So, here's the second part of what's become a three-part introduction for new Twitterers. Here's where we are so far:

  1. Twitter basics: messages, followers and searching (yesterday);
  2. Confusing conventions: @s, #s and RTs (this post);
  3. Useful tools to make your Twittering life easier (coming tomorrow).

Let’s get on with the second part, on some of the conventions that are commonly seen on Twitter.


In my previous post, I introduced you to the basic tools of the Twitter trade: messages, followers and searches. But it doesn’t end there. Since its inception, a number of conventions have sprung up which make it much more powerful, but they can be quite confusing to the beginner. You’ll probably have noticed lots of “@this” and “#that” and “RT the other”. This post attempts to explain what all these actually mean.

Some replies on Twitter

Some replies on Twitter


This is the most common convention: you can refer to another twitterer in a tweet (and by extension, it seems, anywhere else) by preceding their username with an ‘@’ sign. So in my case, that would be ‘@jezcope’. This is so common, in fact, that it’s been absorbed into Twitter itself. Each mention of @username will be turned into a link to that user’s profile page: this is a very easy way to follow new people.

An extension to this is that any tweet which begins with @username is interpreted as being a reply to something said by that user, or at least a comment aimed primarily at them. Unlike direct messages, these are still public, but are treated slightly differently by Twitter. In particular, you’ll see a link on the left-hand side of your Twitter home page: this will take you to a list showing only tweets starting ‘@yourname’. Also, if you click the reply button next to a tweet (the little curvy arrow), Twitter automatically inserts ‘@theirname’ at the start of the text box into which you type your tweets.

It’s worth paying attention to messages aimed at you in this way, because someone might be expecting a response! However, bear in mind that these messages will be visible to everyone following you, so if it looks like your conversation is likely to drag on and it’s not going to be interesting to the rest of the community, consider switching to direct messages.


Another convention that you’ll come across is retweeting. Quite simply, this entails re-posting a tweet previously posted by someone else. As is the case elsewhere, it’s important to attribute tweets to their original source, and the most common way to do this is to start the tweet with ‘RT @username’, replacing username with the originator, and then copy and paste the message in afterwards. If someone says something that you think would be interesting to people in your own network, you can pass it on with minimal effort by retweeting it.

So if, for example, my pal @fred posts:

Take a look at this really cool link

and I think it’s interesting enough to pass on to those of my followers not already following him, I would post the following message:

RT @fred Take a look at this really cool link

Many Twitter clients (see tomorrow’s post) allow you to do this with a single click.

Search results for #ngtip

Search results for #ngtip


Tagging is a way of describing an item on the internet, such as a blog post, using single-word descriptions. Someone had the bright idea of tagging tweets using the form #word: it’s then trivial to find everything with this tag using Twitter search. Remember that this is just a convention, and it works simply because putting # on the start of a word makes a unique string of characters that you can search for.

The cool thing about hashtags is that if you combine them with search tools you can separate particular threads of conversation out of the vast mélange of the twitterverse. It’s quite common for a hashtag to be prearranged for tweets discussing a conference or other event; for example, the recent JISC Next Generation Technologies in Practice conference used used #ngtip09 to mark discussions related to the conference. Try searching for #rednoseday to find out what people have been up to for Comic Relief. If someone’s using a hashtag you don’t recognise, try looking it up on What the hashtag?!, an online directory of hashtags.

That’s all for today. In tomorrow’s blog post, I’ll describe some useful tools for making Twitter work for you, including a few which make use of the power of hashtags.

Agree? Disagree? Leave me a comment below or contact me through Twitter at @jezcope.