Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Twitter and Machiavellian Intelligence

Four short months and 135 tweets ago I wrote about joining Twitter. Slightly reluctant, confused by how it worked and - if I'm completely honest - a bit sniffy about whether I could be bothered with it at all.

But just a week ago I stunned myself by realising that Twitter is now the first thing I check in the morning. Not email. After the best part of 15 years of first ritually checking my email Twitter has knocked email off the top spot(1). So what happened? What is it about Twitter that is so compelling, so addictive? Why do I love Twitter?

Actually that was just the first surprise. The second was to realise I was so pleased when my number of followers reached 50, then 60 - and last week 70.

But the thing that shocked me rigid a week ago was this. I found myself wondering how I might contrive person X (who I admired) to notice me and become my follower. What the hell was I thinking! Who's in control here - me or Twitter; do I have obsessive compulsive twitter syndrome? Do I need help - maybe go cold turkey for awhile?

But then I started thinking about it and realised that there is a very ancient instinct at work here, and Twitter is just tickling that instinct in me. Perfectly. I'm talking about Machiavellian intelligence. The kind of social intelligence that is present to some degree in all primates and well developed in Chimpanzee and monkeys such as Rhesus Macaques. So what is this kind of social intelligence? Well, if you find yourself thinking: I'm going to make friends with him and pretend I like him, but not because I want to be his friend. Oh no: he has a friend that I really want to be friends with and - through this deception - I might achieve that goal. Then you are engaged in the social politics of Machiavellian intelligence. For anyone interested in intelligence, the evolution of human intelligence, or indeed AI, Machiavellian intelligence is very interesting because it requires Theory of Mind. It was probably already well developed in the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimpanzee, around 6 million years ago.

I don't know whether it was intentional, but the very smart people who created Twitter have somehow built an ecosystem perfectly suited for this kind of game. The basic ingredients are these: firstly everyone has followers and people they follow (following). The fact that you can easily see the number of followers and following for those you follow, or who follow you, means that very quickly you establish exactly where you are in the Twitter social pecking order. These numbers mean alot to us. The alpha-tweeters are those with huge numbers of followers. They are, in the terminology of memetics, meme-founts - leaders of fashion. But even for those of us with modest circles of followers and following, the balance of numbers is significant. Our Machiavellian instinct tells us that those with a greater number of followers than following are, on balance, leaders whereas those whose following outnumbers their followers are, on balance, followers and therefore of lower Twitter status. Please understand I'm absolutely not saying they are less worthy individuals, only that this is what our Machiavellian instinct tells us in the game of Twitter.

The second ingredient that is, I think, significant is the fact that you can easily see which followers or following you have in common with someone. So it is not just a matter of numbers, it's personal. Among those you follow, and those who follow you, you really can work out very quickly who is connected to who - and the connections have social structure. If I and someone else follow each other, then we are - in a sense - equal. If, on the other hand, I see that I'm following someone else, but they don't follow me, then my Machiavellian instinct places them higher up the Twitter social scale than me. Again this may not correlate at all to real-life standing. The point I'm making is that we can't help making these Machiavellian inferences - and Twitter makes it so easy.

This brings me to the third and most brilliant ingredient: Re-tweeting. The politics of re-tweeting are fascinating and complex. Having one of your tweets re-tweeted is the equivalent of being stroked, and we love being stroked. I certainly experience a quantum of happiness(2) when one of my tweets is re-tweeted, and I'm even happier if it's re-tweeted several times. Conversely, I'm disappointed if a tweet that I thought was especially witty, insightful or apposite to current events fails to be re-tweeted. Indeed it appears to be good manners to thank those who have RT'd a tweet - which says alot of how much we value RTs. And of course to be re-tweeted by a Twitter celebrity is a precious honour, the equivalent of a favour by one of the princesses of the Twitter court.

So Twitter is powerful stuff. It's not just a micro-blogging site, it is a quite remarkable place in which we can play out to the full our ancient instinct for Machiavellian social politics.

And of course Twitter has proven itself to be a marvellous vehicle for grass-roots political activism. Is that something to do with Machiavellian intelligence too?

So now I don't feel quite so bad about my new-found Twitter addiction.

(1) Apart from a short spell of Guardian Soulmates 3 years ago:))
(2) I propose a new unit for a quantum of happiness: the RT (re-tweet).


  1. Maybe this is an example of the fact, that after all, machines and AI just remind us how human we are.

  2. Ah but beware - you're heading towards the Dunbar number. You've screeched past family and are getting towards tribe. Soon, the energy costs of all that grooming might be too great.

    Although maybe I'm wrong. There's no energy costs in being followed; that's the alpha fe/male, who just gets to enjoy having the fleas picked off. The costs come in being a follower (groomer), and perhaps one follows many fewer people.

  3. Thank you kindly José and Ann for your comments.

    José: indeed. Internet mediated social networking (and the AI behind it) plays to and, perhaps, amplifies our very human social instincts.

    Ann: very good points about the Dunbar number (the upper cognitive limit on the number of people one can maintain a social relationship with). Although debated the value most commonly given is 150. It would be interesting to see if the average no of Twitter connections falls below this number (I bet it does).

  4. Actually I think Dunbar's main contribution is to thinking about the evolution of time budgets. I certainly optimise my twitter following stream for maximum interest / time allocated, with the hope that everyone I really follow I can read every day, while I have lists for days when I'm bored or procrastinating. I'm not sure cognitive load is as big a deal as temporal load.

    Also, weirdly, I don't care who follows me on twitter, as long as they are real people & they don't follow implausibly many other people & there are a lot of them :-) For specific people I hope they read my papers or at least my web site. In fact, I mostly just hope they *cite* my papers :-). For whatever reason, I think of twitter as an alternative to my "real" professional persona, though obviously it is a highly public persona.