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Understanding the Psychology of Twitter

The psychological functions that Twitter fulfills.

Twitter has officially become the next big thing in terms of Internet social phenomena, so I can't resist writing about it... just like everyone else. Understanding the psychology of Twitter as a case study helps innovators learn how to better predict and even invent emerging white space market opportunities. And so, this is an exploration into the existential psychology of and underlying meaning — and meaninglessness — of Twitter, to understand its meteoric rise in the Internet world.

First of all, if you've never used or even heard of Twitter, don't worry, you're not alone. As of now, less than 10 percent of American Internet users actually Tweet, but it's growing like crazy: unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, making it the fastest growing social media site in the world.

Essentially, Twitter is an automated service for sharing of short 140-character communications. Why the 140 character limit? So you can send tweets from your cell phone as well as your computer. Pretty much every major celebrity has a twitter channel, from Britney Spears to Stephen Coubert and John Cleese, as the system has become the promotional channel du jour. In fact, Twitter's greatest challenge is the risk of collapsing under its own weight, as servers crash due to the unprecedented volume of traffic and the complexity of revenue models beckon.

Some feel that Twitter is the killer app for killing time, filling any moment with useless drivel — "boy, I love lightly scrambled eggs", "appletini or dirty martini? reply now to tell what I should order", "stop & shop is out of weight watchers brownies, but price chopper has 'em." I mean, it's crazy. NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program even figured out how to get plants to twitter when they're thirsty!

Most interesting is how the Twitter system acts to fill a deep psychological need in our society. The unfortunate reality is that we are a culture starved for real community. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have resided in tribes of about 30-70 people. Our brains are wired to operate within the social context of community — programming both crucial and ancient for human survival.

However, the tribal context of life was subverted during the Industrial Revolution, when the extended family was torn apart in order to move laborers into the cities. But a deep evolutionary need for community continues to express itself, through feelings of community generated by your workplace, your church, your sports team, and now... the Twitterverse. This is why people feel so compelled to tweet, to Facebook or even to check their email incessantly. We crave connection.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It's useful to dig a bit deeper into our need for community. In fact, needs analysis one of the most powerful tools for innovators to understand, which invariably leads to the meaning of their products. So let's look at Twitter in the context of Abraham Maslow's concept of a hierarchy of needs, first presented in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation."

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is most often displayed as a pyramid, with lowest levels of the pyramid made up of the most basic needs and more complex needs are at the top of the pyramid. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid are basic physical requirements including the need for food, water, sleep and warmth. Once these lower-level needs have been met, people can move on to higher levels of needs, which become increasingly psychological and social. Soon, the need for love, friendship and intimacy become important. Further up the pyramid, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment become important. Finally, Maslow emphasized the importance of self-actualization, which is a process of growing and developing as a person to achieve individual potential.

Twitter aims primarily at social needs, like those for belonging, love, and affection. Relationships such as friendships, romantic attachments and families help fulfill this need for companionship and acceptance, as does involvement in social, community or religious groups. Clearly, feeling connected to people via Twitter helps to fulfill some of this need to belong and feel cared about.

An even higher level of need, related to self-esteem and social recognition, is also leveraged by Twitter. Twitter allows normal people to feel like celebrities. At its worst, Twitter is an exercise in unconditional narcissism — the idea that others might actually care about the minutiae of our daily lives. I believe that this phenomena of micro-celebrity is driven by existential anxiety. I twitter, therefore I am. I matter. I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggoneit, people like me!

"We are the most narcissistic age ever," agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. "Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognize you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won't cure it."

This leads me to a few other problems I have with Twitter and social activity monitoring in general. First, it makes it much easier for stalkers to follow you. Stalkers give me the willies, and better tools need to be in place to identify those you don't want following your every move. However, in Los Angeles, most people celebrate their first official stalker as a benchmark of success. Second, there is a remarkable loss of focus and presence that comes with the information overload that multi-tasking brings. Twitter is like digital crack that invariably turns you into a tweetker — no matter how much of it you get, you'll never be satisfied. If you've ever woken up at 3 a.m. to check your email or read tweets, you know what I mean. You know the cold clammy fingers of existential anxiety.

