5 Pointers To Keep Mental Sanity On Twitter
About 4 months ago, in the midst of a global pandemic and trying to reinvent my business, I did it. After having successfully stayed away from one of the most influential and popular platforms globally — already before the current US-president caused another spike of people signing up through his excessive use — I finally joined Twitter.
At 40, I am one of those people who lived almost half their lives without social media or “the internet”, so a platform like Twitter, and other social networks in general, still bear a deep-rooted discomfort for me. Yet, here I was in a seemingly never-ending stream of messages, news, comments, mockeries, jokes, and the occasional ad.
The first time I logged on to it reminded me of entering a concert hall before the warm-up band had started. Everyone was talking/tweeting at the same time about the same things or not. In short, I closed the app quickly. But I did not keep off it too long and began to partly understand a bit better both the fascination and the dangers I had been warned before joining. I started to experiment and to analyse the psychology behind it and here are five things I learned in my first 12 weeks on Twitter.
1. Think well about who YOU want to be and remember you are unique.
When I logged to my account again that first evening, I spent some time thinking about what to add to my profile. It should be clear, and it should reflect my personality; however, it should be catchy and interesting. So which of my multiple social identities and roles should I emphasise, and which of my characteristics, if any? I tried to type something but wasn’t happy so I started to look at other people’s taglines and descriptions. They were all so well formulated, funny, and inspiring, whereas there I was with the most boring profile in Twitter history. Nobody will ever follow me, I thought.
This was the first psychological trap I stepped into. I started to socially compare myself instead of thinking about who I want to be and more specifically, who I want the Twitter community to see. There are many profiles on the platform, fake and real ones, open and hidden ones, and each of them is unique. As was mine. I have lots to offer and I had full control over what and who I wanted people to see, yet it was intimidating, and I let the artificial social network of anonymous tweeters, famous celebrities and fascinating people influence how and who I wanted to be.
I made the mistake of getting lost in how others described themselves, thinking about how I could best market my personality so that people would get interested in me. It was like a high school popularity contest. And all this was rooted in the fact that I was not part of it yet. I was the new kid on the block, the odd one out, and I was desperate for a social connection. This leads me to point 2.
2. Twitter is driven by basic social and group dynamics
We are herd animals by nature and while in recent decades individualism and self-expression have become more important and prominent in some parts of the world, individualists ironically also form a tribe. We are all naturally primed to belong to some group, tribe, or social formation, and we will seek it whether we want it or not. We are, however, part of not just a single one but several “tribes” which combined constitute our personality and who we are.
The notorious Robber’s Cave experiment of 1954, and many others after it, researched extensively how intra- and intergroup dynamics function and how important it is to become part of and get accepted into a group. I worked with all sorts of teams for many years and conducted some of these studies myself. Therefore, I know first hand that it takes all but a few hours to really build a strong identity and create belonging within a group or team. I even developed a board game for business that facilitates exactly this through nothing but playful challenges. So with this knowledge and background, it was even more fascinating to see how this plays out on a platform like Twitter. Long story short, exactly the same.
Twitter lives off social groups and belonging as any other social setting. There are groups of people who regularly interact and connect and feel like a cohesive system. This usually evolves around common interest(s) or causes. The spectrum for the latter is long and spans from personal empowerment to topics of global human rights. Becoming part of a group is not so simple in the beginning. You have to invest time and energy in it, and there are a few obstacles you might need to prepare for:
- Tribal language. There are groups of people with their own sense of humour, abbreviations, stories and comments that seem impenetrable and hard to understand.
- Acceptance. You are the new one with few followers and have to prove yourself loyal to the cause.
- Ignoring. Your comments and likes are highly likely ignored and left without a response for a while.
- Rejection. If you try too early to pretend to be part of the group and/or speak the tribal language, you will likely get a brutal reminder of your actual status within that specific tribe.
- Tests. You might be triggered by different people on Twitter and they will try to approach you from different angles to see if you follow your line and are true to your message.
These are the exact same things that we might encounter in the “real” world when trying to enter a new group. Whether this is coordinated or not is impossible for me to say, however, there at least seems to be similar group cohesion as in non-digital groups. There are clearly visible personal tones and ingroup understanding.
