“I just don’t get Twitter,” a friend of mine recently said. It’s a statement I’ve heard at least a dozen times by various people. In fact, I said it myself when I first tried Twitter. I created an account, poked around, saw nothing that made sense, and forgot about it for the next year.
Over the last few months, I’ve discovered how useful Twitter can be. After explaining the mysteries of Twitter to my wife the other day, I thought this info would be helpful to other twitless internet users.
What Is Twitter?
Twitter is a social networking and communication tool. It’s often referred to as a micro blogging site. Posts, called tweets, are limited to 140 characters. With this character constraint, communication is limited, but powerful if you have the right tools and know-how. Twitter allows you to interact with people around the globe. There are a few ‘secrets’ in Twitter that are unknown to new users. I say secret because it seems mysterious at first, but these are well known to the Twitter community. Like everything internet, Twitter is also a lurking place for spammers. I’ll show a few telltale signs to identify spam bots as well as show how to interact with the Twitter community more effectively.
Create an account at www.twitter.com. When you’re ready to start using Twitter, consider your username wisely. If you plan to limit your tweeting to a small number of friends or family, the username probably doesn’t matter much; however, if you plan to brand your name or market something associated with your name, you shouldn’t use a Twitter account with anything other than your name. For example, if you are a writer and are trying to make contacts with other writers, publishing professionals, and potential readers. You would want them to know who you are. It would be a wasted effort to make HappyWriter14 known through Twitter, but still have people know nothing about who you are or what your name is. You should communicate online with the same name you intend to brand or make known.
Once you’ve created an account, you’ll need to locate a safe frontend application. A frontend app is an application that interacts with the Twitter system with features that make the experience more user-friendly and robust. There are a number of good apps available. My favorite is TweetDeck.
As of this writing, the most used Twitter clients are:
HootSuite (Web based)
Echofon (For the iPad)
I prefer the desktop client as opposed to using Twitter in a browser with HootSuite. The best thing about TweetDeck is its price – Free. You can download TweetDeck by going to http://www.TweetDeck.com/.
Let’s look at a few organization tips. One of the most confusing things about Twitter is locating relevant conversations – even from friends. In a standard window, you will see the latest tweets, but unless you are watching, the information rolls by. Assuming you aren’t one of those people obsessed with Twitter, you will only see a fraction of the tweets sent out by your friends each day. But there are a few tips which can help you capture many of the conversations which are important to you.
A hashtag is a word identified as a topic of interest by having the pound (or number sign #) in front of it.
For example, if you’re a Kindle user, you might want to watch conversations about free Kindle books being released. If you do a hashtag search on #freekindlebooks, you’ll see a conversation string similar to figure 1.
Hashtags are also popular for chatting with friends on Twitter. In a traditional chat program, each person must be present and online to see a conversation. But with Twitter, it can be a casual, ongoing conversation, or it can be people designating a specific time to converse. If I wanted to start a conversation about using Twitter, I could post a tweet like this:
We’ll be discussing #Twitter4theTwitless this evening at 6p.m. Everyone is welcomed to join the conversation.
Anyone wanting to participate would setup a search on the hashtag, #Twitter4theTwitless, and be able to watch and interact. Many groups also use hashtags for ongoing communication.
Groups / Lists
Groups and lists are powerful tools for keeping track of conversations and keeping up to date with friends. Lists can be either private or public. A public list is viewable by anyone who visits your Twitter profile. A private list is just that – only you can see it. A public list is helpful for keeping track of people with specific common interests. Church groups, writers, customers, business contacts, or any other possible contact can be organized with lists.
A private list is helpful when it’s better not to share the information publicly. For example, if you have certain people you communicate with regularly, you might want to have a list called, ‘Favorite Friends’. Rather than offending the other 1,000 people you don’t consider your favorite friends, you may want to keep the list private.
Another advantage to having a private list is that it makes it easier to keep up with a smaller number of contacts. As you follow and connect with more people, it can become nearly impossible to maintain any type of meaningful interaction. You may never see the tweets of those you want to interact with. But if you have a separate list, you can set up a column and see these posts separate from the masses. We’ll go into how to do this shortly.
URL stands for, Uniform Resource Locator. For the most part, it’s simply a link to a website or file on the web, though it can be any internet resource.
With Twitter’s limit of 140 characters, links to websites need to be shortened. Suppose I want to tweet an article I posted on my blog. http://blog.eddiesnipes.com/2010/12/a-moms-meltdown/ takes up 52 characters. Some links can take up much more, leaving little room for a description. Fortunately, there are tools available to resolve this problem. The url http://bit.ly/eIVwQM is only 20 characters. In fact, you can shrink any length web url to just twenty characters.
There are several services that offer url shortening. Some of the most popular ones are bit.ly, is.gd, and tinyurl.com. One of the easiest to use is bit.ly. Urls can be shortened without having to create an account, or you can create an account and keep track of how many clicks you get on the shortened address.
