into the void. Just like a newbie blogger, no one reads what you write, at first. Eventually some people will ‘find’ you and subscribe to your messages (‘tweets’), and if they like them, they’ll rebroadcast them (‘re-tweet’) to the people who subscribe to their tweets. Some of those second-hand readers will like what you say and subscribe to your tweets. When you subscribe to others’ tweets, some of them, out of curiosity or a sense of reciprocity, may subscribe back to yours. You can post your Twitter name on your blog, and on your Facebook page, and send it out to your friends to get them to subscribe. This way, you build an audience.

Just as there are ‘A-list’ bloggers with thousands of readers, there are ‘A-list’ tweeters who have audiences in the tens of thousands. And just as there are organizational and ghostwritten celebrity blogs, there are organizational and ghost-written tweeters, trying, mostly futilely, to market their product or information using this new medium. Unsurprisingly, there are bloggers who simply ‘tweet’ links to their latest blog posts. Tweets are supposed to be conversational (more than half of them are replies to previous tweets, identified using the @ sign before the original tweeter’s username), so most of these lazy ‘broadcasting’ machinations are considered bad ‘twitterquette’, and generally fail. (Businesses, spammers and people trying to sell stuff through Twitter, please take the hint and stop).

The catch with this reverse-IM tool is that the maximum length of a tweet is 140 characters, including the characters needed to acknowledge the original sender(s) in a re-tweet. You can extend this somewhat by linking to something longer by putting its URL in your tweet, or linking to a photo or video or song with its URL, and if the URL is long you can use any of the URL-shortening services to save precious characters. But there is no effective way to link tweets together to make a longer one. Brevity is everything. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, it doesn’t belong on Twitter.


What you end up with, mostly, is a lot of cryptic messages you don’t understand. In the process of squeezing your message to 140 characters, you will generally squeeze almost all of the meaning out of it. For example, when I’ve read the rapid-fire tweets of people tweeting from conferences, one highlight sentence or quote at a time, I’ve found it impossible to fathom most of what the tweeter found remarkable, or even what s/he meant. There is simply no context to provide meaning, so most of what you read is meaningless.

What’s worse, when most of the tweets of people you’ve subscribed to are replies to (or retweets from) people you are not subscribed to, it is almost impossible (and rarely worth the effort) to chase down the original thread to understand the context for the reply. In fact Twitter is in something of a war with users, since they have tried to reduce volume by suppressing these replies, so you only see replies to you, and to people who both the replier and you subscribe to. Users have developed ways around this, of course, and the war continues.

Currently I ‘follow’ (subscribe to the tweets of) about 100 people, close to the Twitter median, who between them produce about 10 tweets an hour. I probably find time to read about 1/4 of the tweets they send. On top of this, I try to read any replies to my own tweets (those that have @davepollard in the message are displayed for me on a separate Twitter tab), and I read any direct messages sent specifically and only to me (traditional IMs, displayed on yet another separate tab). I have about 700 ‘followers’.

The protocol for IM replies has generally carried over to tweets: Unlike e-mails, which you are generally expected to reply to, it is perfectly acceptable not to acknowledge or reply to IMs, and the same applies to tweets. This is one reason why I like IMs and Twitter more than e-mail.

Based on some research I did the other day, I would estimate that, per year, for 240 hours’ time investment, I scan about 36,000 tweets (most of them unintelligable) and in so doing discover about 200 interesting or memorable thoughts or ideas, identify a third of the content of my Links of the Week blog posts, have perhaps 20 useful follow-up one-on-one conversations and maybe make two new real friends. If I spent that 240 hours in other social activities, would the yield be higher or lower?

gtalk with twitter


Twitter has been important in emergency relief and grassroots organizing, and the reason for this is simple: It is currently the most globally ubiquitous real-time text communication tool. But the tool we should have is an IM tool that allows you to send real-time messages either to people on your IM/e-mail contact list, or to people who subscribe to your IMs, or both. This would be a simple add-on to GTalk or other IM tools, and it would render Twitter obsolete because it would have all Twitter’s functionality, and more, in an existing ubiquitous tool. Tweets you receive would simply appear alongside your other incoming IMs, and you’d likewise be able to send tweets the same way you send IMs. In fact, Twitter originally did have an IM interface for GTalk like the one depicted above, but Twitter (perhaps fearing that IM tool developers would soon co-opt and obsolesce Twitter’s functionality) disabled that interface some time ago.

