twitter is a game

TwitterFonOn many occasions and even in a recent post, I’ve said that I just don’t get twitter. I was certain I didn’t want to tune in to the minutiae of my friends’ lives, and I was not interested in sharing mine. A few short weeks later, I’ve totally changed my tune, and I can say that twitter is now one of my favorite games. Yes, that’s what I said.

I like the strange blend of personal and professional I find on twitter at any given moment, and in this respect, twitter is somewhat unique. Blogs and other content and publishing vehicles (like magazines or television shows) do much better when they specialize – when they focus solely on, say, beer or esoteric music or bespoke tailoring. Even when we consume blogs, we tend to organize them – within RSS readers – into genres and categories. Other types of user-generated content – I’m thinking of forums and discussion boards (and Gmail) – are organized into threads.

But the beauty of twitter is that it’s neither specialized nor organized. At any given moment in the twitter stream from my friends, I might see a quirky observation… next to a plea for support… next to a bit of self-promotion… and so on. Even the stream of tweets from any individual friend will span all these flavors and more over the course of a day or two.

This variety gives twitter a game-like quality in the sense that there’s always the possibility (but never a guarantee) of surprise and delight – a textbook example of a random reward schedule. This is a well-known concept in gambling and game design (as discussed here, here and here), and it’s what keeps people coming back for more. Basically, there are a few different “schedules” a game or other activity can apply in the way it rewards players:

  • Fixed interval: Reward players every X minutes/seconds
  • Variable interval: Randomly reward players, but with an average interval of X minutes/seconds
  • Fixed ratio: Reward players after every X responses
  • Variable ratio: Randomly reward players, but with an average trigger of X responses

As you can see from this graph, the variable ratio schedule is by far the most effective:


When it comes to simply consuming the stream of tweets, you could argue that twitter applies either (or both) of the variable schedules, but when you start to interact with the stream it’s clearly variable ratio. I’m officially hooked.

And thanks to TwitterFon, twitter is with me all the time. I’ve become compulsive about checking it. Incidentally, there are numerous twitter apps for iPhone, but none is as easy on the eyes or as fun to use as TwitterFon. And recently, when the app was crashing (due to a JSON parsing issue on twitter), the makers of the app issued freequent updates on their blog and via @twitterfon until it was fixed.

So I’ve gone from flirting to the first strains of a romance. It’s not a full-blown affair yet, because there are so many ways to use twitter, and I’m only scratching the surface. I tweet a couple times a day at most, which makes me a kind of twitter voyeur I suppose. I resolve to start tweeting more, although I never want to be as noisy asĀ @guykawasaki (who I eventually stopped following because he posted almost as much as all my other followees combined) or @Scobleizer. And there are a lot of third-party twitter tools and add-ons I’m not using.

The only fancy thing I’ve done with it is to use twitterfeed to tweet my blog posts automatically (which might be how you got here).