13 June 2011

Welcome to the Twitterverse

Ever since I posted my thoughts on the nature of Twitter, I've been meaning to compose an actual introductory guide to the Twitterverse for newbies.  It's a little late, but here goes.

If you're familiar with Facebook (and, really, who isn't?), think of Twitter as your wall if only status updates of 140 characters or less was all you saw.  This is not to say that you can't still reply to someone else, or post photos and videos; you can do all of those things on Twitter, but it's much cleaner looking.  For those of you old enough to remember telephone party lines, think of Twitter as a text-based version of that, where anyone from around the world with a Twitter account can join in the conversation.

The smartest thing you can do when joining Twitter is begin by finding and following people you already know.  Once you begin following someone, you'll begin seeing their tweets as well as tweets from other people that have been re-tweeted by the person you're following.  These are tweets that your friend wanted to share.  Think of it like "recommending" something on Facebook.  You, too, can re-tweet someone else's post and share with your followers.

Speaking of followers, Twitter is not like Facebook or MySpace in that no one needs permission to follow you.  If this bothers you for some reason, you can set your account to private.  Even if one of your followers re-tweets you, it will only be visible to anyone else who is following you.  You can block someone, but this only prevents their tweets from appearing in your timeline; yours will still be visible to them.  Twitter believes in unrequited love.

If you want to ensure that a specific person sees your tweet, you'll want to "mention" them, which means you include their screen name, preceded with the @ symbol.  If you only want a specific follower to notice your tweet, begin with their @screenname.  For instance, if you want to report to Anderson Cooper that you've just found a space pod with a baby in it, you would tweet:
@andersoncooper Driving in Smallville and found a space pod with a baby in it!
Now, this tweet will not appear in anyone else's timeline but it will be visible on your Twitter page.  You can send a Direct Message if you want privacy, but this only works if the recipient is also following you.  But let's say that you're following Anderson Cooper and you're also following the President, and Anderson Cooper tweets:
@BarackObama We have a report of an alien baby found in Smallville.
If you're following both Anderson Cooper and the President, you'll see this tweet.  Otherwise, you won't.

Let's say you want all your followers to see your tweet, but you still want to name someone.  You might tweet:
I hope @andersoncooper comes to Smallville to report on this baby that has fallen from space!
One common thing you'll encounter on Twitter are hashtags.  These are words or phrases all strung together as one word, preceded by the # symbol.  This automatically makes the hashtag a clickable link that will display all recent tweets with the same hashtag.  This is useful if there's a popular topic being discussed and you want to draw attention to your comments.  For instance, you might tweet:
Waiting to be interviewed by @andersoncooper about the #spacebaby
#spacebaby would be your hashtag, and you would be able to immediately click on that phrase, which will display the most recent tweets that also contain #spacebaby.  It may be that yours is the only one, or it may be that there will be thousands of other tweets about the #spacebaby.  Regular tweeters, you'll discover, often use hashtags as shorthand punch lines.  Let's say Anderson Cooper doesn't believe you've found a baby from space.  He might tweet:
Going to Smallville to cover the #spacebaby. #cantbelieveiwenttojournalismschoolforthis
See how #spacebaby makes this tweet show up for anyone looking at tweets about the topic, but he turned "can't believe I went to journalism school for this" into a hashtag.  It's very unlikely anyone else has used this hashtag, but it punctuates the tone of his tweet.

Who to Follow
The easiest thing to do is begin by following people you know.  If they re-tweet something from someone they're following but you're not, you can follow the third party.  It's sort of like a pyramid scheme, really.  Celebrities are a mixed bag.  Firstly, you've got to be cautious about fake celebrity accounts.  There are verified celebrity accounts, and these will have a blue icon with a check mark next to the screen name of the celebrity.  @andersoncoooper and @BarackObama are both verified.  Just because a celebrity account does not have the verified check mark icon doesn't mean it's not legit, though.

Even if they are legit, however, you may find yourself disappointed.  Some celebrities maintain a Twitter account as nothing more than a self-promotion tool, often operated by other people on their behalf.  Barack Obama rarely tweets, and when he does it's almost always the equivalent of a White House press statement.  You're not going to find the President tweeting, "On my way to Metropolis to speak at STAR Labs.  Long flight!"  He doesn't do that kind of tweeting.  Anderson Cooper, though, tweets for himself and often replies to tweets that mention him.  In fact, he has incorporated Twitter into his TV show, AC360, reading tweets on-air to further involve his viewers with his broadcast.

Some people tweet endlessly, it seems, and you'll have to decide whether it's worth it to have two out of every three tweets in your timeline come from one person.  I've had to un-follow several tweeters for this very reason.  I am currently following 162 accounts, but several of these are friends who rarely tweet.  In all honesty, there are probably only about 130 "active" accounts and many of those are fairly redundant since I follow several news feeds.  I probably don't really need to follow NPR News, Huffington Post and CNN Breaking News (in addition to specific journalists like Anderson Cooper), but I like the individual personalities and I don't like relying on one specific news content provider.  My point is that I have a manageable list for me.  You may be overwhelmed by that many tweeters, or you may find yourself bored waiting for someone to say something new.

Hopefully this helps you make sense of the Twitterverse, and in case an infant from the planet Krypton should ever fall from the sky near you, now you'll know how to report it to the world.