Beginners’ Guide to Twitter

(Updated from original which appeared in my Facebook Notes last June 2010)

A few Facebook friends have asked me to write up some notes on using Twitter. I started using it ‘in anger’ autumn 2009, and now (as of Feb 2011) have approaching around 2000 followers over 3 accounts – I follow about the same number back. I really enjoy using Twitter and have learned loads and made many new friends since I began – but I know that some people just don’t ‘get’ it. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or add further info below.

What is twitter ‘for’?
Twitter is a way for people around the world to connect and share information. Think business, news, views, opinions, humour, facts about the weird and wonderful, causes etc – somewhat like Facebook ‘Share’ and ‘Like’. It is used by businesses to engage with their customers and potential customers, as a public relations tool, as a way of conducting customer service, as a sales and marketing channel, and a way to gauge people’s sentiment towards their product or service. With only 140 characters to play with, the usual way of informing people is to include a link to a website where more information will be available. So twitter acts as a kind of set of headlines for the full ‘content’ which is elsewhere (e.g. a blog, website, facebook, Youtube etc…).

Twitter is a great place to find out the latest news, as breaking news spreads around the ‘Twitterverse’ like wildfire – often before the main news agencies have got hold of it. It is a tremendous source of information – I would often look to Twitter for info before even searching on Google. It’s a good way of sorting out the real facts from the garbage – as a lot of intelligent and well-informed people inhabit twitter, and there is a good level of debate.

Because of the twitter dynamic of following and being followed it is easy to find groups of people with similar interests to you. An example of this is finding people from your town who work in the same industry or share common interests with you, but whom you might otherwise never have occasion to meet; or who can provide you with local ‘real-world’ networks – for instance, a few people have asked on Twitter if anyone in Farnham can recommend a cleaning lady, and I get in touch with them and recommend mine. Since finding more people on twitter in my local community, I have been to a few local meetups, organised a dinner, seen the birth of the Digital Surrey group, met some incredibly interesting (and useful) people and made genuine new friends. This is a boon when you work away from your local community and don’t have time to socialise – least of all with people you share interests with.

It is very easy to find people with similar political views to you, with particular expertise, or who are simply fascinating or have a point of view you respect.

It can also be hilarious, following a particular topic and seeing people’s varying reactions to it. It’s a wonderful way of being social on the spur of the moment around an event – it’s a key element of ‘social TV’.

Put it this way. You may be a lover of a particular TV show – say ‘Glee’. Searching for ‘#Glee’ will introduce you to many others following the goings-on in a way that makes it very easy to chat, exchange background info or whatever. For my own part, I REALLY enjoy being online while talent shows and Eurovision (for example) are being broadcast – because the tweetstreams which accompany them are often more entertaining than the show itself! There’s nothing to say my family or Facebook friends would appreciate the sense of humour – but I can always find people of a similar mind on Twitter!

Twitter is different from Facebook because there is no need for mutuality. You follow the people, lists and topics that interest you – they don’t necessarily follow you back. Whereas with Facebook, your private and family life is often on display, and you may think twice before adding people as friends, or approaching them, on twitter you have little choice who follows you – but obviously can choose whether or not to follow back. You can always ‘unfollow’ later on. More on this later.

I follow/am followed by very few of my ‘real-life’ friends and colleagues. To be honest, Twitter to me is about extending my network rather than remaining/acting within it. That’s what Facebook is for. Also, Twitter can be about disposable or temporary networks/relationships. Facebook tends to be about more enduring relationships.

Someone once described Twitter as ‘standing in the street and shouting your news out to anyone who cares to listen’. It is a bit like that. You will be heard by
a) Your followers
b) People searching for terms contained in your message
c) All of the followers of all of THOSE people, if they choose to re-tweet (RT) your message or question.

