How Status Games on Twitter Shape our Culture

Marcel Gregoriadis
4 min readJan 14, 2023

The success of the human species is rooted in its well-evolved ability to cooperate. On an individual level, we apply a tit-for-tat strategy. That is, we improve our social reputation to maximize the cooperative intentions of others towards us and thereby maximize our personal profit. In other words, we play status games. In the same-titled book, the author Will Storr identifies three types of status games:

  • Dominance games
  • Success games
  • Virtue games

We play those (i.e., a subset or combination of these) in every social group we partake in. This can be at school, at work, in sports, in a friend group, in the local community, in an online game, etc. Furthermore, we can observe them in politics, in Hollywood, between nations, and between companies.

We might not think of us playing a status game when we hang out with our friend group, for example, but it really is nothing else. Zero status equates to zero cooperation (or not more than towards any random peer) and therefore means exclusion from a group. In turn, high status equates to more cooperation, which means more benefits from that group. Thus, the desire to rise in status is only rational. However, in a healthy friend group, (intra-group) virtue is what mainly rules this game.

In recent years, we have seen a cultural shift that is shaped by identity politics, the BLM movement, body positivity, environmentalism, neo-feminism, and the idea of safe spaces which can also be linked to incidents of censorship and moreover the emergence of cancel culture.

Those developments can best be observed on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and (perhaps foremost) Twitter. It can even be argued that the rise of social media technology and the cultural and political shift that we observe are linked.

Let’s analyze this with the knowledge about humans’ tendency to rise in status in any social group setting. What kind of status games would humans play on, e.g., Twitter?

The obvious game of social media is to accumulate a high number of followers and likes, as those convert to power and influence. It is a popularity contest, and those are not won by the game of dominance. Just as with democratic elections, or being a movie actor in the public eye, those games are primarily won by virtue signaling.

Therefore, it makes sense for virtue games to be predominant on those platforms (and associated with it, success, measured by the number of followers). This tendency seems to be stronger the fewer real-world relationships exist between the protagonist and their audience, where the game could be corrupted by other games played. By design of the platforms, this is more so the case with Twitter and TikTok, where the followership is the general public (i.e., mainly strangers or internet friends) rather than people met in real life (typical for Instagram and Facebook).

Source: Brett Jordan at Pexels

Especially since the start of the pandemic, social life has immersed more and more into the internet. The consequence is a culture where the predominant status game is that of virtue, where virtue is weaponized to gain influence and power, and where the general public is constantly exposed to this type of behavior and the ideologies it brews.

The issue I see with this is that we create a society based on a worldview that gets cultivated on social media rather than in the real world. The disparity is characterized by the following key differences, to just name a few:

  • The anonymity/pseudonymity on the internet takes away accountability.
  • There is a primal fear and implicit danger of physical confrontation with real-life interactions.
  • People can be blocked, posts can be hidden, and opinions can be muted. This can happen by a measure of the platform itself or by oneself’s setting. In the real world, we have to confront ourselves with people and opinions, even those we dislike.
  • People curate fake personalities online. This is very difficult in the real world for multiple reasons: The natural appearance, body language, and tone of voice, among other things, convey a lot about who a person really is. Not to mention their everyday life actions. Furthermore, in real-life communities we see the same people recurrently, getting to know them at their best and their worst, drawing a more complete and accurate picture of who someone is.
  • Real life gives us a cross-section of our local society, whereas the internet tends to connect us with groups that echo our opinion, and isolates us from opposing beliefs.

TL;DR — By cultivating a worldview based on the opinions we hear and experiences we make online, we’re cultivating a worldview that is wrong (i.e., an inaccurate representation of the real world).

This is dangerous as those corrupted worldviews at some point are carried out into the real world, into our real-world interactions with people, and finally, the politics through which we design the future.

While the deconstruction of the status games played in social media networks, and how they link to recent cultural and societal developments, was a fun intellectual journey for me, and hopefully likewise enlightening for you, the message is not original at all:

Touch some grass.
Meet people in real life.
And reduce time on social media.

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Marcel Gregoriadis

I try to understand the world by writing about it. My essays revolve around psychology, sociology, and philosophy.