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Why we favourite on Twitter

A recent study shows that favouriting on Twitter is more than virtual backslapping and narcissism.

The Twitter favourite function is one of the most misused and abused functions on any social media platform. There seems to be no common rationale for why users mark-up tweets with the yellow star.

Research is limited but I turned up a study published in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (opens as a PDF) on the topic.

The project was undertaken in 2014 by Florian Meier and David Elsweiler at the University of Resensburg, Germany; and Max Wilson at the University of Nottingham, UK.

The team investigated the motivation of a sample of 606 Twitter users: 65 per cent of users were aware of the function and 48% made use of it to mark-up tweets.

The headline finding found limited consistency in the use of the favourite function.

Users cite three primary reasons for so-called favouriting behaviour:

  • Communication – it is a means of acknowledging content and a form of messaging between users to endorse or show approval
  • Function – it enables users to archive tweets for later recall. This function is poorly supported on the platform
  • No reason – an accident or no specific reason

The research team grouped the results in ten areas across these three areas.

Communication

#1 Tweet is informational – the tweet provided information or a link to media that was useful. A virtual thank you

#2 Special person as author – endorsement of content from someone with a close relationship as a friend, lover or family member

#3 Liking – the most common motivation and analogous to a like on Facebook. A signal to suggest that a user likes your content

#4 Tweet relates personally to the favouriter – a tweet that relates to the favouriter because it includes an @mention or useful information

#5 Emotional stimulus – a reaction or response to content that invokes an emotion such as making the user feel special, happy or laugh

Function

#6 Bookmarking – the second most popular motivation. A way of archiving a tweet for later recall although there is limited evidence that users ever revisit favourited tweets

#7 Unwritten communication – a means of indicating approval for the content of a tweet

#8 Competition – a response to a competition. Used exclusively by competition enthusiasts

#9 Twitter-interaction hierarchy – a private indicator of approval of content that didn’t merit a retweet

No reason

#10 No reason or a mistake – users favourite for no reason or in error

Twitter is a conversation 

I’d urge you to review the findings of this study through a sceptical lens.

The sample size is small relative to the 236 million monthly active Twitter users.

There is no distinction between mobile and web usage and the platform has gone through numerous redesigns since the research study was undertaken.

That said the findings contain some useful insights.

A common theme cited by users in the study is the distinction between favouriting and retweeting.

Both are considered a signal of approval however a retweet is rebroadcast to the retweeter’s network whereas a favourite is mistakenly viewed as a private form of communication.

The study shows that the favourite function is often used to address the shortfall in functions for archiving and retrieving tweets.

My recommendation would be that if you’re using favouriting on Twitter as a form of communication, pause for a moment and send a @mention instead.

Twitter is a media platform for conversation, after all.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

20 Comments

  1. One of the tips I give is to use favourites to compile a list of endorsements, or positive mentions about you. It can appear a bit narcissistic to retweet every glowing reference you get, but by making it a favourite you acknowledge it and say thank you. Your favourite list, which is public, then becomes like a list of testimonials.

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