Twitter Fundamentals
* Twitter allows you to write a status, ask a question or send a message in 140 characters or less
* An ‘@’ is a reply. Typing @<username> means that that user will see what you have written to or about them in their @ stream
* If @<username> is the first thing in your message then only that person, plus anyone following both of you will see the message in real time. However it will be on display in your profile ‘stream’.
* To ensure that anyone can read what you have said in your @ reply, simply prefix it with a dot, e.g. .@justinbieber Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?
* D @<username> is a direct message
* Be VERY careful with direct messages and that they really are direct and to the person you intended – I’ve seen a few bloopers where people sent intimate messages out to the world, thinking they’d sent them direct!
* Never click on links contained in Direct messages unless you have first checked with the sender that they are genuine. A lot of twitter hacks come from people inadvertently following links – and then finding THEIR friend list are receiving direct messages with dodgy messages and links in too. No real harm is done- it’s just an annoyance, can be embarrassing and is usually rectified by changing your twitter password.

Different twitter applications
You sign up to twitter at and will always have a profile page there – e.g. see my, /theoptimismclub or /k4thybrown page. At you can (and should) create a bio which gives people the info they need to know whether or not to follow you. So make it relevant to the persona you want to portray. Your profile page says a lot about you. Try clicking on a few different people’s pages to see what they have written about themselves, and whether they have a personal wallpaper giving more background. Off your homepage you can also see how many followers you have, how many you are following, all the @ messages and mentions you have received, and Direct messages you have received. You should check these periodically. You can also see who has re-tweeted your messages (see below)

The drawback of using as your only twitter interface is that it is quite simplistic and only allows you to see any one ‘tweetstream’ at any one time. There are many other providers of interfaces for using Twitter. My favourite is Tweetdeck. It lets you have multiple columns open to see lot of things at the same time. You can search for a topic on the fly and see all mentions of that word in a new column, as they happen. I’m enjoying using Blackberry’s own twitter app although I also have UberTwitter. It’s worth trying out a few or asking for recommendations.

Retweeting (RT’ing) is a way of spreading information. Twitter has an RT ‘button’ on each tweet to make it easy for you to propagate what you have just read. It will show up as coming from the message originator, but ‘RT’d by @<yourusername>. This is known as the ‘new’ RT method. The ‘old’ method allows you to edit the tweet before sending it back out – so that you can add a comment or question before sending it on. doesn’t automatically allow you to do this any more, but other Twitter tools do. e.g. on my Twitter for Blackberry application I can ‘Quote tweet’ which puts the original in quotation marks. On Tweetdeck, if you click ‘Retweet’ you are asked if you want to edit before re-tweeting.

Being re-tweeted is a good thing. It means someone thinks your message is worth passing on, and introduces you to new people who may want to follow you.

As a newcomer to twitter it can be very confusing to see someone’s tweets spattered with lots of words prefixed with # (the hash sign). Doing this is called using a hashtag. It means you are tagging that word (or series of words – people often join several words together to make it ‘work’ as a hashtag) to make it more findable. You are giving that word or acronym some kind of significance. A very common use of the hashtag is to identify an event. That way, all people attending or interested in following that event can locate each other on Twitter, find new people to follow, hear commentary and analysis on the event in real-time or attract people’s attention to something.

e.g. the hashtag #sxsw is used to denote the Social Media conference ‘South by SouthWest’. If you’re not lucky enough to attend but are interested in keeping up with the latest announcements from the event, you can follow the stream that includes that hashtag.

#gazaflotilla told the world very swiftly about the Israeli killings on the Gaza relief flotilla

#ashtag (a great play on words) is the defacto hashtag for the recent Iceland volcano eruption and everythign related to the disruption created by the ash cloud.

Another common use is to hashtag the name of a TV show or news item – e.g.

#bgt = Britain’s got talent. searching for this term in Twitter will open up a stream showing all the tweets from people discussing Britain’s got Talent
#worldcup = obvious 😉
#ge2010 = General election 2010, was widely used by people tweeting about the election and thereby indicating that they are interested in this as a current affairs topic.

It’s fun making up your own tags, and there are regularly casual games going on involving wordplay such as #foodbands, #mixedupmovies, etc. You offer your suggested piece of wordplay and tag it with the appropriate #hashtag. And don’t forget to RT other people’s whose efforts you enjoyed reading or which made you laugh (or groan)!

