When I choose someone new to follow, when I compose a new tweet, when I share and favorite an update, I seldom think about the why. My following sessions would probably seem haphazard to an outsider, and my favoriting technique comes and goes from one strategy to another.

Even so, the way I use Twitter is far less random than I thought. There is science and psychology behind the way we all tweet.

Researchers have discovered trends in the way that we perform every major action on Twitter—favoriting, updating, sharing, and following. And there’s even an interesting bit of psychology behind what makes Twitter so attractive in the first place. Here’s a look at the psychology of Twitter: what makes us follow, favorite, share and keep coming back for more.

Why we love Twitter so much: Rats, levers and psychology

I’ve hit more than my fair share of Twitter wormholes—minutes that turn to hours as I find more and more tweets to read and share. Does that sound familiar to you, too?

I figured there was a psychological reason behind the draw of Twitter. After digging around, sure enough, I came across a perfect explanation of this phenomenon, courtesy of Dr. Marion Underwood, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas.

The type of reinforcement schedule that is the most reinforcing is what’s called an intermittent schedule.

So, you have a rat pushing a lever and he gets rewarded, but not in a predictable way. Many times, that animal pushes that lever and nothing comes, but every once in a while, it gets a great treat. So the rat keeps pressing and pressing and pressing even though there’s not much reinforcement coming because every once in a while, it’s just great.

This hit home for me. Twitter offers these intermittent rewards that keep us coming back. Maybe you’ll check Twitter once and have a notification that someone retweeted you. That’s enough to keep you coming back a handful more times, even if nothing new and rewarding has occurred. We keep pushing the lever, hoping for something great.

The concept makes complete sense for those who wind up checking Twitter multiple times each day (same goes for email, too).

And just as there is psychology behind why we love Twitter so much, there’s science and data behind the many different ways we interact with one another. Here are three of the most interesting studies I’ve come across.

Why we follow: The 15 factors that affect follower growth 

What spurs us to follow someone on Twitter? Researchers at Georgia Tech and Michigan combined to study the factors involved in following.

Their study looked at more than 500 Twitter users and a half-million of their tweets and analyzed follower count over a 15-month period—one of the longest timeframes you’ll see in a Twitter study.

The research team worked from a basis of follower growth factors that were made up of variables from social science, linguistics, computer-mediated communication, and network theory. In other words, if there is any reason why someone would follow someone else on Twitter, this study accounted for it.

The factors they came up with boiled down to three categories: social behaviors, message content, and social network structure. Here are the individual factors for each, starting with social behaviors:

  • Tweet volume
  • Burstiness – tweets per hour
  • Interactions – replies, mentions, and favorites
  • Broadcast communication – the ratio of tweets with no @-mention
  • Trustworthiness of the profile – How well is the bio filled out? Is there a URL in the profile? Is there a location listed?

The individual factors for message content:

  • Positive/negative sentiment
  • Informational content – ratio of tweets containing either a URL, RT, MT, HT, or “via”
  • Meformer content – ratio of tweets containing self-referencing pronouns like “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us”
  • Topic focus
  • Retweets – how often your content gets retweeted
  • Hashtag usage
  • TReDIX – Tweet Reading Difficulty Index (based on the frequency of real English words longer than 6 letters)

The individual factors in social network structure:

  • Reciprocity – The number of people you follow who also follow you
  • Attention-status ratio – Total followers compared to total following
  • Network overlap – How similar are the people you follow to those a follower follows

Knowing what’s behind each of these factors, how would you rate them in terms of importance? Which factor helps gain the most followers?

The winner is network overlap.


Follower growth stats

In the chart above, you’ll see that the effect on follower growth spills to both sides of the x-axis. So not only can you see that network overlap, retweetable content, and a good bio have positive effects on gaining followers, you might also notice that broadcast communication (e.g. tweets with no @-mention), negativity, and hashtags drive follower growth down.

Takeaway: The PsyBlog has a nice recap of the findings from this study, summarizing points of emphasis from the research data. If you want to grow your followers, try these tips:

  1. Avoid negative sentiments
  2. Inform, don’t meform
  3. Boost social proof
  4. Stay on topic
  5. Write well and avoid hashtag abuse
  6. Switch from broadcast to direct tweets

Why we share: A guide to penning the most shareable tweet

I’m sure we’d all love to know what makes for a perfect tweet. Cornell researchers were interested, too.

They conducted a study that examined more than 1.7 million tweet pairs, comparing the differences in language between the two tweets and assigning value based on which style of tweet gains more retweets. Their conclusion:

Helpful wording heuristics include adding more information, making one’s language aligned with both community norms and with one’s prior messages, and mimicking news headlines.

