Originally posted at Youthpad.
Many of you might have heard of Twitter but have never tried it out, or did try it out and find it, to put it mildly, ‘odd’. Some of you requested a guide to Twitter on an earlier blog post on Facebook. So here it is – a beginner’s guide to Twitter. Twitter was founded in 2006 by Evan ‘Ev’ Williams, Biz Stone, and Jack Dorsey. Ev was also the founder of the company which created Blogger.com. Today Twitter has millions of users worldwide including celebrities such as Barack Obama, Coldplay, Britney Spears, Oprah Winfrey, Ashton Kutcher and his wife Demi Moore…among Indian celebrities we have Shashi Tharoor, Barkha Dutt, Mallika Sherawat, Gul Panag and others. The list goes on. That should make it pretty clear – Twitter is BIG. The number of registrations on Twitter is growing a rate many times higher than that of even Facebook. And it’s definitely making its impact felt. During the Iran elections Twitter was used a medium to get the word out on what was actually happening in Iran.
So what exactly is Twitter? The easiest definition would be that it is ‘Facebook with only status updates and nothing else‘. Unlike Facebook though there is a 140 character limit on what you can write on Twitter – you have got to be concise in whatever thoughts you want to communicate because of that limit. Actually, it was Facebook which copied Twitter’s style of constant status updates when it got a redesign a few months back. I’m going to speak a bit about some Twitter terminology now; in case you find it boring you can skip to the end where I speak on why you should join Twitter. Then maybe you can have a second look.
Create an account on Twitter.com and you’ll find that everything is about being concise. Even your biography has to fit in 160 characters. When you login to your account you’ll find a text box asking the question ‘What are you doing?‘. Twitter started off that way – as status updates on what you’re doing – but people generally use it for a variety of reasons. You could share links to something interesting you found on the Web, share quotes, or ‘tweet’ some observation you made. Really, it’s all up to you what you want to discuss. Posting a Twitter update is called ‘tweeting‘.
Twitter isn’t exactly a social networking site in the sense that Facebook is. You don’t need to approve friends. Here’s how it works. Once you’re logged in to Twitter and find the profile of a person whom you find interested, you click the ‘Follow’ button on his/her profile. My Twitter profile for instance is at twitter.com/ankurb, while for Youthpad it’s at twitter.com/youthpad. Once you’ve followed a few people, go to twitter.com (the home page) – you will find that the latest updates from the people you are ‘following‘ will show up on this page. This list of Twitter updates is called a ‘timeline‘. Users who choose to follow YOUR updates are called ‘followers‘.
That’s the way you participate in Twitter. If you’re interested in someone you’ll go their profile page, follow them, and then you start receiving their updates on your timeline. It’s quite different from most other social networks where approval is needed as the norm. (You can set your Twitter profile to a ‘protected’ mode but that’s generally not what people do.) This fundamental difference makes Twitter unique. You need not necessarily know the person you’re following personally! It could just be some celebrity, or a person whose thoughts you find interesting and follow on Twitter to listen to what they’re thinking. To refresh the page there’s no need to hit the refresh button on your browser – just click on the ‘Home’ / ‘@username’ links in the sidebar.
Now you might notice that some tweets start as ‘@someusername…’. These are called ‘@replies’ (pronounced as ‘at replies’). When you’re reading tweets in your Twitter timeline hover your mouse over a tweet and click on the faint curved arrow icon on the right. This takes you to the text box at the top with @username added in the beginning. This is used to respond to a particular tweet. Say I share some link on Twitter, you read it, and want to comment on it – then you click on the @reply curved arrow button and send me a message with your comments – all within 140 characters. You could simply type in @username in the textbox too, but click on the reply button gives the added advantage that the reply will have the text ‘in reply too…’ beneath it which will link back to the tweet you are responding to. This can help maintain sane conversation threads.
A slight variation of this is when @someusername is mentioned within the body of a tweet – for example “I attended a seminar where @shashitharoor was a speaker”. This is done when you know the Twitter username (also called ‘Twitter handle’) of person so that people who are following you can look up the other person’s profile; this is called an ‘@mention‘ (pronounced as ‘at mention’). The other utility is that any @mention – as these username mentions within a tweet body are called – show up in the @username section (when you click on it) on your Twitter home page.
An @reply or an @mention is a public message. If someone visits your profile they can read it. People following you and the person you are @reply-ing to will also see these in their timeline. There is another option called ‘direct message‘ which is like email but with the same 140 character limit. To send a direct message, type ‘d username‘ followed by the message you want to send. You can send direct messages only to people who are following you on Twitter.
Those were the basics of tweeting. So why would you want to do that? One big factor, for me at least, is that you can have engaging conversations with people you do not personally yet have the same interests as you do. In a sense, you could use it like chatting / instant messaging without the need for it to be in real-time. You tweet something, somebody sees that a few hours later and @replies to you, then you respond to that. Interesting conversation on a topic without the need for the person at the other end to ‘be there’ when you’re sending the message. And since @replies are public, other people following the conversation can pitch in too! Or you can have conversations with multiple people at the same time – just @mention all of them in the same tweet (leave some space for the message itself!).
To some extent discussions happen on Facebook too, but your Facebook audience is restricted to your friends. Facebook statuses were initially used as something you updated once every few days. Facebook is now trying to coax it’s audience into a more Twitter-style frequent update probably because it feels threatened by Twitter’s spontaneity and ‘fun’ quotient. In my next post I will speak on a few more ‘advanced’ Twitter terminologies and a few etiquette tips. Stay tuned.