Such a send-publish-and/or-subscribe IM tool would also have great value within medium-to-large organizations, and could substantially replace internal e-mail. It appears that Google Wave will incorporate it, but expect to see IM and Twitter-type reverse-IM tools integrated within the next few months. It just makes sense.


What is it that makes people sign up for, and spend time with, Twitter? I think there are two reasons:

  1. Twitter is addictive to news junkies: The people who go through withdrawal or feel guilty if they don’t read the morning paper cover-to-cover every day. The ones who look at every incoming e-mail immediately, even during conversations, meetings, or while driving. The ones who have more information in their RSS feeds than any human could possibly hope to absorb. The ones who are hooked on all-news stations with live coverage of the latest crisis, and watch as nothing happens for hours, taking in all the inane, meaningless and unactionable nearby-rooftop reports. For them (OK, us) Twitter is like crack — live instant updates from real people right there, at the earthquake site, or at the ZXZZ technology conference.
  1. People are looking for attention, appreciation, affirmation, connection, and recognition. In short, we’re looking for love. Twitter lets us get it (or feel like we’re getting it) quickly, safely, and anonymously. This is addictive self-gratification. Having hundreds or thousands of people ‘following’ us is consoling when our self-esteem is low. Getting people we don’t know to reply to us affirmatively is consoling when we’re lonely. With text, with all the wisdom of the Internet (and other tweeters) to draw upon and quote, we can sound very smart, very together. All it takes is a willingness to churn out a lot of short messages and read through mountains of similarly cryptic messages from people we follow, looking for a few to comment on, and we can delude ourselves into believing we’re appreciated, we’re connected, we’re engaging in meaningful conversation, we’re expanding our networks, we’re recognized, and people are paying attention to us. 
As Dermot Casey has pointed out, we’ve been through all this before, with Usenet, twenty years ago. Tens of thousands of Usenet forums were inundated with millions of short messages, some of them fired off in such rapid succession that they were close to real-time, and the only substantive difference between Usenet and Twitter is that instead of subscribing to a person you subscribed to a group about a particular topic (perhaps Noam Chomsky, or nude celebrity photos, or how to commit suicide painlessly). Your posts were supposed to be ‘on-topic’, but as long as you marked the article ‘OT’ (for ‘off-topic’) it was OK, and what happened is that people formed clique communities where the people in the group, and their relationships, were more important than the ostensible topic.

What happened to Usenet, and many other online forums that played around with social networking in those Web 1.0 days? Mostly, people realized that they weren’t building real relationships, real friendships, that the information they were exchanging was ephemeral, and that the online relationships they thought they had built were more imagined, idealized, than real. This same phenomenon is evident in Second Life, where text is preferred over voice for communication because it’s easier to sustain the illusion of an idealized, reciprocal, perfect relationship. With online tools like this, we’re clever, we’re witty, we’re knowledgeable, we’re articulate, we look good and sound good. We’re always on. Totally addictive.

We are inundated with mainstream media that feed a dumbed-down populace with propaganda and pap. It is not surprising then, that a medium like Twitter, with its immediate, unrehearsed, uncontrolled, authentic messages would have enormous appeal, and feed our addiction for information at the same time. Likewise, we live in a fragmented, stressful, isolating world, where despite the crowded cities most of us live in we find it difficult to make true connections, to build deep and enduring relationships, to be appreciated and get attention for who we really are and what we do. So we shouldn’t be surprised, or ashamed to admit, that real-time, social networking tools like Twitter can fill an emotional void in our lives, a craving for connection.

Is this harmless? For most people it probably is. We all have our little addictions, whether it be chocolate or sudoku. Recreation is good for us, and forty minutes a day Twittered away is pretty benign, I’d guess. It depends on what you’d do with that forty minutes a day (or more), if you weren’t tweeting.

I think what we will see, over time, is that our longing for authentic, one-on-one connection, and for context, will win out, and wean us off tools like Twitter in favour of richer and more personal ones. And the technology, with bandwidth and memory becoming almost unlimited and free, will enable us to approximate genuine physical meeting and rich face-to-face conversation more and more. There are a few tools out already that hint at what this might look like.

The challenge is not in making the conversation real; it is in finding the people with whom to engage in conversation. This is the real magic of Twitter, and of other ‘tools of discovery’ like blogs: The onus to search for someone of like mind is moved from the searcher to the audience. The people you’re looking for find you, based on your simple advertisements, in Twitter, blogs and similar media, that say, simply: Hey, world, this is me! Anyone want to connect?

