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The Anticipation of Being Re-Tweeted

I previously wrote about the gamification of social media services in a piece entitled: You’re Being Played By Twitter. The article touched on the use of engagement statistics and feedback loops in order to draw users deeper into the services provided. Essentially, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc  all manipulate the egos of users in order to drive them into further interaction with the system (for a deeper explanation of ‘gamification,’ see the previous article). While the article addressed how these systems were put in place, it didn’t explain why they worked at a fundamental level.

Gamers as Guinea Pigs

Game systems are just now being woven into the everyday lives of most people through social media and other gamified systems (loyalty reward cards, etc.). But gamers have been exposed to these systems for decades and provide examples as to why these systems are so compelling. In a recent article entitled The Psychology of Looting, Dr. James Madigan provides an insight as to why gamers seek out virtual “loot” or rewards in games.

It’s undeniable that gamers get a huge high out of finding new stuff, be it a gun with higher accuracy, armor with fire resistance, or a night-vision scope for our catapult. This can mean engaging in activities that appear absurd to outsiders, like meticulously searching the recently murdered corpses of countless foes and opening every single chest, box, barrel, crate, footlocker, cabinet, desk, and vending machine we come across in the hopes that this time we’ll find something really awesome.

Numerous games are built around finding or scavenging for items, colloquially referred to as “looting” by gamers. The most popular online game currently is World of Warcraft (“WoW”). Tens of millions of users log in every day in order to find better equipment or gear for their avatars (in-game characters).

Beyond hardcore gaming such as WoW, there are now millions of people playing casual social games such as Farmville on Facebook and other sites. People are spending more and more time immersed in services with game systems at their core – all the while seeking more and more “loot.” And not by any small measure. The projected global revenue for virtual goods in 2010 was $7,300,000,000.

All this for items you cannot touch. You cannot taste or smell. But you can see them. And more importantly, so can other people.

“Like” Your Lizard Brain

Just as gamers desire to find more “loot,” users of social media services become conditioned to seek more “likes,” and “re-tweets,” and “plus ones.” People become enthralled by the engagement statistics they receive by interacting with the system. But why? What is it that drives people to seek validation through these systems? And is it really about getting the “loot?”

German born neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz was conducting research at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland on the relationship between the chemical dopamine and Parkinson’s disease when he almost accidentally started a line of research that can be used to explain gamers’ love of loot. Dopamine is a collection of just twenty two atoms that plays a huge role in regulating human decision making, particularly goal oriented behavior and the pursuit of pleasure. When we encounter something we like –say a patch of berries or a goretusk liver– our brain releases dopamine. Brain cells that are sensitive to that chemical go bananas when it’s present, which makes us feel good –maybe even euphoric.

Dopamine neurons in the brain also help us predict good things in life. Schultz and his colleagues discovered that presenting a lab monkey with a bit of fruit caused the creature’s dopamine neurons to light up. They also discovered that when they repeatedly preceded the treat with a light or a sound, the neurons would start to fire when the monkey saw the light or heard the sound, but then remain relatively inactive when the fruit showed up. The system they had discovered was, at its core, about anticipation and trying to predict rewards based on what was happening in the environment.

So it is not so much the activity of being re-tweeted (or liked, etc.) that users enjoy, but rather the anticipation of being re-tweeted. Beyond the general anticipation of what reaction a user will receive from engagement statistics – is the anticipation of the unknown. How many people will “like” this update? What if people ignore it? Will people comment on this photo I posted? While our brains enjoy the anticipation of rewards – our brains really light up at the anticipation of unexpected and unpredictable rewards.

The brain is programmed, at a very fundamental level, to seek out surprising and unexpected rewards,’ says author Jonah Lehrer, who writes about neuropsychology in his book How We Decide and in publications such as The New Yorker and Wired. ‘One can see this phenomenon in action by looking at the response of dopamine neurons, which get much more ‘excited’ when exposed to an unexpected reward than when exposed to a reward they can predict in advance.’ Surprising pleasures, it turns out, are the most joyous of all because they highlight failures in our predictive predilections. It’s like the dopamine neurons were sitting up and yelling, ‘Hey! There’s something really good here! Let’s obsess over that until I can figure out why I didn’t see it coming!’

