Posted February 23, 2009 9:02 am by with 9 comments

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Deep inside the confines of the Beal household, my wife and I often debate what motivates us–and others–to share so much of our private lives on Twitter.

We discuss the notion of being significant with each Tweet, and often joke about those that seem to Tweet as if their very life depended on submitting 140 characters every 5 minutes (sounds like an episode of LOST!).

After reading the Times Online, it seems that there’s some scientific foundation to our light-hearted conversations:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

While every Tweet may not stem from insecurity–I do enjoy simply having a nice chat with my Tweeps–I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that Twitter does provide a sense of identity, a sense of existence. To borrow a well known saying: If I see a tree fall in the woods, but don’t Tweet it, did it really happen?

Of course, the entire Twitter system is designed to feed this unhealthy habit. Did anyone reply to that joke I just made? Is @A-ListCelebrity ignoring me? Why did @notreallyafriendmoreofanacquaintance just unfollow me? There’s no doubt that, once you’re sucked in to the "sense of identity" that Twitter provides, it’s hard to break free from it.

Anyway, I’m glad that the Times Online gave me an opportunity to bring this subject up. I suspect that, deep down, many of us admit to getting a little "buzz" with each Tweet–many more than will likely admit in the comments below. For my part, I will continue to use Twitter, but in a more moderate way than before. I’m cutting back on the people I follow, limiting the number of times I actually use the service, and, most importantly, prying back that small piece of self-worth that I so easily handed over to the micro-blogging service.

  • I do worry about my psychologist colleagues from time to time. They may be eminent but that doesn’t mean they are right. Suggesting, as Oliver James does, that if you were secure you wouldn’t Twitter is the equivalent of saying that if you were secure you wouldn’t contribute to discussions in the pub. It shows a distinct lack of understanding of Twitter – indeed a lack of understanding of online behaviour. We might say that people who constantly appear on TV or in the media to make a point are constantly providing the world with an update of who they are – and thereby show a low sense of indentity. Now which psychologist is often on TV commenting on things I wonder….?

    Look, the truth of the matter is that everything we do, day in, day out, whether online or offline contributes to our sense of identity. To suggest that doing one of them shows we have a low sense of self is nonsense.

    You will find amongst Twitterers a similar variation in sense of self as you will in the general population. Indeed, you are likely to find a stronger sense of self amongst Twitterers than in non-Twitterers because they have the confidence to stand up and be counted for who they are. The unsure, less self assured people don’t take part.

    Once again the comments in the Times article demonstrate a real lack of understanding of how we behave online, how people actually use online tools and may well come from people who don’t even use these tools such as Twitter and are therefore making assumptions.

  • @Graham – thanks for sharing your opinion. I would (respectfully) suggest that your opinion is just as biased in the opposite direction as your colleagues. After all, you’re an active Twitter user and an internet “professional” so likely much more comfortable with how (and why) you use Twitter. 🙂

    I do agree that the some of the statements made in the Times piece were of the “sweeping” kind, but I also believe that for the Twitter generation, we’re not so much interested in our “15 minutes of fame” but our 15 seconds of being re-Tweeted. 😉

  • Twitter has the potential for bringing out the best and the worst in people in ways that we have not really encountered before. Of course, since it is so ‘new’ and gaining momentum it requires everyone to make things up as we go. I wonder how many people out there are using the Twittershpere as a way to act out something that they couldn’t be otherwise. Just set up a Twitter account and be an expert, a cynic a whatever. Who cares because who will ever really know.

    Personally I have concerns about where all of this is headed especially since I have kids that are right on the cusp of using the Internet more. I know many don’t agree with me but all of these ‘relationships’ and ‘friendships’ that we proclaim in this age of social media are SO watered down that the words themselves don’t mean what they used to. I would hate for my kids to one day think that 140 character at a time sound bites are what a true relationship is.

    Frank Reed’s last blog post..Be Armed With Internet Marketing Knowledge

  • I think it’s very true to a degree. Don’t we all in some way have an insecurity that is screaming for attention? I however, don’t think that Twitter feeds this much for me.

    I find twitter to be very useful in keeping up with others in my life. In past generations, you really only knew people within your community. With technology and the growth of communication capabilities, you can be friends with anyone basically anywhere.

    Twitter allows those worlds to meet with ease. I can keep up with friends, folks in the same business as me, arrange MeetUps, get answers to questions I’m facing and much more. I don’t look at it as something that simply helps me feel better about myself, I look at Twitter as a tool that helps me be a more engaged member of society, no matter how silly that might seem.

  • Well you have to take a step back and wonder if people tweet to grow a business and further extend their branding arm. If they tweet just to let us know that they put peanut butter on their bread and now they are heading for the jelly that person clearly has more than identity issues. Some people Tweet in order to just be visible on people’s radars with the hopes of being hired to do something.

  • I agree with Nick, different people have different motives for tweeting. Some, perhaps, may tweet to simply reinforce their own identity. Others, however, tweet for other purposes, like finding work or promoting their company. Based on my experience, I would say Twitter is one of today’s top sites for social networking. Other hot SN sites include LinkedIn and Facebook.

    In conclusion, I think many tweeple (yes, I just said tweeple…sad) use twitter for a combination of the above reasons. While I primarily use it for business, I have found myself…little by little… becoming inexplicably drawn to pointless social interactions. oh well, it’s kinda fun…what else can I say!

    Jordan Sanders’s last blog post..using Twitter for the health care industry

  • It’s interesting that writing anything might be seen as egocentric. I’m not sure how many times I actually post about myself – usually I’m writing for and about others. Not sure how narcissistic that is…

    As well, I follow a lot of people because I WANT to see different opinions and information from those who follow me. It’s not all about me, it’s all about them!

    Douglas Karr’s last blog post..links for 2009-02-23

  • I tweet because I like engaging my network. Plain and simple – I’m rather shy by nature, but the 140 character limits makes communication much easier to boot.

    Plus today I’m the mother of a teenager, and wow, can tweeple empathize. 🙂


    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach’s last blog post..Must-have HIGH payout alternative to Google Adsense

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