The Hierarchy Of Tweets – Analysing The Psychology of Twitter

Ever noticed the number of people using Twitter to tell you about what they’re eating? I was wondering exactly that last week, and my thoughts led me back to an early A-Level Psychology class from 10 years ago. Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow was studying what motivates people and how these motivations are structured, and these thoughts led him to create the Hierarchy of Needs. And looking over this, I realised that most Tweets could be categorised into something similar, in the same major areas. So behold, “The Hierachy Of Tweets”, along with layer descriptions, and examples from Twitter.

Hierarchy Of Tweets


Maslow described this stage as dealing with people’s primary needs, those which keep them alive. Or in the land of Twitter, letting people know exactly what you’re up to in the physical world – “general verbing” being a great supplier of what Leisa Reichelt calls “Ambient Intimacy”. If you’re following friends and real people, rather than companies and “tech celebrities”, you might find the majority of your reading goes on in this area.

  • Eating “Cooking my special spicy egg fried rice to take in for lunch tomorrow” (@dakegra)
  • Drinking “Has anyone else noticed just how great coffee tastes on a Monday morning? And a red wine goes down pretty dam smoothly on a Friday evening?” (@simon_barton)
  • Sleeping (alone) “I feel blah and tired. Want sleep. Maybe on the next conference call?” (@notsofocused)
  • Sleeping (with someone else) “For all those just tuning in. I’m 6 and half hrs in on a 36 hour tantric sex session. Welcome” (@iamdiddy)
  • General verbing “listening to “Great DJ – The Ting Tings”” (@dhowell)


One of the greatest advantages to Twitter users is the ability to gain the “information upperhand” via other people’s Tweets, and using this to gain security – both in your work and personal life. Keeping “plugged in” to what’s going on in the wider world has been the driving force of most internet innovations, and Twitter is no different. So a large area of chatter is based around hyperlinking, passing on knowledge to other followers, keeping informed on what might be going on at your workplace, or local club. Two other areas of safety are more intrinsically linked with Twitter – the safety that is gained from your popularity, and making sure you’re not wasting your time on Twitter by berating everyone that doesn’t get it (done brilliantly by Twitter founder Evan Williams in the example below

  • Sharing knowledge “Wow, great article on brands we ‘think’ are sustainable that are actually owned by big co’s, balanced & well written,” (@jamieburdett)
  • Staying in the loop “It’s been a good monday at the Picseli offices. Lots of work done and new designs due by the end of the week. Will keep you posted!” (@picseli)
  • Popularity “(Wondering how many followers I’ve haemorraged in the last ten minutes)” (@reynolds)
  • Personal health and security “Walking out the office door as an employee for what may be the last time. Working from home tomorrow & Monday is d-day.” (@ursulaa)
  • Non-users berating “couple near me at whole foods are discussing Twitter. she thinks it’s boring. bitch.” (@ev)


You probably take them for granted now, but when Twitter launched @replies were never part of the larger idea. But when users started engaging in conversations with each other, they became integral to the user experience, and are now a critical part of how Twitter works. These features now satisfy what Maslow called “social needs” and allow a sense of community to foster. You can engage in conversations (and use Twitter search to follow individual conversations), you can introduce new followers to your audience (a great way to say hello) or answer questions people are posing out there (Twitter is an amazing hive mind resource for tech help). Another area which Twitter aids Belonging is Hashtagging, which allows anyone to follow a wider conversation topic – be it a natural disaster, important event, or ongoing meme, and as with most of the Hierachy of Tweets this works well in tandem with something else: see how #followfriday brings Hashtagging and Introductions together for example

  • Conversations “@mayhemstudios Those bastards are lazy as hell and I’m booked ’till the end may so who knows when we’ll get started:)” (@kodespark)
  • Introductions “@inokua @sheigh @EDF_InnovEx @adriandayton @raymondpirouz @Innovagle @ludwikc @BrianKurtz Welcome New Followers!” (@remyarteaga)
  • Answering questions “@jaxthatgirl did you try another usb port?” (@styleit)
  • Hashtagging “Ben killed Dumbledore. #lost” (@jkottke)