If you were looking for an exact formula of a perfect tweet, the researchers didn’t find one. They did, however, offer a large number of best practices to go along with their conclusion above.

  • It helps to ask people to share
  • Informativeness helps
  • Sound like your community
  • Imitate headlines
  • Refer to other people but not to your audience (“he” and “she” rather than “you”)
  • Generality helps (“a” and “an” rather than “the”)
  • The easier to read, the better

Perhaps best of all, the research team put together a tool based on their findings that can help you perfect your posts. Enter two similar tweets into the Retweeted More tool, and you’ll get an algorithmic answer about which is better.

(Ready for some practice? See how you fare against the algorithm by taking this 25-question test–see if you can pick the tweets that got shared more.)

Takeaway: Take inspiration from headlines and from your past successful tweets (your Buffer analytics can help with this) to write a tweet that is optimized for sharing. Try out the Retweeted More tool to test different versions.

(If you’re curious what we’ve found works best for retweets, check out the recap from our Twitter webinar.)

Why we favorite: Reaction & function

A study published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence sought to put our myriad favoriting methods into categories. They quizzed a group of more than 600 Twitter users by asking two questions:

  1. Explain why you tend to favorite tweets.
  2. Explain the reasons for your most recent favorited tweet.

They received more than 331 answers to these questions and placed each answer into one or more categories. Here’s the full taxonomy of categories they used to classify favorites.

Reasons why we favorite Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 11.25.35 AM

What’s interesting about the way these 331 answers fell is that there came about two distinct use cases for favorites. The research found that people favorite a tweet for one of two reasons:

  • Reaction/response
  • Function/purpose

The psychology here is quite interesting. Reactions and responses occur directly due to the content of the tweet or the author of the tweet. We favorite what we like. We favorite our friends and family (and, if I’m being honest, celebrities). When we favorite for utility, we’re seeking to fulfill a goal or a purpose. We favorite to bookmark. We favorite to communicate.

(If you’ve ever favorited something you agree with, your favorite would fall into the function/purpose category. According to the study’s authors, favoriting as agreeing is intended for the author; liking for the person doing the favoriting.)

TakeawayClassifying favorites is nothing new; we all seem to have a method of favoriting tweets. The research shows, at least, that our method isn’t necessarily unique to us. For every user who favorites their friends, there’s a user who’s favoriting for bookmarks.

Do these insights ring true to you?

Psychology shows us how Twitter can be so addicting: We crave a great experience each time we pull the Twitter lever, and it keeps us coming back for more.

Research and data reveal a bit into the way that we use Twitter. We follow based on our network, we retweet based on tried-and-true formulas, and we favorite for reaction or function.

How do these Twitter findings fit with your experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter

Image credits: See-ming Lee, AAAI

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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Humans, we have been told, are attracted to the negative. Contradiction here

    • Movie Munce

      Maybe so, but if I bash a film with a negative review, the negativity hurts me and falls on deaf ears. When I talk about how great a film is, people RT way more.

      • Dan Messina

        Yeah, people are more likely to comment on a negative or controversial post than rt or follow. Although you do have a greater chance of stirring up engagement (comments). Doesn’t Dan Zarella’s studies show that neutrality is actually the worst for engagement, whereas positivity or negativity (not too much though) is the best. But, yeah no one’s going to follow you if all your posts are negative.

  • Movie Munce

    Twitter needs to make favorites beneficial. Retweets are the holy grail. An RT spreads my message, grows my followers, and makes my day. A favorite is a slap in the face. Every time you favorite someone, a fairy dies.

    • I agree. I am uncertain what a favourite means to a particular individual. i know some use it as “like” in Facebook. But it goes no further. I Tweet for autism awareness at weekends and favorites are infuriating. I need RTs. And if I say so, I get favourites. Only one individual I know, uses favorite as a bookmark to read a link later

  • Dan Messina

    Great write up! Nir Eyal covers the psychology behind why Twitter was successful pretty well in Hooked. The variable, or intermittent, rewards definitely play an important role. I like how this takes it a bit further with the reasons behind specific actions taken on the platform – Did you link to your ‘How to Win Friends and Influence Your Audience’ article? Seems like it’s quite relevant and a good way to step back and look at the general influences behind social behavior.

    • Hi Dan! Hooked sounds like a book I should maybe pick up! Really interesting.

