Twitter, the Psychology of Reciprocity, and Self-Reinforcing Micro-Networks

As I get this blog off the ground, I thought that now would be a good time to take a look at something that I’ve noticed lately on Twitter.  Now I’m sure that just about everyone reading this has at some point heard something about Twitter and the psychology of reciprocity.  Basically, the argument is that if I follow a whole bunch of people, then a certain percentage of them will follow me in response.  The reciprocity principle has been proven to have an effect in many situations; it’s why some non-profits send you those little address labels when they ask you for a donation – it actually increases their donation rates because people feel like they should pay the non-profit for the labels (see Robert Cialdini’s work if you don’t believe me).

Now I’m not arguing with this.  It’s totally accurate at least from my (somewhat limited) experience on Twitter.  But what I find interesting is what happens after this.  I like Twitter for many reasons; one is the fact that I can follow lots of people who write on a variety of subjects.  So one of the first things I did after joining Twitter was to check and see if some of the brands/websites/people I regularly interact with (and/or appreciate) were posting.  I followed them, and some of them followed me back.  But what was interesting was the people who then began to follow me that I wasn’t already following.  I noticed that some of them were in some way related to the people I originally followed.  Here’s an example.  Let’s say I follow a user who works in interactive marketing (one of my primary interests) and they follow me back.  I would then end up with two or three new followers, who more often than wrote on interactive marketing (or whatever the original subject was) .

What did I then do by the way?  Follow them back because they followed me.  Reciprocity in action.

Anyway, my point is that it seems from this perspective as if there are micro-networks on Twitter.  Here’s the steps, to recap:

  • I follow Sam, who writes about environmental sustainability.
  • Sam then follows me back (reciprocity)
  • Jim and Jane (two other users who write about sustainability) then follow me (perhaps they found me by looking at the list of Sam’s followers).
  • I then follow Jim and Jane (reciprocity)

If you’ve followed me this far (no pun intended), what this basically means is that mini-networks within Twitter are being created as the Jims and Janes of Twitter look at Sam’s following list to grow their networks.  If we take this to the extreme, we could see a self-reinforcing element arise as users focused on a particular topic just start to follow each other.  The overriding factor here is the nature of Twitter’s users; they’re interested in a diverse set of topics and are likely to jump from one micro-network to the next.  This seems to eliminate any downsides to this phenomenon (which may be entirely in my head, I don’t know) – at least for now.  As to what will happen as Twitter continues to grow and as more and more users discover new ways to use the service, well, your guess is as good as mine (there’s a very good chance it will be better, as I’m operating with only one data set – my own experiences).