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My hobby is analyzing real-time social media from the perspective of neuroscience. I’m fascinated by the analogy between Twitter and the brain. The recent discussions about the etiquette of ‘thank you’ posts on Twitter got me thinking – how do neurons in the brain handle thank yous?Pat on Back

At first it seems like a silly question. Upstream neurons don’t thank downstream neurons for passing on the message they sent. A pre-synaptic neuron sends neurotransmitters to the post-synaptic neuron and that would seem like the end of it. Right? Or is it?

In fact, if the post-synaptic neuron fires soon after the pre-synaptic neuron sends it a message, the strength of the synapse between the two neurons is strengthened according to the spike time dependent plasticity (STDP) rule I discussed previously.  So while there is no explicit acknowledgment or ‘thank you’ by the pre-synaptic neuron for the equivalent of a retweet by the post-synaptic neuron, the pre-synaptic neuron’s gratitude (to stretch the analogy) manifests itself as a strengthening of the synapse, the equivalent of the ‘social bond’ between the two neurons.

The equivalent response on Twitter would be if I started posting more content that I think will be appreciated by someone who has shown a tendency to retweet my posts in the past – in other words, sending more good stuff their way.  In a sense, the neurons are just ‘doing their job’ of passing on the best information they can find to those other neurons they think will listen, rather than explicitly greasing the skids of communication by exchanging extra messages expressing gratitude.

Perhaps this disconnect between how effective communication appears to happen in the brain (without thank yous) and how messages are passed on Twitter today is part of my ambivalence about ‘thx for the RT!’ posts.

But as we see from the wild west nature of real-time social media today, and last nights successful attack that took down Twitter, the Global Brain is still in the early process of development.  Maybe before it got so complex and sophisticated, the brain was more like Twitter?

This is purely speculation, but I strongly suspect that when brains were more primitive, and proto-neurons in those primitive brains were trying to figure out whether or not it was worth talking to their neighbors, there must have been something that was ‘in it for them’ to encourage message passing.

Perhaps like vampire bats share blood to build social ties, early neurons might have shared chemicals to help nourish each other and build supportive networks. The survival value of this ‘cellular food’ might have encourage the initial exchanges, which got co-opted later by natural selection for communication purposes as multi-cellular organisms evolved.

But a more likely possibility seems to be that proto-synapses between proto-neurons served a communication function from the start. A rather dense 2009 paper from Nature Neuroscience by neuroscientists at the the University of Cambridge on the evolution of the synapse seems to support this idea:

“Strikingly, quintessential players that mediate changes dependant on neuronal activity during synaptic plasticity are also essential components of the yeast’s response to environmental changes.”

In other words, these scientists appear to be suggesting that early semi-independent single cell organisms may have developed proto-synapses to communication information about their shared environment, like the presence of food or toxins nearby. Perhaps through communication, these early colonies of cells might have reacted in concert, and thereby coped more effectively with threats or opportunities presented by their shared environment.  Such ‘communication for a common cause’ would have had survival advantage for the cell colony, encouraging its elaboration through the process of natural selection.  Anthropomorphically speaking, the cells would have been saying ‘if we listen to each other, we can all get ahead.’

All this points to the content of the message itself as as the carrier of value in these early colonies of cells, without need for explicit exchange of ‘thank you’ messages. Listening and being heard were both of intrisic value to individual primitive cells, and to the colony as a whole.

So can we get away with such a ‘thankless’ model on Twitter, or is a virtual pat on the back in return for digital kindness, in the form of a thank you post for retweets, still necessary to grease the skids of communication in the rapidly evolving global brain?

