The Psychology of Begging to Be Followed on Twitter

What possible reward could come from tweeting thousands of times at a celebrity?

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

“Twitter is the best and Twitter is the worst.”

This was the response Dr. Marion Underwood, clinical psychologist and University of Texas at Dallas psychology professor, received from one of her 15-year-old daughter’s friends when she asked what the girl thought of the social networking juggernaut.

“I can’t get off of it,” the girl elaborated. “I can’t stop getting on Twitter.”

If these sound like the words of an "addict," it’s because they (at least kind of) are. Underwood was inspired to take her informal poll after watching the teen in question spend the entirety of her daughter’s birthday party glued to her phone, reading and sending tweets. What’s more, she says that social media can be highly addictive. Millennials are perpetually accused of self-centeredness, but it isn’t self-promotion, in and of itself, that they’re addicted to, Underwood says. It’s the positive reinforcement they receive from peers for doing it. For some teens, however, there’s a source of reinforcement even more addictive—and elusive—than their peers: their favorite celebrities.

A simple Twitter search reveals thousands of teens and tweens with accounts and handles dedicated to their favorite famous “friends.” It’s easy for them to think of celebrities as at least potential friends, after all. Where previous generations might pine over posters on their bedroom walls or write mushy love letters to a generic fan mail address, teens today have direct and almost unfettered access to their idols thanks to Twitter. Through the platform, teens can broadcast their thoughts not only to friends, family, and virtual peers, but to celebrities and public figures. (To a lesser extent, Instagram and Facebook serve this purpose as well.)

And teens and tweens are putting a lot out there. According to Pew Research from 2012, 92 percent of teens use their real names and post photos of themselves on social media. Furthermore, 71 percent share the name of their school and hometown, 82 percent share their birthdays and 24 percent share videos of themselves.

It isn’t just the content of tween and teen tweets that has some concerned, it’s also the volume.  Underwood says the volume of tweets and updates they send is more about creating opportunities for positive reinforcement than anything else. They crave the response and send tweets intended to elicit it.

“I think there are kids who are truly addicted to it,” she says. “It’s like the theory that someone who is a good comedian is just someone who tells a lot of jokes. You tell a lot of bad ones too, but the higher your output, the more likely some of them are to be funny. That’s what happens with Twitter. The more stuff kids put out there, the more likely it is that they get positive reinforcement for something.”

Repeated tweeting at, or spamming, celebrities in pursuit of acknowledgement (be it in the form of a follow, retweet, or reply) is incredibly common among young people.

1,000 tweets per day, and many teens reach it regularly, especially when seeking the attention of a celebrity. It may seem excessive, but celebrities with millions of followers receive so many tweets, that it’s easy for even 1,000 to go unnoticed. Case in point: this video of Justin Bieber's Twitter mentions.

Reaching the tweet limit can happen by accident, but it’s often a premeditated decision.

And even though logic would dictate that users shouldn’t take it personally when they fail to receive a response from a celebrity (even those that are extremely active on Twitter can only interact with a fraction of their followers), many teens do. They invest a lot of time and emotional real estate in this behavior and can lash out when it doesn’t achieve the desired effect.

Finally, reaching the tweet limit has a negative impact on the user’s online social life. It’s the virtual equivalent of being awarded an in-school suspension; you’re still technically in the same space as your peers, but you’re unable to interact with them. Some teen and tween users have multiple accounts for just this purpose; when one hits the limit, they just jump to the next and continue tweeting above and beyond the 1,000 tweets per day limit imposed by Twitter. Others just express social isolation when they’ve reached the tweet limit—especially if a favorite celebrity chooses that time to do a follow spree (a brief period of time during which they actively engage and follow several users).

“The type of reinforcement schedule that is the most reinforcing is what’s called an intermittent schedule,” she explains. “So, you have a rat pushing a lever and he gets rewarded, but not in a predictable way. Many times, that animal pushes that lever and nothing comes, but every once in a while, it gets a great treat. So the rat keeps pressing and pressing and pressing even though there’s not much reinforcement coming because every once in a while, it’s just great.”

She admits it’s hardcore behaviorism to make this comparison, but says it’s explains a lot about our addiction to digital communication, and this doesn’t just apply to teens. Underwood suggests email as an adult equivalent, explaining that even though most email is utilitarian and boring (emails for work or junk mail, for example), every so often a “marvelously reinforcing” message (like exciting professional news or a letter from an old friend) will come through the pipeline. Those tiny nuggets of greatness peppered in lead many adults to check their email dozens of times a day. Where teens take things a step further is in their output.

“These adolescents are at an age where they’re so desperate for connectedness with their peer group,” Underwood explains. “They have this way that they can just lob out information, lob out communication to their whole group of peers and then get something back.”

