Twitter’s weird. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around it. My best advice is to worry about that later. Whatever Twitter is and whatever it does, it’s evolving. So, don’t worry about understanding it before you use it. Through using it you’ll come to understand it, and maybe you’ll even figure out new ways to put it to use.
That said, there are some things that are helpful to know.
What is a Tweet?
Let’s get this out of the way:
A tweet is a piece of text no longer than 140 characters. Spaces and punctuation count. Think of it as a blog entry, a bitesized blog entry.
For reference, that definition is 140 characters long.
A timeline on Twitter is a collection of tweets in chronological order. The Public Timeline consists of every public tweet made. When you tweet, you create your own timeline that people will see when they visit your profile page. You can see your own timeline by clicking the Profile link in the top menu.
Every user also has their own unique timeline that consists of the tweets from everyone they follow. This is what you see when you click the Home link in the top menu. It’s like your own personal news ticker. You can follow bunches of different people and all their tweets, except messages to other people, will show up here.
Your Twitter Profile
Click the Settings link in the top menu to edit your Twitter profile. One thing to keep in mind is everything in the Account section is publicly visible. You can put whatever you like as your name if you don’t want your real name to be public. Using a head shot as your picture is the norm. It’s also helpful in convincing people to follow you because it shows off your humanity. If you aren’t comfortable putting your picture out there try for something eye-catching instead.
Further into your profile options you can upload a background image and change your color scheme. I think it’s good to stand out a bit here, but it’s also easy to look tacky. Best to leave the color scheme alone at first.
Following & Followers
Following is Twitter’s word for Subscribing or Friending. Whenever you visit someone’s profile page you’ll see a little Follow button below their picture. Click on that button and their tweets will show up on your home timeline. Following is a one-way action on Twitter. Unless someone has made their updates private, they don’t have to approve your request to follow. If they haven’t turned the feature off, they will get an e-mail telling them that you are now following them. They may well check out your tweets, and follow you back if it looks like you put interesting stuff out there.
Some people will automatically follow anyone who follows them. In fact you can find websites with huge lists of people who will auto-follow you back. I strongly advise against this tactic for gaining followers. Quality is definitely better than quantity when it comes to followers. I’d much rather have 100 followers who actually read what I tweet than 10,000 who could care less.
As you tweet you’ll start getting those e-mails to let you know that someone is following you. Your first question will probably be, “Why are they following me?” Often people will discover you and follow after finding a tweet of yours in a search. Something you posted might also get ReTweeted by one of your followers, leading their followers to check you out. People might discover you through a link on a website, or some random e-mail newsletter.
Here’s what I do when I get a new follower:
- I click the link in the e-mail to look at their profile.
- I look at their ratio of Following to Followers. People who follow many, but are followed by few are often a bit spammy in their tweeting.
- I read their little bio, and inspect their tweets. I ignore any tweet that starts with @somebody because those won’t end up in my timeline unless they’re directed at me or someone else I follow.
- I look at how often they tweet. If someone’s tweeting 20+ times a day then their tweets have to be pretty good for me to follow back.
- If there’s more than one or two shamelessly self promotional tweets I won’t follow them.
- If they seem to be advertising ways to make money on twitter or gain thousands of followers, I’m gone.
- If they seem genuine, remotely interesting, and I have some interest in common I’ll follow back.
Remember that people will look at your Profile this way before following you.
Direct Messages are private. Only the sender and recipient can see them. You can only send them to people following you. In my experience, Direct Messages are not a good way of communicating. They are often ignored and often used to spam. You’re much better off with e-mail or Google Wave for private conversation.
You can see tweets mentioning you by clicking the @YourName link on the right side of the Twitter page. To direct a tweet at someone specific begin it with @ followed by their username. For instance, after reading this you might want to tweet:
@PGrandstaff Wow, that newsletter was great! I’m going to tell all my friends about it.
Or, maybe you’ll want to tell me where to shove this tutorial. Either way, you can be sure I’ll get the message because you directed it at me. The rest of your followers won’t see that tweet, but it would be publicly visible on your Profile page.
To let your followers get the tweet in their timeline, and direct it at someone just include the @username someplace other than the beginning. For instance:
I just finished learning all kinds of stuff from @PGrandstaff’s newsletter. You should check it out!
I bet I’d even ReTweet that one.
ReTweeting is when someone repeats someone else’s tweet, so their own followers can see the original message. This is now a full fledged feature of Twitter, but it started organically. People wanted to pass on tweets, so they ReTweeted. Twitter listened, and now tweets in a timeline have a ReTweet button.
The traditional way of ReTweeting follows a formula:
RT @OriginalAuthor Content of original tweet [ReTweeter's comment]
It varies of course, some people credit the author at the end with “via @OriginalAuthor.” The nice thing about this method is you can add your own thoughts. However, problems arise with the 140 character limit per tweet. In order to credit the author or add a comment tweets can be edited for length when ReTweeting. There is a risk of altering the original meaning, though.
So, the new, official ReTweet feature lets you send someone’s tweet to all your followers with a click. Your followers will see the tweet as if they were following the original author, with their picture and name. Your name will appear underneath as the person relaying the tweet.
The Official ReTweet function probably won’t replace the original. So, for optimal ReTweetability leave room in your tweets for people to add “RT @YourName ” — that’s 5 characters plus the length of your user name.
Hashtags let you add categories or keywords to your tweet. Using hashtags allows people to aggregate all the tweets on a subject. They consist of the hash sign, #, and a keyword with no spaces. This is another feature created by Twitter users that is now official. Hashtags are now automatically turned into links to Twitter searches.
You’ll see hashtags being used for conferences and events a lot. You can follow live coverage of all sorts of things by searching for the associated hashtag. You can track what’s going on in a city or state, or you can tune in to a topic.
See also, How to Tweet Well.
This post first appeared in my monthly small business newsletter.