      And great spot on the “Influence” article. I should find a way to fit the link into the article somewhere. 🙂


      • Dan Messina

        Hey Kevan, yeah, I think you’d really like it and it’s a pretty quick read as well. Might be a tad bit overpriced for the substance, especially if you’re already familiar with psychological principals he refers to throughout, but I liked the way he tied it together and simplified some of it. Although I guess the price doesn’t matter if you get free Kindle books anyway 😉 http://www.nirandfar.com/hooked And he even talks about Buffer/Joel!

        • Awesome, Dan! I’m adding the Kindle sample right now … 🙂

  • I think the science behind this Twitter thing is that we fully agree with what we see from the essence that from what we read we eventually lure to do the next thing which is either we favorite it, we retweet it or reply from it.

  • Just rejoined twitter recently. I notice it’s common now for people (bots) to favourite posts in the hope of gaining your attention – and a follow. Some tweets generate a flurry of 15 or more favourites all in quick succession. When I look at those profiles, each person has significantly higher followers than following. It’s manipulative – but, clearly it works to attract followers.

  • Suzana Valenca

    Fantastic post! Congratulations, Kevan and the Buffer Team for always coming up with nice and useful information.

  • So much of what I do, tweet and react to on social is done with this psychological thinking in mind.. With that being said my social world changed when I stopped thinking about what others wanted to hear and focused on two things….
    #1 Being myself as transparent and open as possible
    #2 Sharing content from people who inspired me and content that provided me value but doing it in a unique way.
    The reason twitter is amazing is the same reason it’s overwhelming for so many…. the people and connections you can make are endless! Key is having a strategy for what you’re doing and sharing while at the same time being SOCIAL and HUMAN as the recipe for building strong relationships hasn’t changed just the tool we are using to do so!

    • Hi Brian! That’s such an interesting take on social: Most advice is to tell people what they want to hear. I love your fresh take on this!

      Curious if you noticed any effect on followers/engagement when you took this new perspective?

      • Drastically changed my engagement, shares and overall social relationships. By sharing and helping and joining twitter chats it opened up the communities that I was able to reach. I went from 3k followers at the start of 2014 to 11k today.. Without ever focusing on gaining followers rather sharing great content and being myself. Also its what I believe got me on this list with many great influencers.. http://socialfresh.com/the-top-50-people-retweeted-most-by-digital-marketers-per-study/

        • Fascinating stuff, Brian! Wondering if you’ve documented your strategy? Seems like it’d make an awesome blog post! Really inspiring!

    • gwhosubex

      I’m a fan of thus and live my life that way too. Authenticity and being personal more than being a chameleon double-thinker.

      Mainly because I can’t keep it up, and it’s draining and disorienting as hell. I also find it rather meaningless, as I am focused on what is fundamental. Going along with the emperor’s new clothes is hardly related to any fundamental truth, but only has value because of perception inflation.

  • Gregg Masters

    Wouldn’t the better metaphor be the ‘chicken dance’ vs the B.F. Skinner-esque reference to rats, i.e., where the gross movements of the dance, unclear what if any specific act or particular pattern of movement results in the reward, drives the entire repetitive ritual? Works for me. Great piece!

    • Hi, Gregg! Love the dance metaphor! Thanks for sharing!

      • sylviadstrong

        Peyton . true that Jessica `s blurb is shocking, last monday I got a
        gorgeous Peugeot 205 GTi after having earned $6860 this past 4 weeks an would
        you believe ten-k this past-month . with-out a doubt this is the easiest-job
        I’ve ever had . I actually started six months/ago and pretty much immediately
        started to bring in minimum $84… p/h . Read More Here C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

      • ritadshreve

        My Uncle
        Riley got an almost new red GMC Canyon just by some parttime working online
        with a laptop. visit their website C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

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  • Syl

    Who cares.

  • gwhosubex

    Try sharing on fb to bookmark! People will be so happy with you. Lol

  • It would stand to reason that there is a psychology to Twitter use if only for the reason that we reside in a conditioned marketplace – it would not be surprising therefore to see certain conformity that is psychological. What would be surprising is having a science to Twitter.

    Having a reason based approach to Twitter goes against the emotional response of psychology, but I am sure that there are outliers in social media who do take a reasoned approach. This would be counter-intuitive to being “social” because it would mean that one is invested as a learner than a tribal member.

    That net reality of being a learner is to click on links that serve curiousity or wonderment that is learner-centric – the reality of that is to actually read what one links to and to link what one has read – or at least understood as context. It is the Jerry McGuire principle of having less so we can have a higher quality relationship. That itself smacks of elitism rather than socialism.

    It is not elitist to utilize Twitter as life-long learner, it is just odd – and it is the current psychology of Twitter that just happens to make this odd, as an outlier.