I get twitchy whenever I notice an article entitled ‘The Psychology of X’. More often than not, that phrase can be read ‘What I think about X’. So it is with twitchiness that read The Psychology of Twitter over at World of Psychology on PsychCentral.
What is Twitter? The article’s author, John M. Grohol, provides a good summary:
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!).
Grohol, a psychologist, goes on to talk about the pros and cons of Twitter. As for pros:
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.
As for cons:
Twitter can […] 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.
While we’re being psychological, I’d like to add that this can be viewed from a behaviourist perspective. Psychological behaviourism is a way of looking at the world in terms of the relationship between the animal (that’s you) and the environment (that’s your computer). It seems to me that an important factor in the attractiveness of Twitter lies in the pseudo-random occurrence of things that we consider important. For us, this is something just plain interesting, like Stephen Fry sharing his views on a new gadget, or the fact that Roger N. Morris has shaved off his beard. Such things are not earth-quivveringly important (except to Roger’s dinner companions) but they do serve as reinforcers in the parlance of the behavioural psychologist.
What you have, then, is known as a variable interval schedule of reinforcement. In other words, you can never truly predict when the next interesting tweet is about to arrive. From decades of empirical research, we know that behaviour that is randomly reinforced is very difficult to extinguish. This underlies — some would go so far as say to ‘explain’ — problematic gambling behaviour. Think of a fruit machine: You’ve got to keep feeding the slot with money because maybe, just maybe, the sweet reinforcement of a jackpot is around the corner.
Twitter: It could be you.