Friday, March 4, 2011

Some Twitter Tips to Get you Started

Over the past three months, I’ve started using Twitter a little more regularly than I used to. It’s grown on me and I’ve figured out the use-cases that fit my objectives as an academic. While upping the frequency of my tweets, I’ve also developed some familiarity with the conventions and terminology used on twitter.

In this post, I’m summarizing these conventions and terminology. Hopefully, you’ll find some of these tips useful.

What is Twitter?:

As a user, you will probably ascribe specific characteristics to Twitter based on what you use it for. Here are a couple of ways I think of Twitter:

  • Twitter is a social networking platform that provides a microblogging service to its users. It allows users to post status updates called “Tweets” that are limited to 140 characters (including spaces and special characters).

  • While many people would compare its functionality to that of a chat client, Twitter offers an open forum for many-to-many conversations.

  • In addition to public messages, Twitter facilitates private communication among members (through direct messages)

·         For passive users, Twitter is a great monitoring tool to observe conversations among groups and posts regarding specific subjects.

Twitter Interface Basics:

Although Twitter can be used directly through its website interface (, many people prefer using different clients to My own favorite is TweetDeck ( which I use to monitor others tweets as well as to send my own updates.

  • Your Twitter “Activity Stream” consists of you own tweets as well as tweets from others who you “Follow”. By following a user on twitter, you are adding that user’s tweets in chronological order to your timeline or activity stream. Following others is useful if you’re interested in the content and updates provided by them, and it’s also a recommended practice to foster reciprocity.

  • It is also important to remember that tweets are public by default unless you restrict messages to specific recipients by including their usernames at the beginning of the tweets.

Essential Tweet Conventions:

Once you start tweeting beyond the basic / simple babble, you’ll start to realize the need for using direct reference to people, websites, and themes. These items constitute the three types of references you can include in your tweets:

  • You can provide links to websites: While you can include the full URL of websites (http://...), you should get into the habit of shortening the URL. There are various URL shortening services available. My favorite is (

  • You can refer to other people of Twitter through a “Mention” by prepending the “@” symbol to their usernames. These mentions typically get reported to the person through an email or an alert within their activity stream.

  • You can highlight specific keywords in your tweets by using the right “Hashtags”. A hashtag is a keyword with a “#” symbol prefixed to it. By utilizing relevant hashtags in your tweets, you can increase the searchability of your tweets by others. The key is to figure out hashtags that are used by others who talk about similar topics and utilize them within your own tweets if and where possible.

In addition to writing your own tweets, from time to time, you might feel the need to “Retweet” someone. By repeating a tweet from another user, you are amplifying their message and distributing it to your own followers. Again, this is a recommended practice to reinforce ties on your social network.  Remember that retweeting someone will make the original tweet appear in the activity stream of those who follow you on Twitter.

  • You can retweet a message by clicking on the retweet symbol underneath that message. This is referred to as an automatic retweet.

  • You can also retweet a person by copying the text of that tweet and prepending “RT @username” to identify that it’s a retweet from a specific username. This is referred to as a manual retweet.

Using Twitter as a Monitoring Tool:

  • You can optimize your use of Twitter by creating “Lists” of different people you follow. For example, I have a list for my work-colleagues, and multiple lists that include professionals who talk about specific topics and subjects. This feature provides me with the capability to demarcate different social circles and communities of interest that I participate in. In the online Twitter interface, you can click use the drop-down menu underneath a person’s profile description to add them to a list (as shown below).

    If you use a client such as TweetDeck, you can display activity streams for your lists in different columns (I find this very useful for monitoring tweets).

  • If you wish you use Twitter as a monitoring tool, you can save your searches and access them with greater ease at any time. Through the online Twitter interface, you can perform a keyword search using the search bar on the top of the screen, and click on the “Save this search” button.

This will make this search accessible to you through the “Searches” tab in your Twitter interface. Remember that the search results constitute an activity stream that will be updated as more relevant tweets keep getting posted.

  • You can also mark tweets as “Favorites”. This is pretty similar to bookmarking important resources online. By creating your own list of favorites, you are really creating a catalog of tweets that you might want to come back to. The original tweeters receive a notification when you favorite one of their tweets.

Optimizing your Personal Interactions through Tweets:

You’ll probably get familiar with many customs and conventions of tweeting through your use of twitter, but here are a couple of tips to help you use the proper abbreviations and accepted vernacular.

  • Use “via” to mention someone who pointed out something on Twitter. For example: “Here is a really great website http://shortURL via @username”

  • Use “MT” to indicate a “modified retweet” when you are selectively quoting from a previous tweet. For example: “MT @informatician …”. While it is acceptable to use MT, it is good practice to ensure that you’re not changing the overall message.

  •  Use a mention at the beginning of a tweet to direct that tweet to a specific person. For example: “@username hello how’s it going?” Referred to as conversational tweets, these messages will only be seen by accounts that follow BOTH your account AND the account you mentioned at beginning of tweet. Remember that if a mention is used elsewhere in your tweet, that tweet will be visible to all your followers.

  • A variant of a conversational tweet is when you want to direct a tweet primarily to a specific person but also want your followers to see it. In such a case, you can prepend a period “.” before the mention. For example “. @username check this out: …”

  • Use “cc” followed by a mention “@username” at the end of a tweet to get the attention of a specific person for whom that tweet may be relevant.

  • While the above tips may be handy for interacting with others through Twitter, remember that you shouldn’t needlessly mention people in your tweets as this is considered a form of spam.

I think that’s about it in terms of a quick and light introduction to the use of Twitter. Like I said, you’ll probably figure out a lot more stuff on your own as you start using Twitter. These are just some tips that I hope you’ll find useful in getting started. Let me know what you think.

Happy Tweeting, and feel free to follow me on Twitter (@Informatician). I’ll certainly reciprocate.