One disadvantage to using a shortened url is that people are less inclined to click on it if they can’t identify where they are being directed. With rogue sites and malware on the internet, potential visitors are more cautious. For this reason, I don’t shorten the url unless I am exceeding the 140 character limit.
Mentions and Direct Messages
When someone posts a tweet, there are three options. One is a general tweet. If you simply type a message and send it, anyone following you will see it, but no one will be directly alerted to your message.
Mentions. For messages directed specifically at someone, you can type @username, and they will see it as a mention. For example, if someone in my contacts says, @eddiesnipes Happy New Year!, I will be alerted that I had a mention. Mentions are publicly visible to anyone able to see your tweets.
Retweets are mentions. A retweet is when someone likes a tweet, and reposts it. An example of this would be for me to post a message like, Man it’s cold this year. To retweet, simply place RT @username in front of the same message. @username would be the Twitter name who originally posted it. A retweeted message looks like this:
RT @eddiesnipes: Man it’s cold this year.
Since my username is on the retweet, I will be notified that my message was retweeted, and everyone in the other person’s friend list will see my message. Retweeting relevant messages is a good way to build relationships. If my tweets are being retweeted, I know I’m being read, and I feel a connection with the person who posted it again. Hopefully, when I retweet, the other person will return the favor, and vise-versa. Most frontend applications have a button that allows quick retweeting of messages.
Direct Message. Direct messages are formatted like the below example:
D eddiesnipes my new phone number is 404-404-0404
A direct message is not publicly visible to anyone but the person who sent it, and the person receiving the tweet. Unlike mentions, direct messages require the receiving person to be following the one sending the message. For example, if @Joe is following @Eddie, but @Eddie isn’t following back. @Eddie can direct message @Joe, but Joe can’t respond back. He can respond with a mention, but not a direct message.
This also is how you can tell if someone is following your tweets. Go to Twitter.com, look up their name, and if you see a button titled ‘Message’ under their profile, they are following you. If it’s missing, they are not. See below.
In this example, I am following this user, and they are following me.
In this example, I am following this Twitter user, but they are not following me.
To summarize the difference between DM and Mentions, unless you have been blocked, you can send use @username to send a message to someone. They will be alerted, but anyone can see it. A direct message is sent directly to a specific person and is not visible to anyone else.
Now that we’ve explored the basics of Twitter, let’s look at how the TweetDeck application makes it easy to put these tools to good use. In the old days, creating lists, searching for hashtags, shortening urls, and doing all the things Twitter allows was cumbersome, and required manual tweaking. When someone begins playing with Twitter, they face these same challenges—unless they discover a good frontend application.
This article won’t go into the basic configuration of TweeDeck, since the application walks you through this when you install it. Let’s begin by organizing conversations using hashtags. On the top left corner of the application window, there are three icons. See Figure 2. The first is a yellow writing pad icon. If the tweet posting window isn’t visible, this will bring it into view. The second is the plus sign ‘+’. It’s used to add a column. The third looks like a compass. Its function is to look up a user’s profile.
Click on the plus sign.
A window will pop up with the options available to set up a column. See Figure 3. There are many options available, but this article is focusing only on Twitter related searches. Suppose you want to view conversations regarding the University of Georgia. This is a popular hashtag during sporting events. Enter the hashtag #UGA and click Search. A column will appear in TweetDeck with that hashtag, and it will search and track all conversations with #UGA in the tweet. See Figure 4.
Hashtags are also a good way to connect with people of like interests. If GeorgiaSN has a lot of posts you find relevant, you can click on the username, and then click follow. If you decide this hashtag is not something of interest, move your cursor over the Twitter symbol (the blue and white ‘t’ at the top of the column) and it will turn into an ‘x’. Click the x, and the column is gone.
Creating a new list is a sinch. Click on the plus sign again, then click on Group/Lists. See Figure 5. Click on New Lists and you’ll be prompted to enter a list name and a description. Click on the radio buttons below the description to make the list private or public.
Another option in the Group / Lists button is to open existing lists as columns, or to open groups previously viewed in TweetDeck as new columns. In Figure 5, groups I’ve already created are visible. If I click the group name, it will open a column in TweetDeck. By hovering the mouse over the group, a trashcan will appear and provide the option of deleting the group from the list. Also note, there is an option to enter a Twitter list url. This will add someone’s public list as a column in TweetDeck. To locate a public list, go to twitter.com and look at the person’s profile. Below their profile, you’ll see a menu like the one below:
Click the arrow beside ‘Lists’ and you will see the public lists that user has made available. If you have a shared interest, you can save time by following a public list and putting the list into the field beside the New List icon. In figure 5, someone could follow my list called ‘acfw’ by putting @eddiesnipes/acfw in the url field and clicking Add. Essentially, you are telling Twitter to go to username eddiesnipes, and look for the list called acfw. TweetDeck then posts the conversations of all the users in this list into a separate column.