If getting positive reinforcement from one’s peer group is addictive, getting an elusive follow or retweet from a celebrity is the ultimate high—not to mention a claim to fame in its own right.

“If they do get a tweet back [from a celebrity], they forward it to their whole community. So that’s a huge status thing,” Underwood says.

When it comes to online fan communities, more than just an addiction to positive reinforcement is at play. Young people especially rely on a sense of community during their formative years. While primary communities are still developing at school, the Internet provides the means for adolescents to engage in subcommunities of like-minded peers around the world who share those interests.

Developmental psychologist Dr. Kaveri Subrahmanyam says these communities can be an important part of adolescent development.

“I teach an adolescent psychology class and we talk about cliques and crowds and historically, crowds have been useful for identity development,” she explains. “I think to some extent some of these online communities are like online versions of crowds and I think they’re helping with their identity. There is data suggesting that self-presentation online is linked to identity. We don’t know yet if it’s positive or negative, but it’s certainly all self-presentation. It must be playing some sort of role in how they solidify their identities.”

Teens’ and tweens’ affiliation with these communities is solidified by a new trend in celebrity worship: The Fan Base Name. Justin Bieber has his Beliebers (the dedicated group most would credit with starting the trend). One Direction have their Directioners. Katy Perry’s fans are KatyCats. Lady Gaga’s are her Little Monsters. Some celebrities help coin these terms, but when they don’t, fans take it upon themselves to name the community. Even pushback from the celebrity they love does little to stop the momentum of a popular fan name. Lorde, for example, has spoken out about her desire to not have a name for her fanbase.

"I find it grating to lump everyone into a really awkward, pun-centric name," she told Look magazine about the idea of naming her fans. "People joke about it on Twitter, 'You should call us The Disciples.' Never! I have discouraged it. I've tweeted multiple times, 'No fan name, I do not condone this.'"

Yet, even with Lorde publicly denouncing the very idea of a name for her fanbase, a quick Twitter search returns pages of tweets from Lorde fans declaring their status as a Disciple. These groups can take on a life of their own, and naming them gives members a clear identity and easy way to declare their membership to the group. While fan groups may not always take their celebrity idol’s word on the matter as gospel, as in the case of Lorde’s rogue Disciples, they can prove to be fiercely loyal, even as their love for the celebrity in question wanes.

Subrahmanyam says the celebrity fan group trend can be understood through what’s known in social psychology as herd mentality, or the way peers can influence people to follow trends. In a study published last year in the journal Science, researchers found that when it comes to the online world, positive opinions spread faster through herd mentality than negative ones do. For celebrities boasting millions of followers, this can mean a lot of extra love.

“I think it’s herd mentality,” Subrahmanyam says. “People are just not thinking about what they’re doing. I think there’s just no awareness of what they’re doing online. And I think that’s true of any age. It’s not just teens.”

When Justin Bieber was arrested in January, legions of Beliebers spoke out on Twitter demanding everything from his release to an apology from law enforcement for the whole debacle (of course, his detractors were busy penning a petition to have him deported, but that’s another story). Though Justin’s popularity had been diminishing, even among his core fanbase (many of whom had either outgrown tween pop or moved onto One Direction or up-and-coming Bieber alternatives like Austin Mahone or Ross Lynch ), the call to arms was immediate and well-received among Beliebers past and present. And the tweeting didn’t stop on day of his arrest. The “once a Belieber, always a Belieber” sentiment is still going strong on Twitter.

“I think it’s interesting because, when you think about it, some of the tweets are probably done by stars, but I also feel some of them are done by their handlers,” she says, highlighting the business of being a celebrity on Twitter. “And for stars, it’s part of managing their online presence and it’s interesting because I don’t know to what extent these teens even realize that and are aware of the difference.”

No matter who is authoring the tweets, however, access to these celebrities (or at least the illusion thereof), is within teens’ grasps. The addictive qualities of social media are heightened when a celebrity account is involved. It raises the stakes (and status) of getting any kind of attention. But what’s the real cost of putting in the time and effort required to achieve this Holy Grail of social media? When you’re tweeting upwards of 1,000 times a day, what are you giving up?

“To me, my biggest fear is what it’s replacing,” Underwood says. “If they do it too much, if they are spending many, many hours a day tweeting, texting, posting status updates, what’s it replacing? It’s replacing time on academic work. It’s replacing time on face-to-face interaction and it’s replacing sleep and I think that’s what scares me more than anything. It’s not good for a person to go to someone’s birthday party and never look up from their phone because they’re on Twitter the whole time. It’s not good for that person’s relationships.”