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More on the Psychology of Twitter

More about the psychology and neuroscience of Twitter...

In my last article on the social phenomenon of Twitter, I described its information stream as a river of human consciousness. Following this analogy, I found that most people simply dip a toe in to gauge the tweetgeist, but I can't help notice that advanced users are pretty happy out there, swimming in the deep part of the twitter waters. New Twitter user @maartenelout describes a typical beginner's experience, "10 minutes a day max to scan what's been floating by, find interesting blog posts and leave a tweet, more than that drives me nuts..." Amrita Grace, who hasn't even ventured into the Twitter waters yet, remarks, "I have not dared to go there yet......I'm concerned about the time suck.....scary!"

However, advanced swimmers, like @DougH, sing a different, more confident tune. I asked Doug how he managed to collect over 13,000 followers and generate over 20,000 posts. He notes, "I started out be following people I knew directly. Then from there I looked at follower lists of people who were in PR and marketing like me, to find like-minded people to network with. At one point - somewhere around 300-700 followers - it hit a kind of critical mass, and I didn't need to actively seek out followers anymore. The network grew by itself from there. It took about two years to get to where I am now, investing about an hour a day twittering."

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But why go to so much trouble when it's such a significant "time suck"? Well, according to research by @indymike, Twitter users who leverage it as a marketing channel experience an average 4% clickthrough rate. Now, compared to the .1% clickthrough rate on FaceBook, you can see why so many PR and marketing types are rushing to Twitter. It's well over an order of magnitude more effective for marketing and promotion. Plus, it's still free, so it's the new digital land grab. Get your forty cyber-acres while you can!

My Experiment

I decided to jump in and see what it might be like in the deeper part of the river - sink or swim. Well, the current is pretty strong out there. However, Twitter usage manages its own learning curve by matching the numbers of followers and followees you have. A newbie, like me, would normally have only a few dozen follows, generating a post every few minutes. But a heavy twitter user, with 10,000 follows and followers, might be processing something like a post per second. It's a bewildering rate of information; most twitter users don't even use the concept of backlog, like in email.

Following some trusted tweet advisors, I installed Tweetdeck - sort of a Bloomberg for trading tweets. With this power tool and two large monitors, I was able to follow and keep up with a half dozen simultaneous conversations... all while monitoring email, Facebook and trying to get work done on the side. The effect is quite mesmerizing and I fell into a peak experience of social networking.

A few empirical observations about swimming in the deep end:

First, it's genuinely an addictive process. I used to design videogames, so I'm pretty good at tuning gameplay "action"... Twitter is definitely designed to encourage addictive usage. When I designed games, we would measure eyeblink rates to see if the player was entering a state of "flow" during gameplay. If the blink rate dropped precipitously after a few minutes of play, the game would most likely be a hit. And if you test a heavy twitter user in the same way, I'll bet that a similar thing is happening - a drop in the blink rate, some pupil dilation, and a surge in neuro-adrenaline.

Second, Twitter differs from regular chatrooms and instant messaging because it removes the idea of boundaries. In a chatroom, you can see that you're in a room titled "Golf in the Kingdom" and there are 25 people. So you can get a sense of the crowd and subject matter. In Twitter, no such virtual boundaries exist... you're simply talking into the stream, and anyone at all might talk back. The more followers you have, the greater the likelihood that somebody's listening, but it's much more like CB radio than a cocktail party. You simply don't know who's listening or might reply... and there are absolutely no moderators out there.

Third, on the Internet, you run into all sorts of interesting people. But on Twitter, you do it so much faster. Once I installed Tweetdeck, I only spent four hours twittering in high speed, but managed to interact with perhaps ten times the normal number of people I'd expect to run into via chatrooms. The innovation guru John Kao once told me that serendipity is what makes innovation go faster... and often wished for a serendipity pedal that he could step on to increase random connections at companies. Twitter is serendipity on steroids.

I started my experiment tuning into the #haiku channel. @twitterhaiku wrote:

twitter followers...
from all over the planet...
how cool! hello, all!

Another entry, a bit more prosaic but reminiscent of the typical tweet, by @keithvassallo:

went to the movies...
saw monsters vs aliens...
nacho cheese was cold

I contributed one:

I sit and twitter
talking to everybody
and nobody too

This is cool. Kind of fun. Then I watched what was happening in #innovation. (Not much.) And then I chitchatted with people at random, as they flowed by. Eventually, I ran into a very intellectually stimulating woman named Alexa, and chatted with her while allowing myself to feel a little smitten for a bit. Yeah, this is definitely entertaining.