Self-Actualization via Tweets

A more valuable technology tool for humanity might be the opposite of Twitter — an application that removes distractions from life, reconnects you to real relationships and human touch, and helps you find the time to focus on what really matters in life. It's an old joke, "Second Life, heck! I can't even keep up with my first one!"

Which leads me to return to the remaining highest level in the Maslovian hierarchy of needs - how people might use Twitter to self-actualize. Currently, there are over 200 marketing guru's teaching about how to use Twitter as a marketing channel. How far behind could the spiritual guru's be? The spiritually ubiquitous Deepak Chopra has a twitter channel. So does the motivational guru Tony Robbins. Existential psychology theory explains that the core tendency of the self-actualizing person is to achieve authentic being. Can Twitter possibly aid in achieving authentic being, or is it fundamentally "mitwelt" - reinforcing the social and interpersonal aspects of life, and thus a distraction from "eigenwelt" - where the treasure of the self is hidden? What would Rollo May do? What would Heidegger say?

Perhaps this is the highest meaning of Twitter: it's really just a massive social art project. It's really nothing more than a fun and immersive conceptual art installation about humanity and by humanity, composed of individual 140 character haikus. (In fact, there's even a name for the perfect tweet haiku... twoosh! It's when your tweet hits exactly 140 characters and makes that sound. Tweet + swoosh. Nothing but net.) In fact, all the twooshes in the world add up into a giant global pachinko machine, made all the more addictive because Twitter's software designers were clever enough to program in tenacious intermittent reward systems, so you end up like a loser in Vegas, behaviorally trapped at the slot machines of life.

Ask yourself, when you twitter, are you tweeting like a caged bird or exclaiming your passion and enjoying the spaciality of existence? Medard Boss, a Swiss psychiatrist who developed daseinsanalysis and who coined the term, wrote, "Openness constitutes the true nature of spatiality in the human world. I am more open to my distant friend and he is clearer to me than my neighbor is." Isn't that exactly what the openness of the Internet enables - making distant friends clearer than the neighbor next door?

Perhaps the key distinction lies in whether you are truly enjoying humanity's meta-haiku, or is the motivation to twitter actually a fear of being alone? Kierkegaard once said that true heroism is "daring to be entirely oneself, alone before God." Is Twitter actually powered by a global case of monophobia?

Perhaps a more enlightened way to look at it is that you aren't adding to the spam or garbage-in-garbage-out overload, you're really just enjoying a cyber-zen moment of mindfulness to be present and tweet thyself. We're all interconnected now — each of us acting like a single neuron in humanity's brain, firing bits of electricity at one another, slowly coadunating and collectively struggling toward a great awakening. That awakening could turn out to be the next stage in our evolution, and a single tweet the butterfly's wings that eventually leads to a big bang of global meta-consciousness.

To me, the twitterverse is like a river of human awareness, composed of billions of tiny 140 character molecules — each a snapshot of life or a thought or a reflection. A river of pure information that equals energy, according to the laws of quantum thermodynamics and stochastic processes. A river of life flowing by us as we meditate at its bank like some Siddhartha wannabe, in tattered jeans and Oakley sunglasses instead of orchid robes and begging bowl. And now, after long last, we see.

We see the beauty of the river, that some now call ambient awareness.

We reach in and touch the water of human consciousness.

Little eddies form — those are called tweetclouds.

We can be one with the river.

Or not.

It's all good.

PS, here's a link to Part II of this article where we delve into issues like the neuroscience of twittering, advanced usage, psycholinguistics of emotional communication and empathy.

Finally, if you'd like to watch a delightful cartoon editorial about the Twitter rage, go to: Current TV's season premiere of SuperNews!, the Twouble with Twitter.

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