Why millions of brains love (and hate) twitter

Why millions of brains love (and hate) twitter

Posted Sep 27, 2009

A few nights ago I did some laps of a hotel pool in the hope of generating insights to reenergize my tired brain. (The promise of fresh ideas is how I trick myself into exercising, as I wrote about last week.)

As my heavy breathing subsided, I found myself staring at a rather beautiful and very large tree. This isn't unusual, except that I was 11 stories up in the middle of a big city. The tree was in a pot big enough to hide several people in.

I stared at the tree for several minutes. It looked like a piece of fractal art in the false light. I found myself thinking how wonderful it was that the tree knew just what to do when it was planted there. All it needed was the right conditions, soil, water and light, and it would do what trees do, grow, and make the otherwise drab concrete area more interesting to the eye.

It started to make me wonder about the conditions that are making Twitter grow all by itself, from nothing to something like six million users in a very short time. Here's my thoughts on this from the perspective of the brain, and a bit on the dark side of Twitter too.

Simplicity is it's own reward
To me, Twitter is the Google of social media. Part of Google's success is that in the early days it bet on a very different approach to online advertising. When everyone else was doing banner ads, Google decided to limit advertising to a small fixed number of characters. No pictures, no fluff.

This was very insightful. It made search results load a tiny bit faster. When you expect something to happen, and then have to wait for it, the unmet expectation can generate a slight threat response, which you feel as frustration. Also there's the frustration inherent in the uncertainty of not knowing what's happening while the page loads. On the other hand, when expectation are met in a timely way, the brain experiences a mild reward. The research behind this was done by Wolfram Schultz, who studied dopamine levels when rewards were expected, unexpected or the same.

On Google, millions of users felt a tiny fraction less frustration when searching because of this faster speed, and the rest is history. Twitter is onto the same thing. It's fast. Much faster to simply load a page than most other social media sites. It makes the site inherantly more rewarding. Facebook has been onto this insight lately, with the launch of Facebook lite.

There's another similarity to Google. On Twitter you can scroll down very quickly to overview many different ideas, choosing what's relevant to you. This pared-down approach is helpful is because of the brain's scanning function. We like to scan lots of information at high level, then choose to focus in on what's relevant or important to us. This is important as we can't focus on everything. So the less information we need to process to identify if something is relevant, the less work the brain has to do to find rewards.

Another reason why Twitter is working so well, again similar to Google, is the simplicity of the page. There's hardly anything there to distract you. Simplicity can be it's own reward. It is certainty better than generating uncertainty, which tends to be a threat. This kind of insight can be useful when designing new products or marketing campaigns. Simplicity isn't alway easy, but it can often be very rewarding.

The brain loves a good gossip
Your brain is immensely social. Here's an excerpt on this from Your Brain at Work:

If you were a wolf, large parts of your brain would be devoted to getting resources directly from the wild. You would have complex maps for interacting with the physical landscape, like maps for sniffing out a distant meal and others for finding your way home in the dark. As a human, especially when young, you get your resources not from the wild, but from other people. Because of this, large amounts of human cortical "real estate" is devoted to the social world. If you work in an office, you could probably close your eyes and describe ten people around you, how important they are in relation to each other and to you, how they feel today, whether they can be trusted, and how many favors any of them might owe you. Your memories of your social interconnections are vast.

We are rewarded when we activate this vast social network, the one in our heads, which is activated when we go to a social media site. However Twitter is a little different. It's almost like a place of whispers rather than shouting, the posts are like gossip, with lots left unsaid. (In fact some of the most popular posts are celebrity gossip.) And Gossip is something that the brain likes to do. As neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, "Four out of five processes operating in the background when your brain is at rest involve thinking about other people and yourself." Twitter gives people a chance to gossip without leaving their desk. You get to see who is linked to who, without needing to dig into any details, and without anyone knowing.

Cheap and quick status building
A third reason that perhaps Twitter is growing so fast is it taps into people's desire to grow their status. Some clues to this can be found in a survey on Twitter in Fast Company recently, called ‘Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter'. Here's the cliff notes: people retweet things that make them look smart.
This is one of the key aspects of Twitter: it's all about building your status. People use twitter to look good in the eyes of others, and to feel that they are important to others. A sense of increasing status is one of the biggest drivers of reward in the brain, as I wrote about recently in a cover story for a business journal, strategy+business (telling you the story was on the cover is good for my feeling of status too.) On Twitter, every time another person signs up to 'follow' you, you feel a little burst of reward that makes you want to post more. Everyone now gets the chance to feel important, even if non one is reading your posts.

The dark side of twitter
There's another side to Twitter though: It can be highly addictive. This kind of media activates the ‘seeking' circuits of the brain, that makes you want more and more, never feeling satisfied. It's a bit like sugar: you crave it but it's not really good for you. There's a great piece explaining the deeper neuroscience of this in Slate recently.

The problem is that the type of reward you get from Twitter seems to activate a kind of scattered, jumpy feeling. I haven't seen research on this yet, but I have noticed it in myself. If I have something to write, I'd much rather just hang out on Twitter and look around a while first. And when I then try to write, I find my brain isn't in the right gear, it's overly stimulated. It reminds of the research on being ‘always on' that Linda Stone (who coined the term 'continuous partial attention) has published on. A University of London study found that being always connected was reducing people's IQ equivalent to losing a night's sleep or taking up marijuana. I can't speak of the latter, but as a frequent traveler know the feeling of the former. It does indeed feel, after time on Twitter, like I haven't slept and can't focus on harder tasks.

So the answer to this I think is to manage your twitterings carefully, if it's something you want to do. I do find it useful for gathering ideas, for seeing trends, and knowing what's happening in my own field, plus for connecting with people I wouldn't otherwise, all of which can be great for generating more positive dopamine as I wrote about a few weeks ago. It just has to be used carefully.

Coming up...
In the next few weeks I am going to post about managing distractions, and why your brain loves and hates email. Am also working on a piece on why positive changes seem to sometimes get strong reactions from people. And if you can't wait till next week to see what's going on in my head, connect with me on Twitter, where I do post musings daily (and I indeed try, and sometimes fail, to only log on here and there...).