I've run into so many people who are bewildered by Twitter that I decided to write a little user guide. It's about 3,000 words, so if you prefer to download it and read it on an ereader or something, here's a link to the original Word document.
I love Twitter, but it does have a pretty steep learning curve. When you first log in, you often see a bewildering array of symbols that make no sense, and nobody’s there to explain it to you.
Except me! What follows is a Twitter primer; I’ll start with the basic technical aspects of Twitter and move from there into the culture of Twitter and strategies you can use to get the most out of it.
Creating an account is easy. Just type in your name, email, and password on Twitter’s home screen. You’ll be taken to another screen to confirm your details. Your full name can be changed as often as you want; so if you want to call yourself “Heywood Jablomi,” that’s fine. You can always change it if you make a bad choice.
Your username can be changed too, but this will cause you more problems down the line. I think it’s best to pick one you’re willing to stick with. My advice is to stick with something bland here: some version of your name is good, or if you’re tweeting in an official capacity, the company’s name, or “@mycompanyceo” or whatever is good.
As of this writing, Twitter is asking you if you want to tailor Twitter based on website visits. This means they’ll plant cookies in your browser and track your web history so they can show you people you might be interested in following. You can do this if you want, but I always like to err on the side of caution when it comes to internet privacy. Do you really want Twitter saying, “based on your interest in hot girl-on-girl action, you might be interested in the following people?” I would uncheck this box if I were you.
Twitter will suggest some celebrities and news sources for you to follow when you log in. You might as well pick a few. This will help you get a feel for how things work. Also, as of this writing, Twitter is making it hard to find the button allowing you to skip this step. You can then search for some celebrities to follow. Again, this is a fun and relatively harmless step, so go for it. Don’t go nuts though—I’ll explain why later.
Twitter will then ask you for permission to search your gmail, yahoo mail, hotmail, or aol accounts. I know that I suggested erring on the side of privacy earlier, but I strongly suggest you go ahead and do this. It will allow you to find people who will follow you back. This is important. Bite the bullet and do it.
Next you can create your profile by uploading a photo and writing a brief bio. You must do both. The photo (you’ll see it called your “avatar,”) doesn’t have to be of you. You can upload a picture of just about anything. The important part is that you have to have something there. Otherwise Twitter will put an egg there, and nobody follows eggs.
(Aside: if you are a woman, do not put a picture of yourself in swimwear, or bending over in a low-cut shirt, or wearing or doing anything even remotely sexy. At least not at first. Spammers use these kinds of photos on fake accounts all the time, acting on the erroneous belief that men will be inherently interested in scantily-clad women.)
For your bio, do not use the celebrities you’ve just followed on Twitter as a model. If you’re already famous, you can put something cutesy like, “I’m just this guy, y’know?” or “resident of planet earth.” If you’re not famous, you need to put something that will help people know what kind of stuff you’re interested in, or why you’re here. “Book geek, craft beer fan, horror movie aficionado,” for example.
Don’t obsess about the bio; you can always change it. But do put something informational there.
Great. Now you’re in and you’re looking at a screen that might be somewhat overwhelming. Let’s take it apart piece by piece. You should be on the “home” part of your Twitter page—you can tell by the “home” that’s highlighted at the top.
The main part of the Twitter screen (yes, you can do this stuff from your phone too—we’ll get to that later. Just stay on the website for a few minutes) is made up of tweets from people you follow. The newest ones are at the top, and you can scroll down to see older ones.
Here are some things you might see: links. Lots of people tweet links to content they’ve found (or published) elsewhere. This is probably the most familiar part.
@replies. If you follow two people who are talking to each other on Twitter, you might see what they’re sending to each other. So, for example, if you follow me (@bhalpin) and Daniel Waters (@watersdsan) and you see a tweet from me that looks like this: “@watersdan Just finished Break my Heart 1000x. Awesome,” that means I’ve sent a tweet at Dan telling him his new book is awesome. You won’t see most of these unless you follow both people. Or unless people start them with a “.” Twitter keeps replies from people you follow to people you don’t follow out of your stream (though they’re still visible on a profile page), so sometimes if people want to make sure that everybody sees their reply, they’ll start it with a period so that everyone can see it. People mostly do this when they’re fighting on Twitter and want their followers to jump in.
If someone replies to one of your tweets when you’re not on Twitter, it will be easy to find: just click on the “Interactions” tab next to the Home tab, and you’ll see any mentions of your username along with people who have followed you.
