The Psychology of Twitter

by Erin Kent

psychology of twitter infographic

Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has become a cultural phenomenon, providing everyone from celebrities to politicians to “regular” people with a platform to share rapid bursts of information with followers – or rather, fellow Tweeters – around the world.  In an age where millions of people document almost every aspect of their lives online, it begs the question: what are the psychological reasons behind our voracious appetite for social media, Twitter included?

Humans are social creatures who constantly seek to fulfill basic emotional needs, including belonging, social acceptance, self-esteem and validation.  Twitter allows people to connect with other users (both near and far) and spark relationships based on mutually shared interests, fostering a sense of belonging or acceptance by others.  Gaining followers, likes or re-tweets can bolster a person’s feelings of social acceptance, validation, and eventually, their self-esteem – even if these interactions exist only in the virtual world. 

Psychology of Social Media

The psychological benefits of Twitter may seem overwhelmingly positive – who doesn’t want to feel liked or validated by their peers? – but social media can bring out the worst in others .  While some people may use it as a healthy outlet to express their emotions and opinions, others abuse it as a way to indulge in extreme narcissism, sharing the minutiae of their lives (“Just ate Cheerios for breakfast!”) or a constant stream of selfies.  At its worst, some abuse Twitter as a way to viciously bully others behind the safety and anonymity of a computer screen.  A recent example: Zelda Williams, daughter of the late actor Robin Williams, was forced to quit Twitter after receiving a barrage of cruel Tweets about her father’s suicide.  Williams isn’t the first (and likely won’t be the last) person to quit social media because of bullying. 

Regardless of its positive or negative side effects on human psychology, the reality is that most people share some part of their lives online – eight out of ten, to be exact.[i]  For better or for worse, humans have elevated social media to a primary method of communication, and in some cases, even use it to replace more traditional ways of interacting with family, friends and acquaintances.   Everything from marriage proposals – like the first ever one that occurred on Twitter in 2008[ii] – to birth announcements to break-ups occur via Twitter on a regular basis.   Instead of talking about last night’s episode of a hit TV show around the proverbial water cooler, people are tweeting about it during the episode instead.  

In fact, a recent study showed that 85% of users active on Twitter during primetime TV hours tweet about what they’re watching, and that 90% of people who saw TV-related tweets ended up watching, searching for or sharing content about a show.[iii]  Twitter’s psychological influence on the masses can’t be denied, which is why social media platforms have also become vehicles for businesses, organizations, and public figures to reach a broader audience.    For many, the goal is to enlist as many Twitter followers as possible, but this isn’t always an easy task.  Growing a devoted following requires Tweeters to carefully craft their messaging, post interesting content that’s “retweet-worthy,” and connect with other influential Twitter members, among other tactics. 

Helpful Tweeting

However, not everything shared on Twitter is for personal or commercial gain. Some argue that Twitter now functions more as a “news service” than a social network, helping people get the information they need during natural disasters and other life or death events.  Organizations like the Red Cross use Twitter to disseminate crucial information to the public during emergency situations, such as shelter locations and how to get aid.  AMBER alerts are now blasted over Twitter and Facebook to notify millions of people about missing children – and one child in 2011, one-year-old Jaylin Boudria, was found save just five hours later as a result.[iv]

Social media has become instrumental to the way modern day humans communicate with each other and share important information – and its popularity shows no signs of stopping.  The field of psychology may begin to ramp up studies on the way social media platforms, including Twitter, affect people, their emotions and interpersonal relationships.  Those with psychology careers - like organizational psychologists- may deepen their research on how social media affects consumer behavior and public relations.  Communication and psychology are inextricably linked – and if social media remains a primary mode of human connection, psychology leaders and students will continue to explore its impact on the psyches of millions of people around the world.