The Tweets That Bond

The social psychology of twitter

Posted Mar 22, 2011

Twitter, that form of social media in which we let others know our deepest thoughts in 140 characters or less, regularly takes a beating in the popular press. We remember Sarah Palin's infamous tweets and the parodies of those tweets, and wonder how people can be so foolish to (a) broadcast these messages, and (b) to waste time reading them.  My students chide me when I suggest that they follow news about psychology, or just news in general, on Twitter. "I don't have 'a' Twitter," they proclaim proudly as if it was some sort of disease.  These same students, I might add, feel no qualms about using Facebook to advertise just about everything they're doing at every minute of the day and night, and without the potential censorship of a 140 character limit. One plus for Twitter, as Polonius stated in "Hamlet," "brevity is the soul of wit" (or it can be).

I suppose Twitter gets a bad reputation among the young in part because it's now become a "grown-up" thing, though ironically, Facebook certainly has been invaded by plenty of parents if not grandparents. Maybe it's the fact that many people seem to use Twitter to sell specific products and have nothing to say of any particular value other than product or name promotion. Seeing a string of strange characters such as #'s  and @'s and even stranger combinations of letters and characters such as #FF,  RT, MT, and so on, may make the uneducated believe that Twitter is nothing more than a bunch of people shouting profanities into cyber space.

There's also a sense that Twitter feeds people's narcissism. Some years ago, Tufts psychologist David Elkind, coined the term "imaginary audience" to refer to egocentric illusion held by teenagers that others are watching and commenting on their every move. With Twitter, the imaginary audience isn't completely imaginary. Actual people are potentially there to share every one of your inane thoughts or laugh at each of your witty observations.

Twitter also takes a few knocks from people who don't like reading that their Twitter buddies are doing something more fun and exciting than they are. According to a report in the New York Times, many twitterers attending the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (#sxsw) ticked off their followers by announcing which famous person they saw or heard, or in general just letting everyone who wasn't there find out what they were missing.  Though Glee's recent hit song "Loser Like Me" extolled the virtues of being lower in the social hierarchy than everyone else, most ordinary folk would prefer not to be reminded that they haven't made it to the "D," "E", or "F," much less the "A" list.

So the Twitter bashing continues. Yet, from my own personal experience, I haven't been bothered at all by spending time on Twitter and, in fact, I've found it to be (mostly) fun and useful. So far, no one has forced me to read anyone tweet's that I don't want to read. Quite the contrary, I've learned, in real time, about major news stories as they unfold. I've been made aware of important findings in psychology and neuroscience and even picked up some great new quotes ("#quote") and trivia ("#trivia").  And I've met some colleagues and friends I never would have otherwise gotten to know. At a recent conference I attended, I had the opportunity to meet a grad student who was known to me at first only by his Twitter name. Since then, we've stayed in touch and I've enjoyed following his news. At another meeting of psychologists, I happened to sit next to someone who figured out that I was @swhitbo. A few months ago, I also had a long and engaging phone conversation with another psychologist who, as it turned out, knew quite a few people who I know and who I now regularly swap advice with.  

I figured there must be many other people like me who've enhanced their actual social networks with their virtual communities, so I decided to go online to see if there was any research on this topic. Sure enough, among the articles about bird songs ("tweet, tweet") that popped up in my university library's database I came across the perfect study.  Conducted by Syracuse University grad student Gina Masullo Chen and published in March 2011's issue of Computers in Human Behavior, the article applies a "Uses and Gratifications" (U&G) perspective to understanding the lure that Twitter holds for certain people. The U&G perspective proposes that among the many media that compete for our attention, we select the one that meets our own particular needs, whether it's getting information, emotional connections, or status (or some combination of the above).  The questions of interest that Chen asked concerned whether Twitter met the participant's need for affiliation, a concept based on the well-known motivational theories of Abraham Maslow and Henry Murray.  Among the online survey sample of 437 adults (average age34 years), the extent of Twitter activity an individual engaged in was positively related to the person's need for affiliation.  In other words, Twitter was helping to satisfy a person's desire to connect. This relationship held even when controlling for relevant demographic factors such as age, education, income, gender, and race.

If you are or were a psychology major, by now you're repeating the

My twitterverse

well-known mantra "Correlation does not equal causation." Chen herself states that there's a lot she didn't account for in the study such as personality and use of other social media. I would also be interested in knowing more about the quality of participants' other social relationships. Is Twitter, as some might argue, making up for a gap in the person's actual life?  Do people prefer Twitter because they can keep their social contacts at bay? You can unfollow someone you don't like on Twitter, but it's a little harder to accomplish the same goal when your best friend, spouse, or business partner starts to annoy you.  In the world of Twitter, unfollowing is a step that people are advised not to "take personally." Not so with your true social contacts.

Nevertheless, as I observed in an earlier Psych Today article on Facebook's advantages, there can be benefits to this form of social interaction. When you're feeling lonely, bored, or stuck in line somewhere, should you happen to have mobile Twitter, you can take a quick peek at what your tweeps are doing and feel a little less frustrated with real life.  Just try to avoid twittcrasternation.  There are also useful ways to incorporate Twitter into your work life.  Viennese researchers Stefan Stieger and Christoph Burger used Twitter as an evaluation tool in a college course. Rather than wait until the end of the semester to obtain course ratings (as is typically done), they encouraged students to submit ratings on a daily basis through a Twitter account established just for the course. This creative use of Twitter could be adapted to other situations in which you desire real-time assessments. And the best thing is, it's free!

However it's important to educate yourself in the way to maximize your Twitter effectiveness, or in Twitter parlance become a true "Twitterati:"

1. Watch out for scams: I'll start with a couple of "don't's." Some twitter-folks do not have your need for affiliation in mind. Always check weblinks, when provided, of potential people to follow (make sure your virus definitions are updated first!).

2. Choose carefully: One of my Twitter friends advised me not to follow someone who you wouldn't talk to in real life. If you get a bad vibe about someone, don't feel you have to follow that person back (although don't pre-judge someone by their Twitter name alone).

3. Find sources that genuinely interest you: Choose Twitter accounts to follow that will enhance a knowledge base that matters to you, whether it's in the area of the news, your hobbies, or your profession.

4. Use a scheduling program for your own tweets. If you take advantage of a program that gives you a chance to think twice before you tweet, then you'll be less likely to feel "tweepish" (regretful of a mistweet).

5. Live in the real moment, not the tweeted one. If you're tweeting about what you're doing instead of doing it, then you may be using Twitter to compensate for something missing in your actual life. Keep your sense of perspective.

Social media is what we make of it. Use Twitter and other social media as the added spice to your social life, not the meat and potatoes.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011



Chen, G.M. (2011) Tweet this: A uses and gratifications perspective on how active Twitter use gratifies a need to connect with others. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 755-762.

Stieger, S. & Burger, C. (2010). Let's Go Formative: Continuous Student Ratings with Web 2.0 Application Twitter.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 164-167.