The Psychology of TwitterTwitter is a social networking application that does only one thing — allows the mutual sharing of 140 character communications (called “tweets”). Why the 140 character limit? So you can send text updates from your cell phone as well as the net.

If you haven’t used or even heard of Twitter, don’t worry, you’re not alone. As of now, only 11 percent of American Internet users have used something like Twitter (that number also includes people who simply update their status in Facebook, so we don’t know the true, lower number of Twitter-only users) (Lenhart & Fox, 2009). Twitter is a service used more widely the younger you are (up to 20 percent of those under 34 have used it or a status update service) (Lenhart & Fox, 2009).

The best way to imagine Twitter is as a 24/7 online conversation that never ends, even when you’re away from the computer. Since tweets are so short, they better take on more of an immersive, real-time feel of a talking conversation than, say, an email. Think instant messaging, except instead of talking to a single person, you’re talking to the world (and the world talks back!).

We’ve been down this road before. Despite the relative ease of creating a web page and putting it somewhere online in 1996 (GeoCities was an online community that hosted such pages and had millions of users at one point), online conversation really began on the web with the advent of blogs. It opened up web-based, two-way conversation, allowing feedback on what one wrote online:

Static Web page Blogs
One to many
Limited conversation
One to many
Open public conversation
(public feedback loop)
IM/Chat rooms Twitter
One to one/many
Difficult to access
(especially on cell phones)
One to one/many
Easy to access
Far more public
(public feedback loop)

Twitter is doing the same thing for online chat. Long available in other forms, such as IRC, IM or the thousands of individual chat rooms scattered around the net, chat is the informal streaming conversation done in real-time. The important differences that Twitter brings to the party is that its chat room is readily accessible to anyone, the conversation is automatically stored forever, it’s all readily searchable, and most importantly, it can act as a shared communications medium (like a regular chat room) or a private one (like IM). Twitter also supports applications that make twittering easy from anywhere. And just like blogging before it, one of Twitter’s primary uses seems to be to share URLs of other interesting, helpful or entertaining resources online (which depends entirely on whom you choose to “follow,” e.g. — add as a “friend”).

The Pros and Cons of Twitter

Because of this, Twitter has some unique pros and cons.

On the pros side, Twitter is yet another way to communicate online. I’m not certain anyone thought we needed this (“Oh great, one more thing I need to keep updated!”), but its popularity speaks to an unfilled communications void. The fact that it allows you to also update your status on other social networks means it can act as a central “status updating” service.

But more importantly, Twitter acts as a new public, global conversation medium. Like blogging before it, it has the potential to move us away from the “1.0” tools (like IM and chat rooms) to bring conversational chat out of the dark back rooms and into the public light.

This is a key point, because humans are inherently social creatures who engage primarily in conversational talking. Most of us aren’t authors and don’t write books, articles, or even blogs. We simply know how to talk, and Twitter is the first text service to adequately mimic this behavior in an online medium.

On the cons side, Twitter celebrates public conversation. This means that the private messaging tools are limited and not the default. Once you tweet something, it’s out there in the world forever (and stored to be searchable in the future on Twitter’s servers). The good news is that unlike Facebook, when you delete your Twitter account, your Twitter history is also gone.

Twitter can also bring about a feeling that you’re “missing something” when you’re not online and see your Twitter feed. Normal human conversations have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Twitter has none of these things — it’s continuous and nonstop, even when you’re gone. This can impart a sense of needing to “always be there” to see what’s going on. This isn’t necessarily a new feeling for some people, but the constant conversational updating on Twitter brings it to a new level.

This behavior can be unlearned, however, as it’s simply a way we’ve been taught to have a conversation with others when those conversations nearly always occurred face-to-face. Online, with no such limits as needing to be there at exactly the same time as another person, many of us will have to learn that it’s okay to step away from the conversation and come back to it at another time. It also means, however, that others need not to expect all replies in Twitter to be instantaneous. Just like email, some people will have it on all the time, and others will only check it once a day.

Which brings us to one of the biggest downsides of Twitter, and that’s knowing what you missed — you simply don’t know. Unless you have the time to go back and review everything “said” while you were away from the computer (bad you, trying to sleep!), you’re going to miss stuff. And although it’s unlikely to be important stuff (you can easily review direct and private messages sent only to you), you just don’t know.

This not knowing if you’ve missed anything “important” in the Twitterverse is a characteristic of the increase in information overload many people are beginning to experience. Between blogs, RSS feeds, news headlines, emails, Facebook status updates, and now Twitter, many people are starting to look like zombies trying to process all the information being pushed to them. Good information helps us (lead more productive lives, stay informed, etc.), while bad information results in a waste of our time and cognitive resources. But tools like Twitter don’t differentiate, all the while pushing dozens (or hundreds!) of updates to our eyes everyday.

And that’s supposedly a good thing, according to some arguments made by many people who are mesmerized by Twitter. There are “jewels” in there somewhere, sometimes, that make all the endless drivel acceptable. I suppose so, but it can very much be like waiting for a thoughtful needle to poke you from the haystack of the mundane.

Which is all the more ironic given that computers are ideal tools for helping us sift through vast amounts of data and making sense of the data (trends, significance, etc.). But Twitter turns that idea on its head and instead sends us the unfiltered stream of consciousness from millions of people. While certainly potentially interesting and even fascinating at times, most people aren’t simply up to that kind of data dump on top of their existing daily routines (and existing, limited cognitive resources).

Twitter is helpful for those who find it so, but it’s not for everyone (just like blogs, Facebook, and even an iPhone). Whether it holds value for you and improves your everyday life and information flow is something you’ll only find out if you try it yourself.

Ready for more? Read the Psychology of Twitter, Part 2


Lenhart, A. & Fox., S. (2009). Twitter and status updating. Pew Internet & American Life Project.