Unpredictable Rewards: Twitter’s “Activity” Stream And Our Dwindling Attention Reservoir

Do Twitter’s Activity and Facebook’s Ticker give you anything you really need to know? Not really. But maybe that’s not so bad.



Twitter used to ask its users, simply: “What are you doing right now?” These days, with its broader real-time information mission, Twitter asks: “What’s happening?”

Now Twitter wants to show you, in minute detail, every bit of “Activity” undertaken by people you know and follow–who they’re following, what they’re retweeting, and which tweets are earning their “Favorite” stars.

At best, it seems, you might find a few tweets worth the Twitter equivalent of a thumbs-up. But mostly, it’s a noisy new thing that feels like a Facebook-inspired me-too move. Or, as one designer put it, it feels like “sniffing the exhaust fumes of activity.”

Not everybody agrees, and it’s worth pointing out that Twitter’s Activity feed shows up only on the website, and it doesn’t affect your primary feed at all–you have to click on Activity to see all the who’s-doing-what stuff. But Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet and an InfoVegan blogger, sees Twitter’s Activity feed as a “really dangerous” trend.

“It’s like having a constant junk supply of information streaming right before our eyes,” Johnson wrote in an email. “If this was like food, these kinds of streams would be like having a milkshake lever installed … Could you still keep a reasonable diet? Sure. But would it be more difficult? Definitely.”


Johnson sees parallels between Twitter’s Activity feed and its counterparts in the Facebook “ticker” (the never-ending stream of friends’ activities in the upper-right corner of Facebook’s in your browser) and the little red Google+ notification button that follows you across every Google site when you’re signed in.

“The problem is that this stuff isn’t particularly useful, actionable, relevant, or educational,” Johnson wrote us. “It’s designed, specifically, to keep you clicking by engaging the most basic parts of your brain. So it makes it all the more harder to have a conscious, proactive relationship with information.”

Anthony De Rosa, social media editor for Reuters, sees the Activity feed as a potential pitfall for journalists and their sources. More than that, it’s a feature that doesn’t offer any kind of opt-out, or controls to quiet down especially noisy users.

Showing who’s marking a tweet as a favorite also assumes that “fave-ing” a tweet is akin to the other positive actions shown in Activity, following and retweeting. But people use Twitter favorites as bookmarks, social to-do lists, and other personalized purposes, so showing what someone favorites may not provide much context–or may show that they’re looking into weight loss, depression support, or other information that, while previously public, took a few more determined clicks to view.

Twitter, of course, is not Bloomberg, and doesn’t always need to provide dense information on pre-defined topics. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic enjoys how Activity helps “shape (your) Twitter community,” so you can rely on your friends’ tastes and interests to help you find new people, new stories, and other experience-shaping modifiers. Like Facebook’s ticker, it gives you a window into what everybody’s clicking and looking at, in a more immediate way than reviewing just what they’re writing about.


But for those who value what Twitter has done in the past, the new Activity tab can feel like a service losing sight of what it really does best. Mike Monteiro, design director at Mule Design Studio, sees two great things at the core of Twitter: a character limit, and “stupid simplicity,” by which he means “stupid in a very positive way.” Twitter has often tweaked its function and features, but never messed with its engaging, minimal center. Not the Activity stream, Monteiro writes in an email.

“(The Activity stream) introduces a level of complexity and noise that takes away from the stream. I don’t get anything out of the Activity stream. It’s the farthest thing from actual activity I can think of. You’re not tweeting, you’re not reading tweets. You’re not engaging. You’re sniffing the exhaust fumes of activity.”

It might seem like splitting hairs to term one use of Twitter distracting, as if other forms were obviously productive and always informative. But Twitter–and Facebook, and Google+–give back what you put into them. And whether you find the recurring distractions of social networks helpful at all depends on what your goal is. Eyal Ophir, primary researcher at the Stanford Multitasking study, believes ticker-style updates are effective in a way familiar to researchers of operant conditioning.

“Unpredictable rewards keep us guessing, so we’ll keep checking long after we’re no longer getting rewarded, because ‘you never know,'” Ophir wrote in an email. “So if there’s one or two exciting tweets, or a rewarding social experience in the Facebook Ticker, and we can never tell when something like that will come again, that’s going to be a good motivator for us to just keep checking. And that’s going to drive up the perceived value of interrupting whatever we’re doing (work, family, etc.) to go and check.”


So now it’s up to you do determine if what you see in your real-time social streams counts as a rewarding surprise, or at least more rewarding than cleaning out your inbox. But Ophir notes that being overwhelmed by more information than you can handle can serve as its own balancing force.

“(Heavy activity streams) might be a good thing, because it’s going to force us to make decisions. The flood of information might expedite the extinction of reward expectations–you keep checking and checking, and not seeing anything worth coming back for, and at some point you’ll stop checking. The faster the stream, the more quickly that might happen.”

Ophir notes, with a virtual wink, that he’s “keeping an eye on it.”

[Image: Flickr user louish]

Follow @KevinPurdy and @FastCompany, too. (But beware of their Activity streams!)