On the New Yorker’s website Monday, prolific Twitter-user Mark O’Connell admitted to deriving an unusual pleasure from Twitter: that of "observing, in real time, the disappearance of words from my stream as they are deleted by their regretful authors” (though he admits it's a "rare and fleeting sight").
Social scientists haven’t examined the incidence of schadenfreude among Twitterers, but they’ve long suspected that narcissistic personalities are drawn to the site.
“Twitter would seem to be a perfect venue for narcissists because it allows individuals to answer the question, 'What are you doing?' via messages of 140 characters or less,” wrote psychologist Bruce McKinney in a paper for the journal Communication Research Reports. “The belief that there is an audience interested in following one's moment-to-moment postings suggests egocentrism, self-aggrandizement, and self-importance—the very characteristics of narcissistic individuals.”
Social networking sites, according to University of Michigan psychologist Eliot Panek, “offer users near complete control over self-presentations, making them a useful venue for the deployment of strategic interpersonal behaviors that narcissists use to construct and maintain a carefully considered self-image.” Some scientists even relate the increasing popularity of social networking sites to the documented decline of empathy among young people: “The rise of social networking sites may have enabled narcissistic individuals to seek veneration on a grander scale than would otherwise be feasible,” writes Panek.
A spate of new research casts light on the link between love of self and love of Twitter (and other social networking sites).
Depends on the content of the tweets, not the number
Signing up for Twitter doesn’t mean you’re a narcissist. Neither does following other people or sending out your own pithy thoughts—as long as they’re about a subject other than yourself (or your food, or your cat). For a 2012 paper in the journal Communication Research Reports, a team led by Bruce McKinney of the University of North Carolina–Wilmington used the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to measure 233 college students’ narcissistic personality traits, and analyzed their social media activity. McKinney found that higher levels of narcissism are associated with a larger number of self-focused “tweets,” but not with the number of Twitter followers or the use of Twitter to follow others. McKinney also found a significant positive correlation between narcissism and number of Facebook friends.
Young narcissists prefer Twitter; older egotists like Facebook
For a paper this summer in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, a team led by Panek compared the psychological profiles of Facebook and Twitter users. Panek and his team recruited nearly 500 college students and 93 adults and analyzed their personality traits and monitored their social network usage. Panek found that people who post constant statuses on Facebook score high on measures of exhibitionism, while Twitter users have a superiority complex—among college students, at least. For adults, scoring high on feelings of superiority translates to posting on Facebook more often.
Other interesting findings: Far fewer respondents actually used Twitter—22 percent, versus 98 percent who had a Facebook account. They also spent far more time on Facebook—an average of 102 minutes per day, versus 24 on Twitter. More sociable individuals tend to prefer Facebook, while less social people gravitate toward Twitter.
Tweets reveal neuroticism, not just narcissism
If you want to see into someone’s heart, your best bet might be to look at their Twitter feed. “Microblogging” (e.g. tweeting), explains Lin Qiu of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, “produces a vast written record of people’s daily behavior in their natural environment”—making it a better tool for psychologists than surveys, which are generally administered in “well-controlled, decontextualized environments.” For a 2012 paper in the Journal of Research in Personality, a team of psychologists led by Qiu measured the “Big Five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—of 142 Twitter users. Qiu and his colleagues collected and analyzed their subjects’ tweets over a month-long period, and used a software program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to look for patterns in the language they used.
Qiu made use of certain patterns psychologists already know about different personality types’ usage of language—extraverts, for instance, use fewer long words than introverts; agreeable people use more first-person pronouns—and also discovered some “previously undocumented associations”:
We found that extraverts used more assent words, fewer functional words, and fewer impersonal pronouns. Openness was negatively related to the use of adverbs, swear words, affect words and non-fluent words, but positively related to prepositions.
When Qiu asked people who had never met the Twitter users to judge their personalities based only on their Twitter feeds, he found that they could accurately judge two of the Big Five dimensions—neuroticism and agreeableness.