A non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter

(If you’re not sure what Twitter is, or why you should consider Twittering, check out “Why Twitter, anyways?“)

Edited 1/3/2010 to include updates to Twitter interface over the past few months.
Note 11/9/2010: This was written/edited/updated before Twitter’s redesign in September 2010. I’m hoping to update certain bits in the coming months, but for now, know that some references to the interface might not make so much sense. Sorry!
Edited 4/21/2012. Phew, finally. Twitter has been changing things so often that I sort of abandoned all hope, heh. But I think I’ve caught all of the new interface references and adjusted things in this guide.
Edited 3/2014. Yeah, the madness continues! 

Thanks to a bunch of mainstream media coverage, a lot of folks around me are becoming more interested in participating in the Twitterverse. “All right, all right,” they say. “You’ve convinced me. But how do I get started?” It’s almost like walking into a giant party for the first time: You’re not sure where your friends are, the bar is on the other side of the room, and the bathrooms are anyone’s guess. Allow me to be your party guide.

Sure, sure, you could also just Google “beginner’s guide to Twitter” and read a any number of other guides that have been written. Problem is, I feel like most of them focus on two niches: how to be a fanatical Twitterer, and/or how to be a really obnoxiously popular Twitterer. What I’m aiming for here is more for people who want to experiment a little and connect with other folks on a pretty direct level. We’ll talk later about different ways you can participate, but for now, let’s just get the basics down.

Grammar and vocab

First, it’s good if you can get some of the lingo down before jumping it. Pretend you’re visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language– there are always a few basic phrases you want to have in your back pocket.

Finding your people

OK, you’ve got your phrasebook, now it’s time to wade in. Let’s start with the technical aspect of finding people to follow. Twitter should have taken you through a process when you signed up– where it asked you to scan your contacts or other networks that you belong to. But just in case you skipped this, I’ll show you how you can return to this screen.

On the left side of the screen, the second block down shows you suggested users to follow. Click on “Find friends” in that block.” You’ll have the option of scanning your other address books; Twitter lets you choose who you want to follow from the list of people that it finds. It also recommends that you invite everyone else not on Twitter, but you can definitely skip that. (Please — it’s considered spam!)

Finding people who might be your people

Consider looking for Twitter folk who you don’t already know, but who you might find interesting. The most effective way is often the organic way: Watch your friends’ mentions of other users you don’t know. Click on those names. Scan through their tweets. Find them interesting? Follow.

Also,  pay attention to certain hashtags on certain days, particularly #FF (which stands for Follow Friday: every Friday, people tweet lists of their favorite folks on Twitter), and others in specific topic areas, like 

Getting people to find you

“But how will others know if I’m on Twitter?”

Well, you might want to start by telling them. You could go old school and send an email to people you think might be interested, though not that many people do it. I added my Twitter page to my email signature as a subtle way of “announcing” it. Note that the people you choose to follow likely have their profiles set to get an email or other alert every time someone new follows them, so you don’t have to tell them. You can also post a note to your Facebook profile, if you have one, telling folks that you’re tweeting.

Update: Two other points made to me about making sure people can find you:

Setting your settings: web, email, phone, IM — oh my!

One of the best things about using Twitter is that it’s available from any number of devices. You can read and post on the Twitter website, sure, but you can also set up your cellphone to be able to send and receive messages — go to Settings –> Devices to see how to do that. (Update 3/2014: I don’t think many folks do this anymore, because it’s pretty overwhelming.)

You can also download any number of applications to use Twitter on your smartphone– Twitter’s own apps for each platform are excellent. The other platforms — Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, etc. — all have mobile apps, too. What’s your favorite Twitter app? Leave it in the comments.

You can also keep your tweets private. In the Settings page, at the bottom, there’s a checkbox that reads “Protect my updates.” Select this if you only want people you approve to read your updates.

Another thing to consider is that you can have your tweets also update your Facebook status. Most folks are split on whether this is a good idea or not; I’m a more the merrier kinda grrl, so mine are hooked up. You can do this by adding the Twitter app to your profile and adjusting your settings there. Or check out the Ping.fm service. This bad boy updates all of your social networks at once, using whatever type of communication you’re most comfortable with. Last, there’s another app for Facebook that lets you selectively post from Twitter– it’s conveniently called “Selective Twitter.” (Update: 3/2014: Don’t do this. Just don’t. Each platform has its own dialect and crossing the streams just makes life uncomfortable for many.)

There are also tons of applications that you can download for your computer, but that’s a whole ‘nuther post on its own. Currently, the most popular apps seem to be Tweetdeck and Hootsuite. I personally use Twitter for Mac; it’s simple, clean native interface is lovely.

But what do I say?

Well, just about anything, really. Okay, we’re probably not going to be interested in your belly button lint… but here are some methodologies you can try out:

One of the biggest things to keep in mind about Twitter is that it’s a conversation. I generally dissuade my fellow Twitter gurus from making blanket statements on how to use Twitter, but it’s clear at this point that one of the joys most everyone gets out of it is talking to one another. Reply often (remember your vocab? the @ symbol is your friend!) to your followers and people you follow. Twitter is a two way street, with many, many lanes going both directions.

Which is another thing that I want to stress: Twitter isn’t actually as much about you saying things as it is about you listening to others. It’s one of the best listening devices out there right now, and listening is something we culturally don’t do enough of. Social media are changing that.

What if I don’t like the people I’m following?

Stop following them.

No, really. If people are irritating, or tweeting so much that your stream/feed is overwhelmed and you’re missing other stuff you find more interesting, stop following those people. It’s okay. Consider adding them to a list, manually check their pages every once in a while, or friend them on Facebook to follow their updates there, if you want. Or just walk away altogether.

This is all too much!

Check out my post on Twitter overload. Also, use ManageFlitter to help you get ahold of who you’re following.

In closing, there are a few final wrap-up points:

I’d love to hear from folks who are just starting out with Twitter: Does this clear anything up for you? Did I miss anything? And you hardened veterans out there, of course feel free to leave your $.02 in the comments as well.

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