So after being  conditioned by the feedback loops of social media services, when your finger hovers over your mouse, cursor floating above the “post” or “tweet” button, your brain is firing chemicals off left and right. Your lizard brain in deep anticipation mode. Will this be ignored? Will someone comment? Will I get new followers?

Always in Search Of Something

The unpredictability of the feedback provided by these systems are what makes them so compelling. We know something is going to happen – but we don’t know what. So why is it people enjoy Twitter so much? Or Facebook? Or Google Plus? It’s that they provide us means of having new and unexpected experiences within our social networks – without ever having to leave our desks. The engagement statistics light up our brains when we see a flood of likes or re-tweets.

It also explains why new social services pop up every month. Some sub-set of users burns out on the feedback provided. They’ve gamed the system, they know the reponse they will receive.  So they leave MySpace for Facebook. Facebook for Twitter. Twitter for Google Plus.

They move on to the next great thing, always looking for something new to trigger that dopamine release – searching for validation over fiber optics and LCD screens.


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    • That’s very insightful of you!

      But if you’re not going to offer anything further, you’re not commenting on my site anymore either.

      • Normally I become a bit concerned when someone’s threatening to censor their commentors, but I really enjoyed that 😛

        • I only censor outright trolls. I have no problem with opposing or differing viewpoints than my own – I’d be in the wrong profession otherwise. I give people a chance to say something substantive…but no one has ever taken me up on it. Easier to troll and run.

  1. Everything nowadays qualifies as an “addiction” due to our neurochemical response to dopamine. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. Sure, it may explain tweakers and cokeheads. But gamblers, philanderers, shopaholics … and now Twitterers?? Too much.

    Riddle me this: If we humans are so prone to falling into “additions” arising from our neurochemical response to dopamine, then shouldn’t there be historical evidence of an ever-changing panoply of “addictive” behaviors, shifting with changes to the dominant modes of production, technological advances, etc., etc.? Stated differently, wouldn’t we expect there to be “addictive” behaviors throughout history based upon whatever dopaminergic bang people could get for the buck/currency then in issue?

    Restated somewhat more basically: Why didn’t early man just sit under the tree and wait, with bated breath (and dopamine-saturated neural receptors), for the banana to fall (or whatever)? What is unique about TODAY that we have men (or women) “addicted” to sex, but that such addition was unheard of 20 years ago, 60 years ago, 120 years ago, etc.? Same with shoplifting.

    [Please note, I do not pose these questions snidely or rhetorically. I am actually pretty strongly interested in this topic.]

    If you are G+, I would really love to have you cross-post any thoughts there:

    • Leisure time. Basic survival tended to take precedence. Or at least from an evolutionary perspective if your dopamine system governed, rather tjhan basic survival, your would be less likely to pass on your genes, etc. But now survival is easier and we have more time to sit around “waiting for the banana to fall”…

      • Disagree with you here, Dave, although I do concede that there is *something* to what you are saying. However, as long as there has been a leisure class (and there has been a leisure class for *quite* a while), if the dopaminergic pathway response is that powerful and can lead to all sorts of repetitive / “addictive” behaviors, then I would still expect there to be a historical record of various addictions. Particularly given that history is largely written about/by the leisure class.

    • Hi Chad,

      Sorry for the late reply, I’ve had family in town and been too busy to post.

      I wouldn’t say that Social Media users suffer from an addiction to using their services, but rather the services are designed in such a way to appeal to certain common behavioral triggers. For some people the anticipatory feedback loops will have no effect. For others, they will have a pronounced effect. Most people will probably fall somewhere in the middle. Not sure if you read the linked article by Dr. Madigan, but it gives examples of players murdering one another in real life over virtual swords in WoW, and players who have sat a PC playing until they died from exhaustion/starvation – addiction can manifest in many odd ways. So while you or I might be able to look at these services objectively, many people blithely use them, unaware of the systems underlying nature. It’s why Zygna (makers of Farmville, etc. ) have such a bad reputation among long time game developers. Experienced game devs feel that Zygna is not making games but reward systems designed to take advantage the anticipatory feedback loops described in the article.

