I love Twitter, and spend more time than I probably should keeping up with my friends, family, and colleagues who use twitter. For many of my friends and family, I’m considered fairly techie, and when they start using a new tool like Twitter, I often end up fielding their questions and helping them figure out how best to use the tool for their own purposes. In the case of Twitter, I’m starting to see the same questions over and over, and the same sorts of misunderstandings about what it is and how it works. So… here’s a quick explanation of the very most basic Twitter functionalities!
Twitter is a microblogging platform, which means that all messages you send to it are posted on your own blog page (within twitter, it’s called your profile). Each message is called a “tweet” (don’t give me that look – I didn’t make up this stuff. Plus it gets tway tworse the more you tweet). For example, my tweets are all publically available to anyone at http://www.twitter.com/bphuettner. If I want to see, for example, what Wil Wheaton has tweeted, I could go look at http://www.twitter.com/wilw.
But it would be a total pain if you had to go look at everybody’s individual page, right? So Twitter gives you a SECOND page that will display all tweets from everyone you follow. If you’re following me, my tweets appear on your home page when you log in, along with tweets from everyone else whom you follow. If I follow you, your tweets appear on my home page. No one can see your home page but you, though as we already mentioned, everyone can see your profile page. Note that this isn’t automatically reciprocal (unlike Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever). Just because I follow you and want to see what you’re talking about doesn’t mean that you have to follow me. That’s why you’ll almost always see different numbers for followers (those who follow you) and following (those that you follow).
But wait, there’s more! Say I know that I’m going to be away from my computer for a while, but I still want to know what’s going on in the Twitter world (sometimes called the “twitterverse”. Again, not my coinage!) I can send tweets from my phone by sending a regular text message. I can also tell Twitter to send tweets from people I follow directly to my phone as text messages (in the settings panel under “mobile”). This can get overwhelming – especially if you are following hundreds of people. Once again, Twitter makes it easy to specify which people’s tweets go to your phone. So for example, when I’m here in Tucson, I send tweets from my local buddies, my daughter, the radio station, and traffic reports to my cell phone. When I go to Dallas in May, I will turn all of those people off (the tweets will still go to my home page, but no longer to my phone), and send just the tweets from my STC buddies to the phone. This becomes REALLY useful when trying to set up group meetings, change room numbers, or pick which club to go to, because I send ONE text message and ALL the STC twitterers receive it. Ok, that’s a simplification – the STC people who follow me and have my tweets sent to their phones will get the message on their cell phones; those who follow me but don’t have the phone notification turned on will get the message on their home page when next they look at it.
Now, Twitter and blogs by nature are very public, so you need to remember that everyone can see everyone else’s tweets including yours at http://twitter.com/public_timeline. But wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly who is having your tweets sent to their home page? That can also be automatic – Twitter can send you an email when someone starts following you (if that’s not happening yet, log in to twitter and then got to “Settings” and then “Notices”). If you turn this function OFF – don’t send emails to notify of new followers – you can still see who your followers are by clicking the “followers” button on your profile page. Note that everyone else can see this page, too, and can also look to see who is following you and whom you are following.
There’s a lot more, including RSS feeds, integration with other social media platforms, hash tags, searches, and third-party applications. But that’s enough to get started!