A Beginner's Guide To Twitter

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Can you Twitter? Yes, and I'm about to show you how. Should you? You really won't know unless you try. The nabobs who deride the hot online service as being filled with inane updates about tuna sandwiches and peoples' cats miss the point. On the other hand, those who say that Twitter is a new high art, the haiku of the people - their perspective is likewise skewed. It's a communications platform, and just like any other, there is both sublime and pointless content on it.

Twitter lets you write, and read, brief updates about anything. Each update must be under 140 characters - roughly 25 words. The original idea was that you'd follow your friends on Twitter, and then you'd know what they were up to: when they were all gathering at a bar, for example. And you'd be able to muster up a similar gathering yourself.

The size of the groups of friends on Twitter grew, and at 2007 at the South By SouthWest music and technology conference in Austin, Tex., a lot of the 12,000 attendees were using the service to keep up with all the cool events and ideas bouncing around town.

The ways people use the service have continued to grow. Celebrities (Oprah) and politicians (SF Mayor Gavin Newsom) use the service to reach their fans and constituents directly. News organizations (like CBS) send automated updates through Twitter. The service has even found a real use as an emergency broadcast network; it has, arguably, saved lives. And, sadly, Twitter now has spam (unwanted bulk messages), too.

Getting Started

Twitter is a free service and it's easy to get started. You'll need a user name. My advice is to use a variation of your real name so people will recognize your updates when you make them. Like Facebook, Twitter is a real community, not an imaginary world. Be yourself and you'll get more out of it.

During signup, Twitter will also let you scan your e-mail address books to see which of your friends are using the service. Since the key to having a good experience is following the updates from people you care about, this is a vital step to getting started. Don't skip it. You can also invite friends not using Twitter at this point, but you might not want to do that yet until you are comfortable on the system. Twitter will also suggest several popular Twitter celebrities for you to follow, and by default will sign you up to follow all of them. Do pay attention at this point and don't just follow all the suggested users if you don't find their pitch interesting.

You're in!

Twitter is straightforward. You see your friends' updates on the main screen, the newest on top, and you can add to the general conversation just by typing in your update. You can't type more than 140 characters, which is Twitter's charm and its curse.

Update your status, say Hello. That's it. You're Twittering.

Basic Messaging And Privacy

Twitter is primarily an open forum: Everything you type can be seen by anyone who follows you, and by default anyone who wants to can follow you. You can, however, control access to your updates in several ways.

For example, if you want to block random users from following you, you can set your account to "protected." Then when users want to follow you, you'll have to approve them. This is useful if you want to use Twitter as a private communications medium, but my advice is to not over-control your Twitter account. If you have something you want to say and you don't want the Twitter world to see it, put it elsewhere. Twitter works best when you join its larger community.

There's a protocol on Twitter for replying to particular users' updates. If you want to comment on something someone else said, write @ and then their name in your post (or "Tweet"). For example, "@rafe, Interesting point." Then the user will see what you said even if they are not following you, and anyone else who sees the update will know it's in reply to another user.

However, @ replies can be confusing to people that didn't see the post that the reply is to. Reading @ replies can be like listening to one half of a telephone conversation. So try to add some context if you're going to reply via @.

You can also send someone a message on Twitter that only they will see. This is called "direct messaging," and to use it just preface your post with D, for example "D rafe Please call me at 415-555-5555. I have your wallet." However, you can only D someone who is following you, so if you want the person you're messaging to be able to D you back, make sure you're getting their updates. Type F (for follow) and then the user's name. E.g., "F rafe." A follow command will be recognized by Twitter but won't show up in your list of updates as a post.

You can also send direct messages and follow commands through buttons in Twitter.com

Learn The Lingo

There are a few odd abbreviations you will see in Twitter that you may want to use yourself.

RT stands for Retweet. It's how people forward on Twitter posts they see to their own network of friends on Twitter. For example, if you want to pass on to your friends something I wrote, you could Twitter, "RT @rafe Yes, it's nose-typing for me from now on."

OH is overheard. It's the real-world equivalent of RT.

# is the sign for a "hashtag." It's a way for users to categorize their posts so others can see it. For example, if I'm covering a trade show, like CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), I'll put the "#CES" hashtag at the end of all my posts so people who are monitoring Twitter for CES news will be able to find it (see Search, below).

Weird Web links. Since Twitter posts are so brief, long site addresses don't fit in easily. People use link shorteners, like TinyURL and Bit.ly, to cram links down into the smallest possible number of characters. A lot of people use Twitter to share links to sites and stories they like, and this is why the links looks so weird.

Other Tips

Use Search. Twitter has a search function that can see everything happening on the service as it's typed in (except in protected accounts). It's an incredible tool. If you're looking for real-time updates for any world event, or if you want to see what people think on any topic, try searching on Twitter as well as doing your usual Google search.

Don't overfollow. There are no merit badges for following thousands of Twitter users. Follow your friends and the personalities you like. If you follow too many people it's likely that updates from people you care about will get lost in the noise. And you won't miss much by being parsimonious with your following. There's a lot of retweeting on Twitter, so chances are your network of friends will end up sending you items you'd want to see anyway.

Do follow news feeds in your community or interest groups. Just because a Twitter account is automatically generated doesn't mean it's not worth following.

Use an app. Twitter.com is just one way to access Twitter updates. Applications, like Twhirl and Tweetdeck (my favorites) give you a lot more control over what you see on the screen, and make it easier and faster to post your own items as @ replies, direct messages, or with Web links.

Go mobile: Twitter was designed for mobile users and it's still a great tool to keep up with your friends when you're not at your computer. You can access Twitter via text messaging (instructions are on the site), but if you have a smartphone like an iPhone, you're better off using a mobile app. For the iPhone, I recommend Tweetie.

Go to sites. Before you decide to follow someone, especially a celebrity, check out their updates on their dedicated Twitter page. All users have one. For example, if you want to see what adding Oprah would be like, visit twitter.com/oprah. You can follow people directly from their pages, if you like them.

Finally, learn to the love the Fail Whale. Twitter goes through periods of not working. You may see the site's cute mascot of failure when it's malfunctioning. It's called the Fail Whale. Come back later.
By Rafe Needleman

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