What really motivates people to tweet? What do you get out of it? There are a series of conscious reasons why you might tweet. Perhaps it’s a handy way to communicate with your network of friends; the most expedient way in which you can build a network of similar tastes or interests; maybe you want to promote an event you’re running, a column you’ve written, or your work; maybe you tweet as part of your job.

The job of psychologists is to examine what may be an unconscious motivation to the things that you do. When we think about unconscious motivation, there are lots of models that can help us understand things better*. I often like to talk about Freud’s theories: mostly because people nowadays think he’s full of shit. I think otherwise, and I hope to show you why.

Herr Doktor Freud

With regard to motivation, most people believe that Freud was just interested in the sexual drive or “libido.” While Freud was very much concerned with sex, and did believe that it underlies all of our behaviours, few people know that he further developed his ideas about motivation, and one of these developments is called his theory of:

Ego Instincts

Freud believed that ego instincts ran contrary to sexual instincts. In brief, they are self-preservative and defensive of the “I”, while sexual instincts are pro-creative in nature and involve others, ego instincts are aimed inward rather than outward, and if too much ego instinct gets attached to the ego, you end up with:


Not all ego instincts are bad, and we need a healthy amount of narcissism to create a strong enough ego to encounter the world in one piece – but they can get out of hand. After all, the ego likes to maintain itself, and it likes to look good. The ego’s main interest is negotiating between the internal world and the external world – to have its needs met in socially acceptable ways

So how can we apply this theory to Twitter?

What is the motivation to tweet? While at bottom there may be some underlying sexual instinct in all forms of self-promotion (to put it basely, “tweeting to get laid”), I think that’s unlikely to be the motivating factor for most people. I believe that outside the motivation to relate to others, it’s the ego-instincts that are playing the most important role. (For more on the ego and social networking, see my earlier post).

There’s the old saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?” What about that tweet that’s never favorited, re-tweeted, or responded to? Does it make a sound?

For most egos, it’s not good enough just to tweet – that’s like writing a book that never sees the outside of a desk drawer. While there might be some satisfaction in having written the thing, the real aim is to share it (and to know it’s been shared). Modern day psychologists think that relating to others is the single most important thing we do, and fundamentally motivates us (this is a development of Freud’s libido theory). In this context, tweeting is not enough, having your tweets recognised is the real goal.

How many of you feel a pang of disappointment when a tweet disappears into the ether sadly unrecognised? What about that burst of reward when you are re-tweeted, favorited, or mentioned? That means something to your ego, that means what you said mattered.

Have you got Klout?

There are now a whole variety of applications out there that pander to this ego need, the most popular being Klout. According to Klout’s own website Klout measures your online influence by looking at how many people you influence, how much you influence them, and how influential these people are. In short, Klout is a sort of popularity contest ranking some individuals more highly than others based on their score.

My aim isn’t to say that Klout is a good or a bad thing, but I do think the more people get concerned about it, the more it changes the way people engage with Twitter (and not just Twitter, a whole range of social networking applications can be linked into Klout). Twitter debuted by being famously democratised. The average Joe Bloggs could shout out something and be noticed just for being clever, funny, or interesting: and build a following for himself off the back of that. He could chat with a celebrity, or the masses, and get a thrill either way.

With Klout’s metrics, however, it’s “better” to get a mention from a celebrity than it is from just another Joe Blogss (though admittedly, Joe can become a celebrity by climbing up the Klout ladder). Each celebrity mention can jump up your points (because you’ve been noticed by somebody with lots of clout).

When I say this is a game changer I say it because those that are concerned about their Klout rating may change their twitter tactics to achieve higher Klout scores rather than simply using it as a way to connect with others. With further applications allowing you to see the Klout scores of other tweeps, you may be more likely to ignore some (lower Klout) tweeps over others. Your aim moves from being about connecting, to increasing your (ego) score.

The worrying consequence here is that Twitter becomes less democratised and more of a hierarchy, a popularity contest that puts some people at a disadvantage.

Whereas you may be motivated to use Twitter for the conscious reasons I outlined in the first paragraph, unconsciously your ego instincts may be kicking up a fuss. They may want a higher Klout score to increase those ego needs. But while climbing up the ladder of influence may feel good (if you can manage it) it naturally introduces competition and people may very well begin to suffer from “negative comparison”.

To be clear, I’ve got nothing against Klout, or similar applications like PeerIndex. In fact, I do see them as probably the way Twitter was always going to go at some point anyway. My fear is that the free-ranging “wild west” days of the micro-blogging site may be numbered. With promoted tweets and interest in influence growing, will people’s aim be to grow that online ego, or to relate to others? They are surely intertwined, these two things, but like everything else, influence matters.

I only date people with Klout

Already Klout scores are being seen as a way to identify quality in a partner, and the website Tawkify has now added the Klout score to its dating algorithm. Take it from me, a high Klout score will not guarantee you a wonderful date. You can also find events that are limited to individuals with Klout scores over a particular threshold, and many Social Networking gurus are suggesting you include your score on your CV. What are your feelings about this?

For anyone at all familiar with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World you may remember a dystopian world where the “Alphas” have all the privileges, and the “Deltas” are taught to be happy with their lot.

I propose that Twitter and its accompanying applications to measure influence will continue to attempt to separate us into castes that do not reflect what we actually have to offer as human beings, but how we are best able to exploit social media.

Consciously we all know this to be true, but unconsciously, our egos will no doubt seek to climb higher and higher up that mythical hierarchy, and no good can come of that.

*In a previous post I talk about another “Big Five” personality traits, so I’m not All about Freud.

If you’d like to discuss this, please do so here.