I’ve recently signed up to Twitter. It’s not a new thing; it’s been around for a few years and it’s probably safe to say that I’m way behind the curve on this one. For those who haven’t come across it yet, it’s a very, very simple social networking site which allows you to broadcast 140-character messages. However, in spite of this simplicity, it’s a very powerful tool, and can be quite off-putting for new users.
Since I’m a bit techie and tend to pick these things up quite quickly, a few friends have suggested that I lay down some words on how to get to grips with Twitter. I’ve ended up breaking it into three to make it a bit more digestible:
- Twitter basics: messages, followers and searching;
- Confusing conventions: @s, #s and RTs;
- Useful tools to make your Twittering life easier.
I’ll spread them out by publishing them over a period of three days. So, without further ado, here’s the first part of my guide to making this very cool tool work for you.
How does it work?
When I said it was simple, I wasn’t kidding. Once you’ve signed up on the Twitter website, you do one of three things: send and receive messages, follow people (more on what this means in a bit), or search through the archive of old messages. That’s it. Let’s have a look at those components in more detail.
The core of Twitter is the status update or tweet; that’s a brief message, broadcast to every other user, taking up no more than 140 characters (letters, digits, punctuation, spaces). By and large, this will be some form of answer to the question “What are you doing?” You can send as many of these as you like, whenever you like. You can even split a longer message across several tweets (manually), but if you need to do this, you might want to question whether another medium might be more appropriate.
You can also send direct messages to specific users: these are completely private one-to-one communications. If you’re having a conversation publicly with another user and it’s starting to ramble on, think about switching to direct messages to avoid subjecting everyone else to a conversation that doesn’t concern them. You can only send direct messages to users who are following you: more on what this means next.
Wading through the tweets of every other twitterer on the planet is going to take some time. The answer to this problem is ‘following’. You’ll notice that, to begin with, your home page shows only your own tweets. No, Twitter isn’t broken: this page will only show the tweets of people you’re following.
This hands control over what you read back to you: you don’t have to follow anyone you don’t want to. I can’t emphasise enough how important this is: don’t follow anyone whose tweets aren’t worth reading. By all means follow someone for a while before you make this decision, and change your mind all you want. Just remember that if you’re not interested in updates on userxyz’s cat at 90-second intervals, no-one says you have to follow them.
You can follow someone by visiting their profile page, which will have the form “http://twitter.com/username”. This page lists their most recent tweets, newest first. Right at the top, underneath their picture, there’s a button marked “Follow”: click this and it’ll change to a message telling you that you’re now following them. To stop following someone, click this message and it’ll reveal a “Remove” button for you to press. Twitter will send them an email when you start following them, but not when you stop.
On the left of your home page, there are links entitled “Following” and “Followers” which take you to a list of people you follow and people who follow you, respectively. On your followers list, you’ll see a tick next to anyone you’re also following, and a follow button next to anyone you’re not. Following people who follow you is good for at least three reasons:
- It allows you to hold a conversation, and to receive direct messages from them;
- It's a great way to build your network;
- It's considered polite.
That said, my previous advice still stands: you don’t have to follow anyone you don’t want to.
So how do you find people to follow? You’ve got a few options here. The best way to get started is to follow people you know in real life: try searching for them. As I’ve already mentioned you can follow people who follow you. You can wade through the global list of tweets and follow people with similar interests (searching will help here: see the next section). You could have a look at the we follow directory to find people. Finally, you can explore your network by looking at your followers’ followers and so on.
It’s worth reiterating at this point that all your tweets are visible, ultimately, to anyone on the network. If you’re not happy with this, you can restrict access, which means that only your followers can read your tweets. It’ll also mean that you have to give your approval before someone can follow you. This might work for you, but openness has it’s benefits: you’ll find it a lot more people will follow you if you keep your account open. You’ll get a lot more out of Twitter if you stay open and simply avoid saying anything that you don’t want the whole world to know.
So, you’ve got to grips with sending and reading tweets, you’ve chosen a few people to follow and started to join in the global conversation that is Twitter. You’re already getting a lot out of this great tool. But what about all the tweets you’re missing?
Perhaps you represent a company and want to know who’s talking about your brand. Maybe you’re going to attend a conference and want to connect with other delegates. Maybe you just want the answer to a question and want to see if someone’s already mentioned it.
For these, and many more, problems, Twitter search is the answer. Try searching for a brand, a conference or anything else you’re interested in, and you’ll quickly and easily discover what twitterers the world over are saying about it. You might even want to follow some of them.
Well, that’s it for today. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at some of the initially confusing but massively useful conventions that have grown up within Twitter: @replies, #hashtags and retweeting.
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