This can be a big time saver if you need the same people in a list that a Twitter friend has already created.
Sharing conversations, images, and website links are valuable Twitter actions. Over time, as you interact with others, relationships will grow and you will make valuable friends and connections. There are blogs to discover, people to meet, and opportunities to share. Twitter provides ways to do this like no other social network. And with TweetDeck, you can include Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and Google Buzz in your tweets. Configure your accounts, click to highlight the social network above the Compose Update window, and what you share in TweetDeck will post in all your accounts.
With multiple columns, users can see direct messages, mentions, close friends, and any number of lists, all at the same time in the TweetDeck window. This is a critical tool for anyone wanting to communicate with Twitter.
The more your information is available on the internet, the more spammers will try to hit you with ads and other junk. This is true with email, Facebook, Twitter, and any other type of network. If your goal is to only connect with close friends, this won’t be much of an issue in Twitter. However, if you decide to use Twitter to discover new friends and make new contacts, spammers will find you. In fact, internet bots monitor the web and harvest email addresses, Twitter names, etc. When you post, they will eventually discover you. In fact, if you post something with the hashtag of #ipad, you will likely start getting mentions with ads about Ipad and similar products.
The sender can easily be blocked from further communication, but you have to remember one important thing about spammers. They are high on creativity and determination, but very low on intelligence. For some reason, when you block them from spamming your account, they think if they create a new username and start spamming again, it will somehow change your mind. The definition of stupidity is to do the same thing, the same way, and expecting a different result.
One day I walked to the mailbox and found an official looking letter with the words, “Internal Revenue Service – Auditing Department. You must respond within 10 days.” I opened what I thought was an audit notice only to see the words, “You have been preapproved for loans up to…” I didn’t read any further. Do these mental midgets really think I’m in the mood to become their customer after being fooled into thinking I’m getting a tax audit? I was in the mood to shred their ad. Hence are the mental faculties of spammers. They will use any means necessary to make you look at their ads—even if that means alienating you from ever doing business with them.
Whether it’s Twitter, email, or any other point of communication, never respond to spam. Responding with a note like, “I would pour fire ants down my pants before I would do business with you,” only accomplishes two things. It confirms that your account is valid, and encourages them to keep harassing. In fact, there are companies that make a living by selling confirmed contacts to other spammers.
In Twitter, you can reduce the amount of spam by evaluating those who follow you before following back. Unless you’re a celebrity or news feed service, people have an expectation that if they follow you, you should follow back. Most people are using Twitter to establish a relationship with like-minded people. If someone doesn’t want to have a two-way communication, I drop them from my contacts. Websites like friendorfollow.com are good places to figure out who drops you from their list, and who followed you that you haven’t yet followed back. People who plan to spam will follow for the sole purpose of getting followed, but will then drop you from their contacts afterward. Dropping after gaining a follower is a big red flag of a possible spammer.
Another flag of a potential spammer is someone whose profile shows a thousand or more followers, but only a handful of people following them. This is the result of mass following. It’s a bot that goes out and follows every Twitter account it can locate so it can gather contact from those who follow back without checking. A bot is short for robot. It’s an application designed to run scripts to gather information or send spam. Bots comb through blogs and post generic compliments along with urls leading to ads. Bots send email spam, Twitter spam, Facebook spam, and any other mass contact.
Always visit the profile of a username before you follow. Never blindly follow back. Bots also create fake accounts and post fake tweets. Spammers are not going to sit at their computers and post thousands of tweets in order to look legitimate. Instead, they let bots do it for them. Repetitious posts are too obvious, so they create databases of phrases which are supposed to look like posts, but end up making little sense. Often, they look like sentences and phrases, but don’t actually say anything intelligent, proving that computers are no more intelligent than their creators. Can you tell I have a low opinion of spammers?
Figure 6 below shows an example of a Twitter account that recently followed me. Look at the tweets and notice how it shows a pattern of word-swapping, but has no real meaning.
Unless “susan humid luster,” and “sherry undisturbed silence,” has a hidden meaning beyond my limited mind, this is a classic example of a fake Twitter account being updated by a bot. It’s only purpose is to follow users so it can gather the names of those who blindly follow back. Those users will be targeted with spam at some point. Most likely, the bot they are following won’t be the source of the spam. It only serves as the source of intel for an expendable spamming account to use.
Despite the handful of drawbacks, Twitter is a valuable tool for communicating. It’s great for finding people with similar interests, organizing group communication, and sharing your interests, blogs, and personal webpages with friends and new contacts. Like anything else, the more you participate, the more people are interested in who you are and what you are doing. I hope that if you were twitless like me, this article has helped you get a better understanding of the world of tweeting.
There is much more to explore in the Twitter community, but these basics will get you well on your way to tweeting your interests, and finding and connecting with like-minded people.