3. Beware of your triggers — they will be tested thoroughly
It is way easier to provoke than to reason and that is especially true for a platform that is designed like Twitter.
On Twitter the idea is to create an exchange based on free and concise speech with short comments — although expert users find their ways around this and have learned to communicate longer and deeper messages. This basic premise means that you have to be short, sharp and to the point with your statements and that the language becomes simple, plain and exceptionally matter-of-factly to save characters.
It struck me with fascination how quickly I developed emotional reactions to some of the tweets I came across. I found them rude, ignorant and my internal list of qualifications seemed never-ending. I consider myself quite well-controlled with regards to my emotional responses given that I worked in crisis zones and am a professional mediator, which means that I dealt a lot with my triggers. Yet, I was intrigued by how easy it was to get sucked into a highly emotional reaction leading to the urge to respond, only resulting in another similar comment from several users and the vicious emotional downward spiral started to spin.
Generally, I find the tone on Twitter overwhelmingly negative, aggressive and confrontational rather than positive, encouraging and empowering. This might just be a perception but does confirm research that says negative statements or comments can only be outweighed by at least four times the number of positive messages. This would explain how a generally negative perception can exist.
However, the awareness of these things made me realise the issue was not that I did not know my triggers but that I was never confronted with them in such a context. It was the digital platform, as a new way for me to interact, that presented with a challenge I needed to overcome quickly if I wanted to maintain my mental sanity over all the messages that felt like spears into the core of my moral compass. This leads me to point 4.
4. Think about why you are there and remind yourself of it regularly
There was a reason why I joined Twitter in the first place and that was to engage in a dialogue and spread ideas and perspectives with regards to the new company I was about to start. I was not keen on doing marketing, but rather was after stimulating conversations, where I could share my approach and test the response and get other views on it. However, I was warned that there is a danger to get side-tracked and lost as there are so many messages floating the platform and based on your choices you will also receive primarily tweets that are related to things that interest you. And it was not before long that I got side-tracked.
I realised after the initial confusion that I spent an increasing amount of time on Twitter. I kept checking my feed. I worked on how to formulate my tweets wittily and engaged in discussions. All good, you might say, since it is Twitter, but when asked by my colleague how much I had actually spread the word of our work, I realised that I hadn’t at all. In all those hours that I spent tweeting, I got sucked into a dynamic that was driven by emotions, sarcasm and the search for the perfect tweet.
With this realisation, I had to make a choice on how to continue engaging on Twitter. I reminded myself of why I had let myself be talked to join in the first place. I decided to focus on the professional aspect of it and allowed myself to drop an occasional non-business related tweet, however, without engaging in longer and time-consuming discussions. This might not make for the most entertaining way of using Twitter for myself, however, it is the best way for me to limit my time, keep my focus and use the platform in the way I had intended initially. It does not immediately contribute to my followership and connections increasing, but that leads me to point 5.
5. Understanding Twitter is a marathon, not a sprint.
As a combination of all the factors above, it is important to remember one thing: it will take time to really understand how to use Twitter in the best way for you and your interests. Unless you are a celebrity or a famous late-comer that everybody waited to join Twitter, or a US president who entertains through unpredictability, your followers will grow, but slowly. There are of course different tactics and the common element is that the more you engage the more likely you are to get connections and be accepted into the community through gaining more followers. Your Tweets might get acknowledged easier and you might get more responses.
It’s about adjusting your expectations and not take it personally or be disappointed if you do show up with a great message that seemingly nobody wants to see. Eventually, if you invest enough time and keep your focus on why you joined in the first place your network and acknowledgment will grow.
I have found Twitter not to be the ideal platform for my message or for myself because of the points above. I struggle with the overflow of messages that make it difficult for me to have a meaningful conversation with an actual exchange of arguments. I love a good and heated debate but for me, Twitter seems to be too polarised and too negative. I have a profile and engage in the occasional exchange, retweet or comment, however, with a limited time budget and a question-mark on whether I will keep the profile long-term.
Regardless, I am glad for the experience because it taught me a lot about myself and showed me new dynamics since the world will be even more increasingly digital in future.