Twitter is an increasingly popular social networking site. A number of research studies have examined motivations for Twitter usage. One intriguing finding was that when confronted with a reminder of one’s eventual death, extraverts increased their Twitter usage while introverts avoided it altogether. Extraverts and introverts appear to have different ways of coping with existential threats that could affect their use of social networking. This might shed some light on the purpose of a large amount of apparently “pointless” communication that occurs on this site.
Due to the growing popularity of Twitter, a number of recent studies have examined what people use this service for and why. Twitter differs from other social networking sites such as Facebook in that messages are restricted to very short lengths (up to 140 characters) and messages are generally immediately visible to the general public, not just a user’s followers. This contrasts with typical Facebook usage, where users generally only allow mutual “friends” to see their status updates and their personal profiles. Thus people’s Facebook profiles tend to be more private, whereas typically a person’s Twitter profile can be viewed by anybody.
So what exactly are people on Twitter sharing with the wider world? According to one survey of Twitter, the most common type of content shared (over 40% of all tweets) was “pointless babble,” that is, banal updates about day-to-day activities (e.g. “ate a salad”). Some commentators have disputed this description, arguing that such updates are better described as “social grooming” or “peripheral social awareness.” That is, even though they may seem pointless to outside observers these messages may fulfil some meaningful function for the person. What exactly this function is remains unclear. An intriguing study explored two possible functions that Twitter usage might serve: restoring a sense of social inclusion after ostracism, and alleviating existential threat (Qiu et al., 2010).
This study involved two experiments, in both of which participants were given access to a pre-existing Twitter account with 30 followers and given opportunities to send brief messages if they wished. The experimenter created the impression that other users were currently online and able to read the participants’ messages by sending two updates about mundane activities (e.g. “helping a friend”). Additionally, participants were assessed on their Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience).
The first experiment tested whether participants who had been experimentally ostracised would send more tweets compared to those who had not. Ostracism, or deliberate social exclusion, is experienced by most people as highly aversive and motivates a need for social connection. However, the experimenters found that ostracised participants sent no more tweets than non-ostracised ones, contrary to expectations. The authors thought this indicated that sending brief messages to strangers does not satisfy a person’s need for social inclusion after being ostracised. Perhaps this is because users do not expect random strangers to respond to their tweets. After all, is there a point to communicating if others do not respond? The second experiment suggested another possibility.
The purpose of the second experiment was to test the effects of a reminder of one’s own mortality on Twitter usage. A large body of research known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) has found that being reminded of the fact that one will eventually die creates a sense of existential threat that people attempt to cope with in a number of ways (Hart, Shaver, & Goldenberg, 2005). The most well-researched coping methods are cultural worldview defence (e.g. “My country, my people, are really great!”), bolstering self-esteem (“I’m great!”) and seeking closeness with loved ones (“someone cares about me”). These coping methods seem to provide a buffer against existential anxiety by reinforcing a sense that one is special, important, and connected with something larger than one’s self, and not merely an insignificant creature with a fleeting existence.
Qiu et al. argued that Twitter usage could help alleviate existential anxiety by providing participants with a means to affirm their own existence, that is, to announce to the world in effect “I am alive!” To test this, participants were asked to write either a brief essay about their own death (mortality salience condition) or about a neutral topic (control condition). Then they were provided with a series of opportunities to tweet messages if they wished. What the researchers found was that there was an effect of mortality salience but this depended on the personality trait of extraversion. Specifically, after mortality salience highly extraverted participants sent more tweets (nearly 10 on average) compared to their counterparts in the control condition whereas highly introverted participants sent hardly any (about zero on average). In the control condition there was no difference between extraverted and introverted participants in number of tweets sent (3 – 4 on average).
Qiu et al. did not attempt to explain why extraverted and introverted participants responded to existential threat so differently, or even why their Twitter usage did not differ in the control condition. Extraversion is associated with greater sociability so the fact that in the control condition extraverts did not make greater usage of this social networking tool seems a little surprising. However, previous research has found that social motives do not predict how much time a person spends using Twitter (Johnson & Yang, 2009), suggesting that under routine circumstances a person’s sociability may not be that important to how much they use this medium. However, this might change when a person experiences an existential threat. Extraverts might see Twitter usage as a good way to proclaim their existence to other people, even if these others are complete strangers who may have little interest in the minutiae of one’s life. Introverts appear to adopt a different strategy, so perhaps they feel a need to turn inward and be within themselves as a way of reaffirming their own existence. For introverts experiencing an existential threat, sending banal messages to strangers might seem like a superficial distraction from deeper concerns. For extraverts, such a distraction might be just what they need. The fact that they are strangers might seem less important than that they are a potential audience.
Some limitations of the study are worth noting. Participants were assigned a pre-existing Twitter account with random strangers as followers. This may not adequately reflect how people use the service in real life. Additionally, the researchers assessed participants on five personality traits yet presented results relevant to only one of them. With five sets of results, the odds are increased that statistically significant findings could occur by chance alone. Additionally, the outcome measure was the number of tweets sent and their content was not assessed. It would be interesting to explore whether message content after mortality salience differed from the control condition based on personality traits. For example, people high in neuroticism might have been more disturbed than others by writing about death and their tweets might perhaps have reflected this (e.g. “I’m freaking out about this experiment!”). Additionally, it would have been interesting to see if participants’ messages after mortality salience involved efforts to bolster self-esteem or defend their cultural world-view, which are also known to help buffer against existential threat.
This study is the first one that I know of to apply principles of TMT to social networking usage. As social networking continues to gain in popularity I would welcome more such research. I think this study shows that what may appear to some to be “pointless babble” may actually serve a deeper purpose, depending on one’s personality and momentary needs.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
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Hart, J., Shaver, P. R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). Attachment, Self-Esteem, Worldviews, and Terror Management: Evidence for a Tripartite Security System. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 999 - 1013.
Johnson, P. and Yang, S. , 2009-08-05 "Uses and Gratifications of Twitter: An Examination of User Motives and Satisfaction of Twitter Use" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Sheraton Boston, Boston, MA Online. 2012-06-20 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p376367_index.html
Qiu, L., Leung, Ka Yee Angela, Ho, J. H., Yeung, Q. M., Francis, K. J., & Chua, P. F.. (2010). Understanding the Psychological Motives Behind Microblogging. Annual Review of CyberTherapy and Telemedicine, 8, 112-114.