      • Keith:

        The anticipation only increased the dopaminergic *orgasm* I am experiencing right now, so no need at all to apologize! 😉

        All joking aside, here is how I “read” your comment, which I do not think exactly addressed my questions:

        You do not really care what label is given to repetitive / chronic (over)use of online social media platforms, and you really are not trying to clinicize it (i.e., suggest that certain people develop a “Twitter problem” “bigger than themselves” that requires “Twitter rehab” and “Twitter 12 step” to “cure”). You are rather just concerned, from a very empirical perspective focused narrowly on social media, with what neurochemically happens in the brain from the use of online social media platforms, and how an understanding of the dopaminergic response might permit us to avoid following into an unnecessary / easily avoidable “Twap” and / or become unwittingly manipulated by a company like Zygna. As a result, you do not really concern yourself with the dearth of any historical record of “addictions,” because such dearth has no bearing on your approach to the issue or why you find it concerning.

        I don’t know really what to say to that (if indeed I have distilled your interest and perspective correctly), except that I approach this topic from a “macro” perspective very different than your own and am interesting in deconstructing (i.e., pushing back against) the over-clinicization of human behavior (a la Foucault, as I understand him). So I don’t really quarrel with your response, per se, but I *do* think your approach and the approach of others with similar perspectives as yourself, in the aggregate, contributes to legitimating a model of “addiction” that I find fairly problematic, insofar as it diminishes the role of human agency in understanding certain behavior and results in greater social control over our behaviors through clinicization.

        In this regard, even if you yourself would not label a chronic user of Twitter (or WoW or Farmville or whatever) an “addict” in need of rehab, setting up this possibility is hardly setting up a strawman argument. See, e.g.,,

        and in particular this (footnotes omitted):

        “Families in the People’s Republic of China have turned to unlicensed training camps that offer to ‘wean’ their children, often in their teens, from overuse of the Internet. The training camps have been associated with the death of at least one youth. [¶] In August 2009, ReSTART, a residential treatment center for ‘pathological computer use’, opened near Seattle, Washington, United States. It offers a 45-day program intended to help people wean themselves from pathological computer use, and can handle up to six patients at a time.”

    • I’ve covered all of your questions on our website,

  2. Like Chad, I don’t know if I totally buy this gamification theory as the explanation for my facebook obsession, though I don’t follow his line of argument concerning addiction. I think the gamification theory is plausible but to me it’s simplistic enough that it ignores the differences that I believe one receives in rewards between commenting or posting in a social networking site and gaming. I have been near obsessive at both.

    In gaming it might be true that our lizard brains demand our obsessive search for newer and cooler items, but I believe that, on a more conscious level, gamers seek gratification from USING those newer or cooler items. The difference between this theory and the gamification theory is that under the gamification theory we’re believed to search for the new cool gadgets obsessively because we subconsciously seek the dopamine reward we will get for finding them at the end. While that might be true, I think we search for the cool new items in our games because they are really friggin’ cool! For example, when I was a kid I played a lot of Final Fantasy games, which all have tons of secrets. Before buying the game though I would always buy and read the gamers’ guides, so none of the cool weapons or items I ultimately found were unexpected; I knew what they did and I knew where to find them. The cool thing for me was actually seeing the characters I controlled use those items. I bought the gamers guide because I didn’t care for the search, I wanted the experience of having the cool and rare new stuff.

    I think the gamification theory also ignores the more conscious, Maslowian need for “esteem” that we seek when we comment on social networking sites. I post all kinds of things on facebook, but I don’t think I do any of it for the unpredictability. Gamification seems like a strange theory for the appeal of social networking: when I post something I expect a certain reaction and in fact I’m hoping for that reaction. When I don’t get that reaction I don’t think I do anything different than I do when I tell an unfunny joke in real life: I just kind of move on. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding gamification as it relates to social networking.

    Sidenote: Keith, I’m curious if you would still censor Robby’s comments if he had said “great article.” Such approbation would have been just as unenlightening and burdensome (in terms of bandwith) on your site as his actual comment. I’m betting you wouldn’t. It’s your site of course, but you did open it up to a broad range of comments. While some comments like threats are probably over the top, censoring unenlightening negative feedback seems a little unfair and insecure if you presumably allow similarly unenlightening positive feedback to stand.

    • Hi Emmanual,

      Like I said to Chad, I’ve had family in town so sorry for the late reply.

