Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Getting to know Twitter

I've noticed a lot of new people getting in on the world of Twitter. It seems like now would be a good time to fill people in on what this new(ish) tool is and how it can be a benefit to them.

I first got on Twitter in 2008 and I had a lot of people asking me "What's Twitter?" Well, in short, it's a microblogging service that allows users to post short, 140 character messages. That really fails to capture the scope of Twitter. But then think about any tool in a toolbox. What's a screwdriver? It's a stick with a flat head and a handle? What's a hammer. It's a stick with a hard piece of metal on one end. Understanding the value of any tool is in understanding its application.

So why get on Twitter?

I've come to use Twitter for a wide variety of things. Using a program called TweetDeck on my PC, I have a constant stream of information flowing to me when I'm at my computer. By subscribing to certain people/accounts (this subscribing is called "following"), I am constantly alerted to all sorts of news, ideas, and comments. I follow a number of politicians and political commentators so I'm immediately alerted if there's something happening in the world of government that I should know about. I follow fellow Windows Phone MVPs and tech blogs so I hear about news regarding that world. I follow a few of my friends so I can find out what's on their mind. To top it off, I follow a celebrity or two who seems to have interesting things to share with their followers.

The beauty of all of this is I don't have to go from website to website to find out all of this information. I also don't have to wait for long write-ups to be put together. I just saw a tweet saying that President Obama has signed the debt ceiling bill. That's all I need to know. I don't need a big, long story featuring quotes from this person or that person. If I care what someone has to say about that news story, I'll follow them and see it in their posts.

To get informed, I just scroll though the posts by the people I follow on Twitter and I know the basics of everything. It's quick and efficient.

How do I get in on all this awesomeness?

So now that I've given a basic rundown of Twitter, let me fill you in on how to take full advantage of it. The first step is setting up an account. This is free and easy to do by going to twitter.com. When you're doing that, think carefully about what you'll make your username. It helps to make it something simple to remember. Why? It makes it easier to share. If you run into your cousin out on the golf course and want to share with them your username, it's going to be easier for him/her to remember it when they get back if it's something simple. I use Dan12R. Even that's more complicated than I recommend, but I've got a long story behind that one.

OK... now what?

After setting up your account and picking an easy to remember username, now you need to find people to follow. To start, consider the websites you visit the most (besides Facebook). I tend to frequent foxnews.com, engadget.com, and ign.com. So you can be sure I'm following them on Twitter. Any time they post a big story, they share it on Twitter so I know to go to their website and check out the story (assuming it's something that interests me).You can usually find a link to the website's Twitter feed somewhere on their front page.

Once you've found a couple websites to follow, consider companies you do business with frequently. I recommend your cell phone carrier, television content provider (cable/satellite), and any business that provides support for products you use today. The reason I recommend this is that it will help you get information if there's an interruption of service and sometimes I have more success getting tech support from a Twitter account than I do with a 1-800 number. Some companies actually have accounts just for supporting their products via Twitter. For example, Microsoft has a number of Twitter accounts for support including Zune, Xbox, and Windows Phone.

Covering these two areas will help make Twitter a powerful tool that keeps you up to date. But then it helps if it's a fun tool as well. Consider hobbies and interests that you have and start looking for Twitter accounts related to those. Being a conservative political junkie, I find a number of entertaining tweets from the likes of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Jedediah Bila, and Adam Baldwin (this one also is entertaining being a fan of the shows Chuck and Firefly).

As you build up your list of people you're following on Twitter, you'll learn that it leads to discoveries of new people to follow. While I only have a handful of people listed here, following these people has lead to me discovering new people to follow on Twitter because they mention someone else in one of their posts or they happen to be following someone that I think might be interesting to follow.

One last thing about following people on Twitter. In order to help users out, Twitter will at time verify an account to make sure it's run by the person who says it is. If you wanted to follow your favorite celebrity or sports personality, it would be nice to know that it is indeed that individual and not some random person. You can see if an account is verified by going to that account and looking at the name on the account. If there's a white check-mark in a light blue circular shape (it kind of looks like a badge), then you can be sure the account is run by who it says it is. Now, just because there isn't the symbol telling you it's a verified account it doesn't mean it's not run by who it says it is. It just means that Twitter hasn't verified it themselves. The best way to check if this is the case is to find a website or other source of information about the individual and see if they have a Twitter account listed there.

Tell me about all that l33t hacxzor speek!

Now that you're set on Twitter and you've got a stream of information flowing in, it's good to understand some of the lingo. It's fairly simple compared to some of the terminology out there in the tech world (if you can't read the headline for this section of the write-up, don't feel bad. Most can't). I've already mentioned following which is subscribing to the Twitter feed of another user. There are a few others that it's good to know:

Tweet- (n) a post on Twitter. Ex. "I saw a tweet mentioning that topic." (v) the act of posting a tweet. Ex. "Why don't you tweet about it if you love it so much."

Mention- If I mention someone on Twitter I may adjust my tweet in a certain way. If I mention Xbox Live's Major Nelson in a tweet, I will use the "@" symbol followed by his Twitter username so my tweet would look something like "Great podcast this week from @Majornelson."

Retweet- posting a tweet that someone else posted. For example, if I see something someone I'm following tweeted and I think it would be of interest to those following me, I'll retweet it, giving credit to the original author. Retweets usually start with the letters "RT" followed by a mention of the original author. A retweet of a tweet I posted would start off with "RT @Dan12R" followed by what I tweeted. If the original tweet is short enough, you can also add in your comment to the original tweet.

Hashtag- Twitter provides opportunities for people to find out what individuals are saying about a particular topic. In order to help others find tweets related to a certain topic, they'll include a hashtag. This is composed of the "#" symbol right in front of word(s) that are connected to the topic. For example, if I'm posting a tweet about the MSI WindPad 110W, I might hashtag the word "WindPad." In my tweet, it will appear as "#WindPad"

Hashtagging also plays a role in a number of Twitter games. On May 4th in celebration of Star Wars Day, people were using the hashtag #replaceawordinastarwarslinewithpants On this day in Twitter history, people replaced a word in a line from a Star Wars movie with the word pants. People that wanted to follow the creativity that this lead to simply searched that hashtag and could see all the posts related to it. You'll notice that it's all one word. A hashtag doesn't recognize spaces. As you dive into Twitter, you'll find more and more examples of these. They tend to come and go rather quickly.

Anything else?

Now that you're familiar with Twitter and all the lingo, it's good to start finding applications to help out your Twitter experience. I recommend finding one for your PC as well as your smartphone. Twitter has an official application for just about every smartphone platform out there. However, these apps aren't the most robust and you may find that you like a different one made by a 3rd party. Personally, I do use the official Twitter app for Windows Phone. It gets the job done for me. I do run a number of Twitter accounts (one for a radio station I'm involved with and one for my church) and the app isn't very good for that, but I'm mainly using my personal account so it's not too bad. I suggest exploring what's available to you. It's best to find an app that's easy for you to use and has the features you are looking for. Your taste in Twitter apps will become more defined the more you use Twitter.

So that's Twitter in a nutshell. It's interesting that I can write so much about a service that only allows for comments that are 140 characters in the length. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. Also, share who you're following that you find interesting and which Twitter apps you find that you enjoy.

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