Hashtags. These are number signs followed by strings of text with no spaces. For example, #merrychristmas. If you click on the hashtag, you’ll immediately see all the tweets that are using that hashtag. So, for example, if you’re watching the Oscars and you want to see what random people are snarking about, just click on the #oscars hashtag and you’ll see every tweet in which people have used that hashtag.
This is handy for you if you want to join in a virtual conversation about an event. So if you are watching the Oscars and want people other than your followers to see what you’ve said, just end your tweet with #oscars and be assured that your bon mot will get a larger audience.
Note that hashtags are also used ironically. Like, “About to watch My Little Pony with my bronies! #thuglife” or “Bought the extra large bottle of laundry detergent! #yolo”
They are also used to spread jokes. So, for example, someone might tweet “#scatalogicalhitchcock The Turds.” If you want to join in, you can just tweet, “#scatalogicalhitchcock The Man Who Pooed Too Much.”
If you see something you’d like to respond to, you can always reply. Just click on the link and hit “reply.” So if your friend @bhalpin tweets “want to watch a hilarious horror movie tonight. Suggestions?” Just click reply, and in the compose tweet window, you’ll see @bhalpin. Type your suggestion, hit send, and @bhalpin will see your tweet. (I’d recommend Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.)
You may also see someone tweeting something you think is especially noteworthy or funny or otherwise excellent. If you’d like to spread the word to your own followers, hit the “retweet” link and the tweet will go out to everyone who follows you.
You’ll also see the “favorite” link. You can use this in two ways. One is that it allows you to have access to a list of tweets you can visit later. So, for example, if someone posts a link to an article you’re interested in but don’t have time to read now, you can favorite the tweet and then easily find it later without trying to sift through your entire Twitter stream trying to find it. You can also use the favorite link as a kind of equivalent to the Facebook like button. It’s a way of expressing approval, and the author of the tweet will see that you’ve done this. (Unless they’ve turned those notifications off, but most people, like me, are vain and like to know when people approve of their work, even if their work is only a 140-character tweet.)
Someone may post a link with a little note after it that says “via @bhalpin” (or, you know, via @whoever). This indicates that they’ve gotten the link from someone else’s post. More on this in our “culture and strategy” section.
You might see the letters RT or MT followed by a username in a tweet that someone else has posted. RT stands for retweet, so “RT@bhalpin” at the beginning of a tweet would indicate that someone was retweeting me. This used to be how all retweets worked. Twitter has, for some reason, decided that this is bad and only allows you to retweet without comment. Twitter’s users don’t generally agree with this change. This leads us to the “Twitter clients” section. (MT stands for “modified tweet,” meaning that the user doing the MTing has taken someone else’s tweet and (usually) shortened it so as to fit their own approving or snarky comment in there.)
You can use Twitter through the Twitter.com interface. You can also download Twitter clients to use on your computer or on your phone. There are also other websites that offer tweaked versions of Twitter’s interface. Which one you should pretty much depends on which look and feel you prefer. Some of them have slightly different features, like the ability to do an old-school retweet, that you might find useful. Some will let you pick where to store the photos you upload to Twitter. Some will let you see your Facebook news feed side by side with your Twitter feed. If these features are important to you, you can find a number of clients that will suit your needs. My advice is to try out a bunch for free. If you find one you really like, you can pay for the ad-free version. I use hootsuite.com and plugg.io on the web, Tweetdeck on my desktop, and Ubersocial on my Android phone. Your mileage will vary.
A note about direct messages: It is possible to use Twitter to send someone a message that no one else can see. These are called direct messages. They’re easy to see in most Twitter clients, but Twitter apparently doesn’t like them much because they are almost impossible to find on Twitter’s current web interface. (They’re in the menu that appears when you click on the gear at the top right of the screen.) You can only send direct messages to people if you follow each other. You will use this feature very rarely—usually if you’ve had an interaction with someone and you want to exchange email addresses without posting your email message publicly on Twitter.
On the bottom left, you’ll see the trending topics. These are hashtags or phrases that Twitter pulls out of tweets. If you click on them, you’ll see tweets with those words in them whether you follow the tweeters or not. It’s a good way to find out about breaking news and celebrity deaths and otherwise is pretty much a way that people spread annoying jokes. (Not awesome jokes like my scatological Hitchcock example above.)
