Since I first wrote about the psychology of twitter back in February, other professionals have chimed in (with confusingly similar titles for their own blog entries on this topic), including this one which is not the first to mention Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it comes to twitter. As an aside, I find that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a favorite fallback whenever someone is attempting to explain something in context of human behavior. However, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is very Psychology 101ish, so I tend to look for the nuances of human behavior and its intersection with technology.
Twitter is called a “micro blogging” service, because like blogs, it allows you to write anything you want and publish it instantaneously online. Except, instead of a website, it goes into the depths of twitter’s servers and each entry can only be 140 characters long. Unlike blogging, twitter is far more similar to a stream of conversation, or as Susannah Fox from the Pew Internet and American Life Project describes it, a “cocktail party conversation.”
In describing twitter, you begin to already get a sense of what’s different and unique about it — its very description often tells you something more about the person describing it than the service itself. In this way, twitter becomes like a Rorschach Inkblot test — it is whatever you want it to be.
You can see that no more clearly that to browse through the vast amount of commentary already posted online discussing twitter itself — why people twitter, how to twitter best, how to improve your brand by twittering, how to make new friends on twitter, what the proper twitter etiquette should be. For instance, I’ve been told I should follow everyone that follows me. In some ways, this has worked out great, because it has already expanded my twitter horizons and introduced me to people I may have never met. But at the same time, doing so has drastically reduced my inclination (and ability) to actively follow my own twitter feed.
Tweetdeck, for instance, is an application that you can run to help you manage your twitterverse. But to make the most use of it, it needs to be fully opened, taking up your entire screen. You can imagine what this does for productivity. Unlike email, the twitter stream of 140 character entries never stops. You can check your email, reply to people needing replying to, and be done with it in 5 minutes (or an hour if it’s been awhile). But with twitter, if you leave for an hour and are following hundreds or even thousands of other people, forget it — you will never “catch up” and read all those past tweets.
Why Do People Twitter?
This has got to the be the most popular question of the moment, and the one I get asked most often by reporters and the media. The answer is simple — people twitter for all the different reasons there are people. It’s like asking, “Why do people blog?” “Why do people publish websites?” “Why do some people choose to write novels that will never get published?” “Why do some people want to become teachers, while others choose to be stockbrokers?”
These questions that ask the “Why” nearly always make an unspoken assumption that there is a singular or set of reasons that would adequately explain most people’s behavior. But when it comes to twitter, it is as useless a question as asking why you have the friends you do. People twitter for hundreds of reasons, from wanting to keep in better touch with co-workers and friends, to expanding their horizons in a hobby or profession. They twitter to improve their own self-brand, or to market a product, music, you name it.
But if there’s a core reason why people twitter, I would suggest that it is mainly to stay and feel connected with one another. It is simply socializing on a vast, unheard of scale. Whether it’s with people we actually know and trust, or complete strangers, in our increasingly inattention- and interruption-driven world, twitter is the perfect complement. It says, “Hey, I will not only reinforce your inattention, I will celebrate it!” While most people twitter while doing other things, the twittering makes a person feel even more connected to others who aren’t with them at the moment than any previous technology ever has.
And that’s a key point — there has been nothing like twitter in previous human experience. Nothing. Publishing online could be related back to the leaflets from colonial days that anyone could and did print up and distribute cheaply. Blogs could be related back to journaling and diaries, which were even shared at one time as entertainment value in the early 20th century. Even other social networks, you could relate back to talking on the phone as a teen, and the interest and desire to become popular as a younger adult or teenager.
But twitter? Twitter is unlike any other previous human experience with technology. There’s never been a time in human existence where people could be in a group, socializing, and at the same time, actively socializing with an entirely different group of people who were not in the room. Twitter is social conversation online — it is indeed the “cocktail party” conversation that is always on, always available, any time, day or night, wherever you might be in the world. And readily accessible on your cell phone.
That’s what makes twitter unique and different from online chat rooms, which are often inaccessible or difficult to use on a cell phone. Twitter’s joy is that it’s easy to catch up with your “followers” anywhere, anytime, with virtually any technology.
So there’s no great magic to understanding the true psychology of twitter and why it has become so popular, so quickly. People like to socialize with other people, and twitter makes such socialization extremely simple and “always on.” Simple as that, case closed.
Now excuse me, I have to go back to my twitter feed and see what I’ve missed since I started writing this.