Follow Friday(#FF) and all that
Being followed on twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all – unless you are a business, maybe. It’s not really a numbers game, the quality of your followers is more important than how many you have. But the number does grow organically – depending on how much you engage, the calibre of your tweets, and the number of re-tweets you get. A few years ago a phenomenon known as ‘Follow Friday’ started – now known as #FF. Every Friday, it has become customary to recommend other tweeters. You don’t have to do this – but it’s a nice way of helping twitter people (tweeps, tweople, twitterfolk, tweeters) to get more followers. It’s a real accolade to get #FFs of your own, and you should always be sure to thank whoever #FF’d you.

BTW, while the plural of #FF is #FFs, take care not to confuse people as ‘FFS’ is also an abbreviation for a well-used expletive :-).

Q: When/why would you unfollow someone?
A: Basically, you would only unfollow someone if they were really hateful or annoying. There’s no need to unfollow people. But it’s up to you. If one particular tweeter crowds or dominates your stream you may want to consider unfollowing – orjust learn to scan their tweets. Every now or then there’ll be something of interest. I have only ever unfollowed a few people, and always with reluctance.

On the other hand, finding out someone else has stopped following you can be confusing, if you thought you had good engagement with them. When I am unfollowed I get a message from Qwitter. Then I have to decide whether or not I care enough to find out why that person has stopped following. More often than not, it’s easy to see that they were people you decided not to follow back in the first place – marketeers or ‘bots’. If I was really curious, I would @ reply the person to ask why they had unfollowed me and check it wasn’t a mistake. But at the end of the day,

* you can’t do much about someone else’s opinion, and
* it’s not the end of the world in any case. Sod ’em!

Q: Should you automatically follow someone back?
A: There is a lot of automated following going on, with no guarantee that your new follower is genuinely interested in you, or of any relevance to you whatsoever. Every few days I go to my ‘followers’ list and click on every new follower’s profile to see if they look interesting. If they do, then I follow them back.

I know some prolific tweeters who follow EVERYONE back – but unless you are going to be really organised with lists to group friends by subject/area of interest I wouldn’t do this.

Q: Should you automatically unfollow someone who stops following you?
A: No – why would you? If they were interesting enough to follow in the first place, carry on!

In my opinion, following widely and selectively is the way to get the most from Twitter as an individual. Also engaging in conversation with others using the @ reply, acknowledging RTs and FFs and offering interesting facts and information for others to consume.

As a business there is a whole raft of usage opinion and guidelines about how to use Twitter to best effect – but that’s not for discussion here.

When you add a new follower (or at any point afterwards) you can create a list to group them under – or add them to an existing list you have created. Your lists can be public or private. If public, other people can follow your lists – and likewise, you can follow someone else’s public lists. This is a very good way of following a bunch of people with a common theme very quickly – and someone else has done the hard work of grouping them in a list already.

Trending topics (#TT)
On the right hand side of your twitter homepage you will see a list of trending topics. This means the words or hashtags being talked about the most right at this moment across twitter, a bit like the ‘top ten’ of the hit parade 🙂 – but in real time. You can see TTs at global level, or at regional/national level – e.g. you can see just the TTs for London, UK. Getting a topic ‘trending’ is always an achievement – but it can be done by design. An example was when @bubblybex, a young cancer sufferer from Britain launched the #kickcancer tag to raise cancer awareness and unite people undergoing treatment and their carers. She has since been in the press because of her achievement. The main way TTs occur is by #hashtag ‘games’ and RTs of topical themes. #bgt, #gazaflotilla and #iranelection are also examples of hashtags which have been trending topics.

You may be perplexed why some people and topics are in the TT ‘chart’. For some reason, JustinBieber seems to live there.

OK – that’s a lot of info. As I said earlier – please ask questions, add other tips and tricks, comments and viewpoints. And feel free to follow me if you aren’t already – many of my Twitter friends are now also connected with me on Facebook too which is lovely – feels like a way to get to know you better.


February 4, 2011 - Posted by | twitter

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