      The process of gamification is fairly well established, and is weaving it’s way into a variety of platforms. Here is a brief piece about it at work: Many private insurers in the US will now issue pedometers to customers. If the customer walks so many miles (an “achievement”) they get a reward in the form of a discount on their health insurance. So while social media may not explicitly offer “rewards” the underlying systems do condition users to behave in a certain way (the previous article I wrote went into this more). Plus systems like Klout have popped up to provide users with badges, rewards, etc. Systems like Yelp and Foursquare having gaming reward systems built in. And while you state: “When I don’t get that reaction I don’t think I do anything different than I do when I tell an unfunny joke in real life: I just kind of move on. ” – many people instead look at that as negative feedback from the system and go one to (consciously or unconsciously) go on to make their future posts, tweets, etc. conform in such a way to receive positive feedback instead. While you or I (or the regular Reddit user) might be unaffected, it does impact a large number of people.

      Also, I agree with you in regards so a Maslowian need for esteem being present in the use of social media for many users. I think a need for esteem/recognition from others and anticipatory feedback loops work hand-in-hand on these services. There does not way for which to measure how the systems and users interact – which is what makes them interesting to discuss. I’m certainly no expert, just an interested observer with an opinion.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      RE: Your sidenote. This is indeed my website – my house as it were. It’s not an open forum or a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship at best. It’s not Reddit or some random forum. It’s a legal blog, I’m a lawyer, real name, real person. I expect a certain decorum from people here just as I would in real life. There have been plenty of discussions on this blog in which people disagreed with me or blasted something I’ve written – I’m fine with that. If I wasn’t okay with opening up my writing & thoughts to criticism I wouldn’t be posting them. But if someone is going to disagree with me, it needs to be substantive. Posting “Horsecrap,” and nothing else is trolling at best. When a new commentor does something like this on my blog I will allow the comment through one time with a message stating “Be substantive or leave,” to give them the opportunity to edit their post and actually contribute to the conversation (as opposed to just not approving their comment at all).

      No one has ever followed up. If people want to troll, that’s fine. But my site isn’t the place for it.

  3. FYI to everyone – I have family in town at the moment so I am rather pressed for time, but I will be coming back to address your comments as soon as possible. Just didn’t want you to think I was leaving you hanging or not interested in further discussion.

  4. So,…People do things they like because that’s the way brains work? Who knew!

  5. Great piece. It’s the same for writers and bloggers. There is both thrill and anxiety in posting a new article and waiting for the responses, comments, reviews, etc. We crave that interaction and feedback. Again, very nice job.

    Right now I’m wondering if you’ll respond to this post, ha…

    • True. I think most people who produce any form of content, and share it publicly, do so with a desire for feedback and interaction.

      And I try to respond to every comment! Thanks for reading.

  6. Absoulutely. True. Content creation beckons human interaction. Either affirming or negating the human propensity towards isolation and despair or propelling us along with hope and a sense of purpose.

  7. Very interesting! I recently interviewed a neuroscientist, Mark Walton, on exactly this topic. He suggested it wasn’t so much the anticipation of the reward but the unexpectedness of a reward that has the biggest effect. You can hear him at about 3:10 on this podcast (sorry about the link spam):

    I’m sure it’s a combination of these things; but anyone who’s been on the front page of WordPress, or got a run on Reddit, to a relatively minor blog will understand the rush of having a response that’s bigger or better than anticipated. Similarly, opening the 50th box in WoW to discover an awesome weapon gives that buzz: you’ve been set up, because the previous 49 slowly brought your expectations down, the difference in the size of the anticipated and obtained reward is bigger.

    Anyway, really enjoyed the post, and it’s a fascinating area of study. One great point that Mark made was that, basically since computers existed in a modern form, psychologists have been making people play games which simulate real life to study reward mechanisms. Now the interest has turned to studying reward mechanisms in games played voluntarily!

  8. “Essentially, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc all manipulate the egos of users in order to drive them into further interaction with the system”

    And Facebook does it best by using the world LIKE. That’s ego manipulation in all its glory. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s just Facebook” when no one clicks on Like under their photos or status messages. But no, it”s not just Facebook. The disappointment in their eyes give them away.

    • Not sure if Facebook does it the best, but they’re certainly play their part. It’s funny that you mention people discuss the social manifestations of online activity in their real lives. It’s odd how the online world is becoming a more integral part of who people are as a whole.

  9. I know guys that have avoided getting laid for over 30 years in anticipation of this weekend’s Hobbit premiere. Expand Collapse.

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