On your home screen, you’ll also see Twitter’s “who to follow” suggestions. I suggest holding off until later on these. Why? Well, this has to do with our next section:
Strategy and Culture
Apart from all the hashtags and abbreviations, Twitter’s culture can be pretty hard to understand. So here’s some advice:
Take it slow. Don’t follow a thousand people in your first few weeks on Twitter. Try to follow a few people at a time and keep your number of followers close to the number of people you follow.
This is why I told you to allow Twitter to sift through your email contacts. People you know are the most likely to follow you back. This helps make you look, for want of a better word, more attractive. People who follow tons of people but have few people following them look kind of desperate and may find it hard to pick up followers.
People who follow almost nobody but have tons of followers are celebrities. Do not imitate them on Twitter. If you are a celebrity, fine, act like a celebrity—you don’t have to follow anybody or interact with anybody, and tons of people will still follow you. If you’re a regular person, you’re going to have to put some work in and become a good Twitter citizen.
The work comes in trying to find cool people to follow. One thing you can do is follow someone who’s a kind of big deal in a small field. If you’re interested in craft beers, for example, you could follow @stonegreg from Stone Brewing Company. Or, for comic books and/or horror fiction, you could follow @joe_hill. See who else follows them, check out some of their bios, and if they look interesting, follow them too. See who your friends follow, and follow some of them too. Probably the biggest thing to remember is that a Twitter follow is very low-stakes and should not be taken as seriously as friending someone on Facebook. If you friend someone on Facebook, you’re asking for access to photos, biographical information, and their scores on whatever inane games they’re playing. On Twitter, people expect people who don’t know them to follow them. It’s not weird or awkward. It’s how things work.
Since it’s not weird to follow people you don’t know, it’s also not weird to interact with them. This is a way in which Twitter is different from real life. So if someone says something you’d like to respond to, feel free to respond.
A word of advice: you will find people on Twitter who are consistently annoying. Do not tweet at them to try to disabuse them of their annoying beliefs. You will not change their minds, and you will turn Twitter into The Arena of Pointless Verbal Combat, which is only fun for a brief period of time. Just as it’s not a big deal to follow someone you don’t know, it’s not a big deal to unfollow someone. So if someone is annoying, just unfollow them. Trust me—you cannot cure all the stupidity in the world.
In addition to responding to tweets, you can retweet or favorite people’s tweets. They will get messages saying that you’ve done this. It’s another nice way to pick up followers. Many non-celebrities will follow people who retweet or favorite them. It’s also considered good form to acknowledge the original poster if you see something interesting on Twitter that you want to share. So instead of retweeting, you can just repost the link with an acknowledgment of the original poster. So, for example, you might post a link that I originally posted, and you’d put “via @bhalpin” at the end. It’s not critical that you do this—everybody understands that stuff you see can get lost in the Twitter stream. Sometimes I’ll click on a link, read the article an hour later, and have no idea who originally posted it. No big deal.
To sum up, here are my tips for being a good Twitter citizen:
1.Vary what you post. A nice mix of links (with your own introduction—nobody will click on a link with no context), original thoughts, retweets, and replies makes a balanced Twitter feed.
2. Remember that your tweets are both permanent and evanescent. Which means this: don’t tweet anything you’ll regret later, since it can be saved for posterity via screenshot or Twitter client. But, also, tweets come and go, and so you shouldn’t be too concerned if your awesomely witty tweet provokes no response.
3. Don’t tweet the same thing over and over. This applies to self-promotion or anything else. It’s okay to say “check out my book” or whatever, but don’t do it constantly. I have checked out books and music by people who are interesting on Twitter; I’ve rarely looked at anything just because somebody was incessantly tweeting a link at me.
4.Don’t over-hashtag. Sometimes people add as many hashtags as possible to a tweet to try to get more people to see it. Hashtags are like bumper stickers; the more you have, the less likely it is that anybody’s going to pay attention.
5.Don’t message people to thank them for following you. There are services that will do this for you automatically. Do not use them. Everybody hates this.
6. Interact. Of course the caveat “don’t feed the trolls” applies, but overall, just have some cool mini-conversations with some of the many cool people you find on Twitter. This is doubly or triply important if you are using Twitter in a business capacity. If you’ve opened a Twitter account for your business, congratulations! You’ve just added a customer service line where people expect answers. If you’re using Twitter for fun, then what fun is it to talk to yourself? You don’t need the internet for that.
That’s it. Have fun. I hope this was helpful!