A non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter

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.

  • Following. These are the people whose tweets you’ve selected to read; their tweets appear in your “feed” or “stream.”
  • Follower. This is someone who is reading your tweets.
  • The @ symbol. Put this before any other Twitterer’s username to refer to them. Why? It creates a link to their profile automatically, which is handy for your followers to track conversations or look at people you’re referring to. @Replies will likely show up in that person’s Mentions page.
    Note that if you reply to another person using the Reply arrow button on Twitter, though, that only people who follow that person will also see that reply in your feed. It’s kind of a drag; more on this here.
  • Rt, RT or rtwt. These stand for “retweet.” If you read someone else’s tweet that you think people following you should also read, put this before copying and pasting the whole thing, including the original tweeter’s username. Here’s an example, where I retweeted something that Nancy Scola posted: rt @nancyscola: isn’t there something uniquely DC about 1/5 of Politico’s “top 10” DC Twitterers not actually tweeting? http://ow.ly/qmy
    Also, you can use “via @username” to attribute something that you saw with another user, but aren’t directly quoting word for word. (thanks,
    Update #2: Twitter now has its own built in retweet function (the circular arrow button). Many people don’t use it, though, because those retweets don’t show up in Mentions, and it throws off their user’s own feeds by displaying the icons of strangers. This is less true than it used to be; it’s widely used now, and people are less startled by strange user icons. In fact, it’s a good idea to use it, because it shows that you play well with others.
  • The # symbol. Words that follow # in Twitter are called “hashtags.” It’s a way of assigning a keyword to a tweet so that so that others can follow the topic. For example: When folks were attending the WeMedia conference, they would tweet information about the conference and put #wemedia somewhere in the tweet. That way, everyone else interested in news from the conference could easily find and track them. Tracy Van Slyke of the Media Consortium said this, for example: #wemedia. Twitter wins game changing award! @biz says best thing: twitter isn’t about triumph of tech, it’s about triumph of humanity.” And you can see lots of other tweets from that conference here— by searching for the hashtag, or clicking on it in your feed. If you see a hashtag in use and don’t know what it means, try checking out “What the Trend.
  • Trending topics. When a hashtag becomes popular, it becomes a Trending Topic. If you’re using the Twitter website, you can see trending topics on the left side of the screen, a couple blocks down. You can change your view to be global, or by various locales. Here’s some more information about how hashtags become trending topics, and how it’s difficult to have repeat popularity for one hashtag.
  • URLs that look like is.gd, tinyurl.com, bit.ly, etc. These are URL shortening services that take very long links and squish them down to fewer characters. Why? Because on Twitter, you only have 140 characters to get your thought out, and this leaves more room for your words. If you use Twitter’s website, or any of its apps, Twitter will automatically shorten any URL for you to a t.co link. Other apps, like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck, will too.
  • Direct messaging. This is a way of sending a message to someone so that only they can see it– like sending a txt message. The person has to be following you in order to receive messages from you, though! (No DMing Jane Fonda or Henry Rollins unless they’re following you, ya hear?) To do this, you can click on the person in your feed (this is true whether you’re using the website or an app), and then click on the little icon with the down arrow, next to the “Following” button. Sometimes the icon is a gear, and sometimes it’s the outline of a person. Choose “Send a direct message.” If you don’t see that option, the other person isn’t following you, and you can’t DM them. Also, don’t forget to check your messages! Easiest way to handle this is to go to your Settings, then Notifications, and tell Twitter to email you if someone DMs you.

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:

  • It’s a good idea to use your real, full name in your profile so that if people are searching for you, or if you come up in their list of contacts when they do the email address thingie, they’ll see you. 
  • Another good idea is to change your icon right away, so that you get rid of the ugly default  Twitter one. One, it’ll help differentiate your tweets in your followers’ feeds, and two, it’ll help people recognize you when they’re looking for you. Many people advocate for using a real picture of yourself, but I say as long as it’s something interesting and unique, go for it.

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:

  • Pure professional. You’re an expert in your field and you want to share this with the world. Pick a couple of “beats” and focus your twittering on those beats. Find other folks tweeting about these topics and have conversations with them.
  • Pure personal. Your cat is hilarious, you’re thinking about moving to Wisconsin, you’re on your way to Miami for a much needed vacation. You get the idea here, but do try to keep your audience in mind as you post some of your life’s minutiae. I’m guilty of posting weird stuff, for sure.
  • The blended model. This is the way to go, and what ultimately makes Twitter so interesting, in my opinion. If I wanted to know people’s political analysis only, I’d go read their blogs. There’s a humanizing effect of reading about a distant colleague’s child’s first words, or seeing that people you think are on top of the world have bad days, too. It creates empathy and insight. When I tweeted that I’d had a really rough, emotional weekend once, I was surprised to see which followers spoke up to say, “Hey, we’re with you.” And it helped further complete a picture of me for them, as well.

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:

  • Twitter should be used how you feel most comfortable using it– don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
  • It takes a while to get the feel of Twitter. Commit, if you can, to trying it a couple times a day for two weeks or so. At the end of your little trial period, assess how you feel and how you think you’ll use it.

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.