Thursday, May 31, 2012

Help! What is Twitter?

There you are, in a conference, and you see someone bent over her iPhone, typing madly. You approach and ask, “What are you doing?”

“I’m live-tweeting the conference!” she replies.

“Oh, that’s nice,” you say, suddenly very, very aware that here is another person using Twitter and you still don’t know what it is.

So let’s start at the beginning, the dictionary definition:

Twitter: a messaging service limited to 140 characters per message.

Ta-da! Is that it?

No. That’s not everything.

Twitter is a:

  • Tool for online chatting
  • Marketing channel to promote content
  • Crowdsourcing resource for asking questions
  • Recruiting service
  • News source
  • Networking pool
  • Search engine

But can it really be all those things? Sure. You just have to know how to use it. 

The Basics

Let’s start at the beginning, with Twitter starts with you setting up an account and selecting a username. (Mine is @kehutchinson, if you’d like to follow.)

Every person who has a Twitter account can send out messages, at a maximum limit of 140 characters--not words, characters. This includes spaces and punctuation. If you visit the page of any individual Twitter account, you can see a timeline of those messages.

But visiting each individual account page that you’re interested in is very tedious. So what you can do is click on the “Follow” button to subscribe to that person’s messages, also known as tweets. You can see all the messages from the accounts that you are subscribed to by visiting your home stream, on the main Twitter page when you’re logged in to the site.

Deciding Who To Follow

Depending on how you want to use Twitter, who you follow will differ. Let’s start with the idea of using it as a news source. Say you want to get local, national, and industry specific news to help you stay informed about what’s going on in the world. For an industry, let’s assume you’re a marketer in Boston, like me.

If you regularly read a news site, visit that site and look around for the little blue Twitter icon to find that person’s handle. I depend on the New York Times, so I follow @nytimes. For business news in my region, I follow the Boston Business Journal at @bbjnewsroom. Add in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, iMedia, and the Boston Globe, and you’ve set up a tidy way to follow the news. To go more in depth, looking for marketing/business authors, like Guy Kawasaki, Chris Brogan, or Greg Verdino. And once you start adding those kind of people to your list, Twitter can start recommending new people for you to follow.

I’m Following a Lot of People, How Do I Sort Them?

So you’ve decided to follow some news sources, some friends, and some random people that provide good content, plus one or two other accounts that you found. Now you’re following 100 people, and that stream on your homepage is getting awfully crowded. That’s where Lists come in.

To create a List, click on the profile icon and select Lists from the drop down menu. Then click Create List. Now you can name a list something like “Local News” and add all the people you follow related to that topic in the list. Sorting accounts into lists helps you from being overwhelmed with information.

What’s This Hashtag Thing?

Ah, the hashtag. Formerly known as the pound sign, it’s this symbol: #. Twitter uses hashtags in front of words to index messages. Since accounts can be mashed together in anyone’s stream, if you want to follow a conversation or chat group, you should search for all the chats that use a common hashtag. There are many chat groups that “meet” on a regular schedule on a particular topic, and you can search for a the chat’s official hashtag to see all the tweets in that chat. So, if you were interested in chatting with brand managers, you might search for #brandchat to see the running commentary from that group.

Or, say you’re interested in learning about the recent developments in the Middle East. You could search for #arabspring or #syria to find tweets related to those topics.

How Can I Tweet To Just One Person?

There are two ways to direct tweets on Twitter, one private, one public. If you have a message to send someone, say, you want to tweet your phone number so a new lead can call you, but you don’t want the world to see your information, you’d send what’s called a Direct Message (DM for short). On a profile page you can click “Direct Message” to send one of these, or you can type the letter “d” in front of that person’s username in the main message box. Then the message will only be sent to that specific person.

If what you want to message isn’t sensitive information, but you want to call someone’s attention to it, you’d use what’s called an @reply (spoken as “at reply”). This simply type your message and include somewhere in it @username and Twitter will link the tweet to that person’s account. I’ve modified the settings of my account so that I get a ping on my iPhone when someone mentions me in this way, so I don’t miss any good conversations.

Is That Everything?

No, of course that’s not everything. The best way to really know what Twitter is about is to actually build an account and start following people and sending tweets. It’s truly a “learn by doing” system. But this should get you started.

Do you have specific Twitter questions? Leave a comment and I’m happy to answer them!