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Twitter As Social Contagion

Trends. Hashtags. Retweets. “The Conversation”

You’ve heard all these terms about Twitter. You’ve used hashtags, you’ve retweeted, you’ve engaged in conversations, hence you’ve contributed to trends. But what do all of these behaviors really mean for us as individuals? Is there anything to watch out for when we are communicating online (besides the well-trodden “don’t trash your employer” advice)?

It’s so easy to get swept up in a Twitter “cause.” Which of us weren’t caught up in the How to be a pedophile Amazon fiasco of last year? Or the more recent railing against Groupon’s ad in the Superbowl that used Tibet’s political situation as an attention-getter? How about the revolution in Egypt or Tunisia? An empassioned plea will go out from one or two users, and suddenly your Twitter stream is a virtual Tahir Square.

Have you ever regretted retweeting something later? Have you ever been called out by others for spreading information that wasn’t quite right? Ever get caught up in a Twitter retweet moment? No? Well, you probably will. And someday that wave may double-back to tow you under.

But have no fear. You can avoid being caught up in the next passionate web wave that splashes onto the ‘net. There are definitely some easy-to-understand but harder-to-recognize human social network and emotional processes happening here. Here’s some information about them and what can you do to keep yourself calm, cool and collected when a wave hits.

Brief Information About Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion is when we take on the feelings of another person unconsciously. Usually, you need to experience the other person in physical space to start unconsciously mimicking their facial expressions, gestures and speech (this mimicking is a natural human trait that happens in most interactions).

Since Twitter is a virtual space, the question is if emotional contagion can happen online. There have been studies and experiments done in virtual environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life that suggest that yes, emotional contagion (and other virtual contagions) can and have happened online. I believe that Twitter, with it’s immediate rewards and conversation-like environment lends us all the good bricks to building a perfect social contagion. (If we have any techie epidemiologists out there, I think this is your cue to lend us your insights).

If you want some more details on emotional contagion and social network, take some time to read these two articles. They explain a bit about what is sometimes called “mob psychology” (I loathe that term) and can help you understand how information seems to immediately come into existence (instead of just merely “traveling” in social networks).



A book to pick up on the influence of human (offline) social networks: Connected by Christakis and Fowler

How to Fight Off The Frenzy

When you’re about to ReTweet something or use a #hashtag, here are a few questions to ask yourself before you hit “send”:

1. Does this information reflect my own, well-established beliefs?
2. Is this information well-researched?
3. Can I see both sides of this issue rationally?
4. If my day today was made into a movie about me, would I want this wave to be a part of the script?
5. Am I spreading this information to gain favor with a certain person or group?

If you answered No to questions #1, 2, 3, 4, then DO NOT TWEET. If you answered Yes to question #5, then DO NOT TWEET even if you answered yes to the other questions. Take a moment to consider your own past thoughts, beliefs and behaviors prior to being caught up in the wave. Only after you are positive that you want this world view attached to your name do you consider tweeting out the info.

Why not get caught up in the wave? Well, it can deplete your integrity. Being seen as a wave-rider or someone who is easily influenced by trends can wear away at your reputation. The online marketing people like to call this “your brand.”

Another way emotional contagion in general can harm you is financial. Picture what happened to my grandmother’s finances as she was getting older and losing her mental faculties: she kept writing check after check to every TV preacher that her remote control came across. She’d get caught up in the emotion of the show and just write away her and my grandfather’s life savings, all of which my grandfather would need long after she was gone. Then, she’d quickly forget that she already sent that preacher $800, then write that holy huckster another check.

Schooling Fish

Don’t think this can happen to you? It has and it does, because this is how the human animal behaves. Social contagion happens naturally, and I posit that it flows even more easily in the lightning-paced environments of online social networks. Our small communications (posts, tweets) are currently seen as so insubstantial that we tend to ignore their worth. You can view your tweet as just a tiny drop in the virtual noise bucket, but not only do those drops add to the growing tsunami but they are archived just about forever by Google. As we’ve seen this week, the tsunami may do things like take down a totalitarian regime, but they can also drive people to suicide or get people fired. Do you want your trail of tweets to be a trail of tears or a solid reflection of who you are? See, it isn’t just a click. It’s a representation of who you are, a snapshot of your belief system, a mini-movie of your world view.

You can fight it. View each post as a step toward your goals, even if your goals are small and casual, like “be a funny person” or “take life lightly,” or majestic like “become CEO of a Fortune 500.” Always be present online. Staying present and true to yourself are the biggest challenges we face as web surfers. We are little learners in a huge school of fish. It’s all too easy to ride the tide; all too difficult to swim our own way.

In the comments, please let me know what waves drowned out your ability to breathe on your own.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cecilyk 15 February 2011, 10:50 am

    I really think this is smart, and I wish I’d read it before I had a mini-hissy fit on Twitter the other day. Sigh.

    • PurpleCar 15 February 2011, 1:44 pm

      THANKS, Cec, for that and your support. I missed your Twitter hissy fit the
      other day. Darn.


  • Hchybinski 15 February 2011, 11:02 am

    love this – i sometimes get a rash if I don’t actually check out a post before I RT. . .it feels “irresponsible”. . .


    • PurpleCar 15 February 2011, 1:42 pm

      I get a rash when I get @ names wrong. I try to search Twitter first before I
      tweet them out.


  • amberpagewrites 15 February 2011, 11:03 am

    I think I’ll bookmark this and read it every time I’m about to let loose online…

    • PurpleCar 15 February 2011, 1:41 pm

      LOL! I’m glad you found it helpful. Unfortunately we all get caught up in these
      waves; we can’t help it. I just try to follow general policy not to RT anything
      that 1. Asks for money (donations) 2. Is politically-oriented or 3. Isn’t all
      that funny. People get a bit miffed at me sometimes when I won’t RT their
      “causes” but I can’t keep my wits about me if I don’t follow a policy. I’m not
      saying that I won’t RT things, I do all the time, but I try to stay aware of
      what can go wrong with each tweet.

      This is all so difficult, isn’t it? Remember when Twitter had, like, 5 people on
      it and it was SO FUN?


      -Christine Cavalier