Then I ran into a glitch. As a newbie, I had mixed up reply with direct reply. It's a twitter faux pas equivalent to leaving the microphone on after a speech. A couple of kind souls explained what I was doing wrong and after clarifying the UI, I was able to turn off the mic. However, one power user - whose online personal is somewhat reminiscent of Meryl Streep's character in the film Doubt - decided to raise a virtual pitchfork and literally banish me from twitterland (known as a "suspension"). She was relentless, ignoring every apology and gesture of peace, and even stalked me on the web for a bit...  a bit like someone who missed taking her meds.

For me, it was kind of exciting, "Wow, my first hatetweet! I'm finally a celebrity!"

But all joking aside, there are some power users out there who are deadly serious about their little corner of the twitterverse, and emotional flareups can happen with just as much intensity as email flaming. This brings me to the primary thesis of this article, that twitter is significant because it amplifies whatever effect computer interactivity has on people... Twitter is the first tweetch game of social networking.

The Neurophysiology of Twitter

In fact, there's a neuroscientist saying that there is a neurophysiological basis for such concerns. The Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, recently testified to members of the British government that social network sites risk "infantilising the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity". (Ref: The Guardian)

Greenfield told the House of Lords that social network sites are putting attention spans in jeopardy, warning: "If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction... such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder. It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in [such] technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder."

More importantly, Lady Greenfield also warned there is a risk of loss of empathy, which I believe is due to the fact that in cyber life, you can't see the subtle emotional cues on the faces of your victims as you send off that deliciously sarcastic email or get someone suspended for the hell of it. In linguistic theory, there are these rich facial and auditory gestures called phatics. It's the nod of the head or "uh huh" that tells the speaker that you're getting the message, it's clear-to-send, so keep it coming.

With face to face communications, the speaker is able to rely on the expression of the slightest note of distress on the listener's face, or even the silence on the phone, to realize that something he or she just said upset the listener. You know that silence. It's when your heart starts palpitating and you whine into your Bluetooth headset, "Honey? Honey? Are you there? Are you mad at me?"

That dance of rich metalinguistic feedback allows complex emotional communication to flow optimally, and without it, we end up with a worst case senario for humanity that Lady Greenfield envisions. The real world of touch and phatics and eye gazing provides emotional richness that simply does not exist in the cyberworld.

If the minds of our children are reinforced by too much twitter time and not enough running around in the backyard time, slowly trained to operate without metalinguistic nuances... is there a chance we'll raise a generation of kids with Asperger's syndrome? Are we inexorably marching toward a dystopian future, promising an ample supply of virtual flamewars, limited empathy, borderline personalities, and who knows... maybe even the key ingredient for an entire series of Columbine massacres?

Now ask yourself, in order to see where Lady Greenfield is coming from, how much more emotionally limited can you be, than in a cyberverse limited to 140 characters?

Personally, I think that Lady Greenfield is overstating the risk. I think that the situation is similar to the development of freeways. Imagine transporting someone from the 1900s, and sticking them behind the wheel of a car today, speeding down the freeway... Obviously, it would be a terrifying experience for our time traveler. Now, ask yourself, could someone in the 19th century even imagine a world where millions of teenagers happily drive down such freeways while applying lipstick?

The human brain is an amazingly adaptive system, and will surely be able to accommodate virtually any acceleration of information and scope of multi-tasking over time. In twenty years, we humans will adapt to handle what now looks like an indigestible volume of information without even breaking a sweat... you can bet on that, for sure.

The Twitter Singularity?

Perhaps Twitter is even part of our evolutionary process, like that initial adaptation we now call neuro-plasticity during that first evolutionary venture, during that first mutation of brain cells? For those who don't feel like looking it up on wikipedia, neuro-plasticity relates to how the brain learns, by adding or removing connections, or adding cells. Researchers have discovered that norepinephrine, a neuro-adrenaline dubbed "the stress hormone", increases brain plasticity. But that's kind of obvious... when you're life's threatened, of course your brain is going to want to remember everything that's just about to happen.

Perhaps our brains, in a similar way, require stress and pressure to expand its capacities, and so we are now being pushed by new applications like Twitter to increase our base processing speeds – enabling a global network of brains that advance in lock step with the increasing speed of computer processors and search engines? Like the boundary-less twitterverse, where exactly is the boundary between our brains and the Internet?

Wow, big questions, huh? As for me, I'm leaning toward quitting the twitting. R.D. Laing once said, "Mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, but the mystics swim whereas the schizophrenics drown." The same could be said for the Internet and this river of human awareness. Twitter really is a significant time sink, and honestly, I'm more Zen than zap these days. I prefer to be the mystic reflecting quietly on my life and coming up with "My 25 List" on Facebook, than multitasking myself into a schizophrenic, shouting to everybody and nobody at the same time, listening to voices in the aether.

 

Thanks for reading!

Here's a link to Part III of this article where I share the results of our survey on Twitter usage, and providing concluding thoughts.

 

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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