I have to admit, I’m new to social media, especially Twitter, and I’m still learning the rules.  But it appears to me that there are (as yet) few clear behavioral codes, perhaps because the medium is so young. For example, today one of my favorite visionaries on Twitter and a seasoned social networkers, @VenessaMiemis, tweeted the question:

sooo.. how many times should u RT someone w/o them acknowledging u before you just give up & unfollow? hmm

In a way that made me feel better, since if Venessa doesn’t know, perhaps I’m not as naive as I feared.  She went on to say:

not being RT’d back or thanked made me feel ignored, and that made me sad. 😦

My question is – should Venessa feel that way? And heaven forbid, was I one of the thoughtless people who inadvertently snubbed Venessa and made her sad?

There seems to be a schizophrenia about the role Twitter should be playing in the lives of people like Venessa and like me.

On the one hand, I think  many people (myself and Venessa included) see Twitter as primarily a way of exchanging ideas, a way of of passing useful information amongst individuals with similar interests.

But many people also see Twitter as a way of building social relationships and virtually connecting with kindred spirits.  And of course, may people hope Twitter can serve both an informational and a social role.

For someone trying to follow 50 or 100 active Twitter users,  messages like ‘@BlahBlah – thx for the RT!’ appears as a waste of my limited bandwidth. So when I’m fortunate enough to have someone retweet one of my own posts, I’m always saddled with a decision.  Should I be polite and  thank them publicly for the RT?  Or should I thank them privately (perhaps with a direct message)  and thereby avoid giving existing and potential followers the impression that the signal-to-noise ratio of my tweet-stream is so low that I’m not worth following?

From the perspective of the person who was kind enough to RT me, a public thank you would seem much preferred, since it calls attention to them, and could help them build their list of followers. But at the same time, I also sometimes get the impression that ‘thank you’ retweets are a bit self-serving – calling attention to oneself by illustrating how many other people think you’ve got something important to say.

I even find myself second guessing myself earlier in the process, when considering whether to retweet content I find valuable.  Are my followers likely to have already seen the information I’m about to RT?  Does the information fit the interest profile I perceive my followers to have?  My big fear is that RTs of information my followers have already seen will be worse for my ‘Twitter reputation’  than having said nothing at all.  But on the other hand, when I see at RT by someone whose perspective I value, I’m more likely to read it, even if I passed over it the first time it showed up on my Twitter input stream.

In short, it is quite unclear to me (and apparently others) what the rules of right conduct are when engaging with others on Twitter, if such rules even exist.

What all this points out is just how primitive are the tools and filtering mechanisms we have at our disposal now for real-time social networks.  I hope someday soon Twitter clients will be smart enough to filter out ‘thank you’ retweets unless I’m the sender or recipient, and to filter out RTs of stories or blog posts I’ve already read.  If I knew everyone had access to these two seemingly simple features, I’d be much less reluctant to RT good content that my followers may have otherwise missed, and I’d be much more willing to be polite and thank people for RTs of my own posts, knowing that I wouldn’t be cluttering the tweet-stream of people who follow me with posts which are nothing more than noise to them.

How do others handle such conflicts?  Are there codes of conduct that people have tried to formulate for how to be a good Twitter participant?  How much does it depend on the size of your following and the type of reputation you’re trying to build?  I know there are people (like Robert Scoble @Scobleizer) who maintain several Twitter feeds – one (or more) for pure content, and another for more personal stuff. That makes sense for someone like Scoble, who has more than 100K followers. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect people to follow more than one Twitter persona for a newbie and relative unknown person like me.

If I’ve offended you Venessa, or anyone else, I sincerely apologize.  I’m the first to admit I’m still stumbling along trying to find my way through the complicated and quickly evolving world of social media.

Update: Venessa – congrats on your Ideas Project video. Very nice! Right now I’m asking – should I join the crowd and tweet a friendly ‘congrats!’ message to Venessa or just stay quiet?

Ever feel like you're part of a big machine?

This blog is an exploration of what being part of a collective might mean for each of us as individuals, and for society.

What is it that is struggling to emerge from the convergence of people and technology?

How can each of us play a role, as a thoughtful cog in the big machine?

Dean Pomerleau


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