With Maslow, when we get this far up the hierarchy it becomes more about massaging the ego, becoming accepted, feeliing valued, and Twitter is no different in that respect. There is a massive emphasis put on social standing in Twitter – how many people are following you, who is reading your blog. As Twitter becomes more popular, savvy users are realising that number of followers isn’t a sufficient method of measuring authority, but number of ReTweets is a better indicator of output quality. On the flip side of Esteem, but which comes with the ego territory, is self-promoting. This isn’t frowned upon in Twitter, as if you have a blog you’ll need to get your message out, but be wary of flooding people’s streams with a barrage of automated blog post notifications. Nothing says “unfollow” like a bot kicking out links 24/7. Another great way to get followers and status in the world of Twitter is to be the bearer of news, good or bad – Janis Krums, who took the picture of the crashed Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, gained a few thousand followers in days, and now calls himself “The Miracle on the Hudson Photo Guy” – and if you follow a news breaker, make sure to ReTweet it for some Knowledge Sharing points of your own! If Esteem is your thing, you might want to try a bit of follow-baiting – get out there and actively seek new followers, by being completely blatant about it – or for extra kudos, do it on behalf of a charity like Tim Ferriss did!

A warning from Maslow well worth quoting here in full “Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. These people may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others. It may be noted, however, that many people with low self-esteem will not be able to improve their view of themselves simply by receiving fame, respect, and glory externally, but must first accept themselves internally.” So remember – fix yourself first, because 10,000 followers won’t be able to do it for you!

  • ReTweeting “RT Brilliant advice @MySpeakingCoach Speaker secret – “Always give your own speech; never give somebody else’s ” Dr. Wayne W. Dyer” (@MediaCoach)
  • Self-promoting “New Blog Post: A Day of Quality e-Commerce Online Talk Radio” (@Trent_T)
  • Breaking the news “ There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy” (@jrkums)
  • Follow-baiting “The Tweet to Beat – Paying $3 Per Twitter Follower:” (@tferriss)


Right at the top of the hierarchy concerns with “the full realisation of one’s potential”, and how this can be achieved through Twitter. Most Tweets in this area can be viewed as very self-referential and post-modern, with great relevance placed on Tweets that help people use Twitter better – the original Tweet below from @unmarketing needed 40 pages worth of ReTweet wading to find! There becomes a lot of meta-Twitter chatter around here – talk about “Twooshing” (the act of the perfect 140 character Tweet), and a lot of talk “about Twitter on Twitter”. Finally, and the area of some of my favourite Tweets, is people berating the nature of Twitter itself – Merlin Mann might well be the king of this particular pastime – check out his UnfollowMe for some real post-Twitter blasting!

  • Twooshing “I’m going to force myself to write a Twoosh before I am allowed to go to class. Just a new way to procrastinate. Dang easier than I thought.” (@acubsfan)
  • Meta-Tweeting “There’s WAY too much Twittering about Twitter on Twitter” (@jryden)
  • “Tweet better” Tweets “The Five Steps of Twitter Success: Follow, Reply, ReTweet, Share, Repeat” (@unmarketing)
  • Post-Twitter Tweets “I’ve instructed my intern not to update my Facebook until @barackobama’s intern updates his Twitter. Mr. Obama, tear DOWN this fake wall.” (@hotdogsladies)

So …

… there you go. A bit long I know, but thanks if you read this far, and it’s good to get this out of my head and onto a page, and free myself from ZeFrank’s famous Brain Crack. This is the fruit of a days thinking, so it might well be imperfect – if you feel there’s something missing, let us know. And also I’d love to know more about how this relates to you – which area do most of your Tweets fall?

Thanks for reading…

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