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What is Twitter, anyway?

Twitter is a social networking and microblogging environment. If you’re wondering what this means in real life, Twitter is a place where you can let your friends know what you’re doing, network and meet new people, and keep a shared record of interesting things that you encounter on the Internet and in real life. There are even “tweetups” in various locations where Twitterers can get together in person.

How does Twitter work?

When you bring up the first Twitter screen, it asks you, “What are you doing right now?” Although people do use Twitter to answer that question, Twitter is far more than that.

Once you have signed on, you can recount your daily activities, share news items and links, or converse with other Twitterers, in messages of up to 140 characters each. Messages are sometimes known as “tweets” or “updates.” If your text is longer than that, you can continue it in the next 140-character message.

Each user can page back to see earlier messages. This means that you can communicate either in “real time” or by posting messages that others will see when they sign on later.

How do I access Twitter?

You can access Twitter from just about any device that has an Internet browser or messaging capability: a PC, Mac, or Linux machine; a smartphone or PDA such as Blackberry or iPhone; or any cell phone that has a web browser and/or text messaging (SMS or IM). Once you have a user ID, you can use any combination of these methods.

To access Twitter from a desktop or laptop browser, enter http://twitter.com in the address field. That’s all you need.

It’s free; just follow the simple instructions for signing up.

For those who prefer other user interface styles, various downloadable desktop clients are available, including a plugin for Facebook.

To access Twitter Mobile from a cell phone or other mobile device, simply enter http://m.twitter.com in the browser address field. Here again, there are other interfaces you can use, depending on the type of device. If you wish, you can also associate your cell phone number with your Twitter user ID, so that you can send SMS text messages to 40404 and have them appear with your user ID. This also lets you receive “tweets” as text messages on your cell phone. If the text messages get to be too much, you can turn that feature on or off at your convenience.

Tech Tip: If you plan to use Twitter from any mobile device, make sure that you have a service plan that allows for unlimited web browsing and a sufficiently large number of text messages per month. Keep an eye on the amount of data traffic through your account. Even if the company’s television ads claim that they offer “unlimited access,” read the fine print on the service agreement before you sign!

Who will see my messages?

Twitter lets you send two kinds of messages: normal “tweets” that can be viewed by anyone, and direct messages that go to one specific individual.

Direct messages are useful if you want to send someone an email addy or a personal invitation, or if you are communicating with family members or business associates. To send a direct message, enter a “d” followed by a space and the other Twitterer’s user ID (e.g., d 1389 for a direct message to me).

Anyone can see your normal “tweets” if they are watching the public timeline or if they view your profile page. You have the option of preventing this access by locking your updates for access only by friends, but most people choose not to do that.

To direct a normal “tweet” to a specific Twitterer, put an at-sign followed immediately by the Twitterer’s user ID in the message (e.g., @1389 for a message to me). Everyone else can still see the “tweet,” but it will also appear in the other user’s Replies tab.

The real question is not who could potentially see your messages, but who actually will be reading them. Twitterers generally stay on their own home page most of the time. Your home page shows you only the messages from other Twitterers whom you are following. In order to have a conversation, the “following” relationship needs to be mutual. This structure helps to make Twitter self-policing, in that spammers, trolls, and other bad actors find themselves tuned out. On the other hand, it does make it more difficult for a new Twitterer to begin establishing a network of friends.

So how do I start building a network on Twitter?

Once you have your user ID, you can start the process by choosing to follow other Twitterers whose messages you find interesting. To see another user’s profile, you can click on that person’s user ID or enter http://twitter.com/their_ID, substituting the other Twitterer’s actual user ID for their_ID. On the profile page, you can click on a button if you want to begin following that user. Whether other users choose to follow you in return is up to them; some will and some won’t, for whatever reason.

It helps if you already know someone who is an active Twitterer. Some people display their Twitter user IDs in MySpace or Facebook or their blogs. Once you have set up an account on Twitter, you can begin following him or her, and perhaps send an email asking the other user to start following you on Twitter and to help you get started by introducing you to others.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, you can always follow me by clicking on http://twitter.com/1389, or you can leave a comment here asking for my assistance. I check my follower list regularly and will follow anyone in return who is not a spambot and who behaves in a civil manner. Let me know what your interests are, and I’ll try to introduce you to other Twitterers who share those interests.

What are some of the “unwritten rules”?

  • You gotta “tweet”! If you don’t interact with the people who are following you, they’ll figure that you aren’t on the system any more and they’ll drop you. Get to know people, say hello or good morning, remember who they are and ask them about things that they are interested in. Check your direct messages and your “replies” tab regularly.
  • Don’t “spam.” People do converse about what is going on in their workplace, and about products, services, or intellectual property that they or their company are offering, and that’s generally okay. But people will block Twitterers who spew out blatant sales pitches or advertisements. By the same token, feel free to block and/or report any user that appears to be a “spambot” or is abusing the system.
  • It’s okay to send links to interesting news stories or blog posts, whether on your blog or someone else’s. Twitter uses Tiny URL to convert long URLs to shorter ones. This allows the link to fit into a short text message, but the downside is that other Twitterers won’t be able to see where the link is going until they click on it. So be sure that your message includes a few words explaining what the link is all about. If you want people to visit your blog, tell them what you posted there!
  • Don’t be shy about inviting people! There are some prominent Twitterers, including media people, politicians, campaign managers, well-known bloggers, and tech industry innovators. Go ahead and follow them; many of them will follow you back, and some will converse with you if you have something to say with regard to their areas of interest.
  • Controversial topics are not off-limits. This may surprise you, but prominent Twitterers generally will not flame you or drop you just because you expressed a point of view that they don’t happen to agree with. It’s true that Silicon Valley and media people have a reputation for being left-wing, but some of them are willing to hear other points of view, if expressed in a civil manner. If you speak your mind, and back up your statements with verifiable facts and logic, a few people will drop you, but a far greater number will begin following you!

Anything else that would be helpful to know?

Tech tip: Did you know that you can claim your Twitter account as a blog on Technorati?
It’s very easy to do. It will make your tweets searchable and it will give you more of a presence on Technorati. After you do this, be sure to ping your blog(s) on Technorati regularly to keep Technorati up to date.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean August 9, 2007 at 2:41 pm

great post. very informative. i like how you can claim your twitter account as a blog on technorati. very cool.

2 Susanna August 9, 2007 at 3:02 pm

All good advice! I’d add:
– keep tweets brief
– don’t tweet *too* often, it’s the equivalent of dominating the conversation

3 Marti August 9, 2007 at 3:03 pm

Wonderful article! I didn’t know I could claim my twitter on Technorati -that’s my next stop! Thanks for the great tips! Hope you have a wonderful day!

4 Donna August 11, 2007 at 2:30 am

Great article and very cool tip about claiming your twitter on technorati! I just finished following your instructions – it was so easy. Thanks!

5 Mohan Chunkath August 14, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Nice overview. Wanted to know if there is anyway to search only one’s own personal archive. Suppose I am posting my sugar levels to twitter. Would like to pull out all the posts I have made relating to sugar levels. I am using twitter more as a personal journal and memory jogger. Thanks!

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