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Why Are We Addicted to Twitter?

November 28th, 2018

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Do you feel like you’re always thinking in 140 characters?

Microblogging platforms have skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade. As of August 2018, Twitter had over 335 million active monthly users, while Weibo, the Chinese social media giant, had over 431 million users. What makes these platforms so enticing to billions of people?

Xue Bai, associate professor with dual appointments in the Departments of Marketing and Supply Chain Management and Management Information Systems, investigated why these short-form social media platforms can be so addictive, together with researchers from Renmin University and Tsinghua University, in her recently published paper.

Bai and her colleagues analyzed the habits, uses and desires of 520 microblogging users. They found that users often used the platform for three distinction purposes: communication, information gathering and entertainment. Then, the researchers took the study deeper by distinguishing the levels of gratification, or the reasons why users feel satisfied when using the platform. Bai classified gratification into three categories: when people are satisfied due to the content they consume or share, the process of using the platform and the social needs they look to fulfill.

“Before, the commonly accepted understanding was that use leads to addiction,” says Bai. “But it turns out in our study, it is how you use it and how you feel from the use of it that leads to addiction.” For example, Person A might use Twitter more than Person B, but if Person B feels more satisfied when using it due to her particular purpose, she may be more likely to become addicted, regardless of time spent on the platform.

The theory behind the study, called “uses and gratifications,” is a common approach to analyzing mass media. However, by distinguishing between the “uses” and “gratifications,” Bai and her colleagues extended the theory to study the causal relations between use, gratification and addiction, opening up new possibilities for media research.

The researchers hypothesized that users with higher gratification levels have a great possibility of becoming addicted. “This constant feeling [of satisfaction] leads to psychological reinforcement and then eventually to dependence,” says Bai. The researchers then linked gratification to four dimensions of addiction—diminished impulse control, loneliness or depression, social comfort and distraction—to determine the path from use to gratification to addiction tendency.

The study found that the different types of purposes led to varying levels of gratification. “For example, if a user is using the microblogging platform mostly for information, information leads to content gratification and social gratification,” says Bai. Using microblogging for entertainment purposes led to satisfaction with social interactions and their experience of the process. The purpose for social communication, surprisingly, yields the least satisfaction among the three types of use.

“Social gratification, however, was the most impactful to addiction,” says Bai. Users who were satisfied from the social aspects of the platforms were more susceptible to loneliness, diminished impulse control and distraction, and were the most likely to be addicted. “Users who felt satisfied with content were the least likely to become addicted,” said Bai.

With the pervasiveness of microblogging tools, these insights are practically important to both consumers and platform designers. Bai hopes her research will help address the issue of social media addiction by understanding more about how these tendencies are formed. “We hope this will guide platform designers to better construct microblogging platforms to enhance the positive effects and avoid the negative impacts,” says Bai. “The research can inform the design of a platform to satisfy users’ needs at an optimal level, not to the point of being addicted.” For example, companies could use this research to emphasize content gratification, which has the least impact on addiction tendency.

Certainly, microblogging will not be going away, says Bai. “It is changing the way people, especially teenagers, communicate with each other and socially interact with the rest of the world.”

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