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10 Responses to The Psychology of Twitter: Doubly Addictive

  1. John Graham says:

    Well, chalk me up for number two, you’ve got it bang on…Might it be harmful? I think having these quick-fix simulacra available might curtail the possibility of the fruits of loneliness developing. I also think we might be wiring ourselves into expecting a directness, intensity of contact (intimate or violent), and interest level that’s not life. Of course that line of thinking extends to other media too.I do think loneliness has its fruits (as do boredom and sadness). Loneliness is taboo and has a lot of shame around it.. I imagine that if we can find ways to support a process of loneliness culturally, ‘twould be a great thing. Maybe there’s the importance of fiction – I’ve been reading some Haruki Murakami short stories, many of them having a theme of alienation or emptiness along with beauty, and through it I learn, wow, that’s not about me, it’s everybody, that’s human and it’s beautiful…it somehow has an opposite psychological effect to the addictive online attention-seeking.

  2. mattbg says:

    I thought this was a great post… very accurate.

  3. Kolja says:

    Maybe you want to try his: It is far more conversational than Twitter. And it’s not so much about aimless self-promotion. Simply fun.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    very good post …

  5. Frank says:

    Very good thoughts.For me Twitter is for the news, and of course for all the other reasons you mentioned somehow applies.Yeah, what happened with USENET, IRC, etc ?Twitter is unique and limited many ways, but maybe we like the challenge of pure 140 char text messaging ? Somehow it reminds me to the Windows 3.1 hardware/software related challenges.

  6. dN says:

    what you say here makes a lot of sense, & i suppose it applies to well at least most of us. twitter is for me a way to find interesting things that i might not otherwise find on my own. the same for reading various blogs, though much more time consuming. i’m still new to twitter. so much of it i seem to skip as it is unintelligible to me. i’ve not yet checked out the ‘how to tweet’ sites. lol. it’s also a way to keep track of cool info i find. the same about my own blog. it’s also a way to purge myself of thoughts in an articulate (still practicing) way; share my own hobbies with friends & family, & others who happenstance by. twitter has become the interim between blog posts. just to let people know i’m still here & not under a bed of roses. :)

  7. Was gonna jump all over you when I read “Tweets are supposed to be conversational”, ’cause I really hate when I read about the “right” way to use tech tools. But kept reading and have found your post insightful (as usual) and like how you outline some great ideas about how twitter is/can/might be used and where it might be trending.Personally, I use Twitter as just another information gathering/finding tool (very much like RSS) to follow people, not befriend them. A good related article on this – “To friend or to follow

  8. Indigo Ocean says:

    I only joined Twitter a few weeks ago myself and I’m surprised at how galvanizing I find it. I was just wanting to check it out, but find that it is truly the link to good news, which so hard to find through regular news channels. I love hearing about the many “everyday” good things happening in people’s lives. My world view just shifted experientially to fit what I have long believed theoretically.As for new forms of web 2.0 that will make people feel more connected, pardon the self-promotion, but I think my Phone Buddies phone/skype-based peer counseling community comes much closer to that than does a mini-video service. Image is powerful, but there is no substitute for being actively listened to. You need to get to speak and hear the other person reflecting back “um, I hear you, go on.” This makes us feel connected more than anything that can be delivered without actual physical presence in the same room.I love the mental gifts I get from Twitter, but it doesn’t fulfill any of my emotional needs, which I think online technology can begin helping us do.

  9. Randall Ross says:

    Try http://identi.caAn active community of developers awaits your ideas and would implement them in a heartbeat.(Compare that to Twitter that like all other corporations forces their business plan down your throat.) based on a free (as in libre) server package called which anyone in the world can download, install, modify, and use freely. The site (an instance of has a lively subscriber base and is less about “Hi I’m Bif and I’m into TV” than the world of “Twits” ;) It also still cheerfully gateways to Jabber, and to Twitter for that matter.GPL’d (free and open) software will eventually flatten (in the demolition sense) proprietary platforms like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace etc etc. The big changes in the world that you’ve been suggesting will require that we consciously abandon the old model of “trapware” and update the systems that mediate our communications and amplify our thought.”One world. One operating system.” – Laurie Anderson.

  10. A thoughtful and perceptive piece. I’m not sure, though, about the similarities between Usenet and Twitter. It seems to me that Usenet posts were more socially valuable than Twitter. Although some were off topic, most were not, and many provided valuable information on a certain topic, and unlike blogs or many forums, this high quality informaiton could be easily accessed through a central directory (DejaNews, and later Google). Usenet is still with us, but, as you say, almost defunct. I miss it – but I don’t think I’ll miss Twitter.

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