A Quick Guide To Twitter

PostsA Quick Guide To Twitter

It seems like I have to explain Twitter every few days. While I think it’s a wonderful service, I think everyone can agree that it’s a bit obtuse. In order to save myself some trouble, I’m writing this post so that I can refer people to it. Call me lazy.

What Is Twitter?
This is a very good place to start. The easiest way to describe Twitter is:

A little bird that tweets in all of your friends’ ears.

Basically, Twitter is a service to make communication easier. This is important to keep in mind. It is VERY easy to publicly humiliate yourself on Twitter. One wrong character can make a private Tweet very, very public.
The Terminology of Twitter
You’ve already probably noticed that I call a message sent via Twitter a “tweet”. Here’s the exhaustive list of terms you’ll find useful:
  • twitter: (n) a messaging service.
  • tweet: (n) a message sent via the Twitter messaging service.
  • (to) tweet: (v) the act of sending a message via Twitter
  • twitter client: (n) a program used to Tweet on Twitter
  • follow: (v) indicating that you are interested in a person’s Tweets (often used to refer to your group of followers or the people that you follow)
  • at-reply: (n) a PUBLIC reply on the Twitter service, denoted by beginning with an @username
  • at-mentions: (n) a PUBLIC mention of someone on Twitter, denoted by having @username somewhere other than the beginning of a message
  • direct-reply: (n) a PRIVATE reply to someone on Twitter, sent by starting a message with “d username”
  • tweeple, tweeps: (n,pl) the group of people who follow you on Twitter
  • retweet: (v) the process of posting an interesting Tweet that you received from someone
Strange Limitations
Twitter, like MySpace before it, is a service that really “happened” more than it was “planned”. Because of this, you may notice that it can be a bit rough around the edges. The factors that shaped it have given it some particular warts that I’ll try to mention.
Message Length: Messages on Twitter can only be 140 characters. Longer messages are cut off.

Cryptic Commands: Private messages, at-replies, and at-mentions focus a rather crusty mix of single letters and symbols.

Slowness: At times, Twitter can be behind by hours.

Link Mangling: Web-links in messages are rewritten in a way that hides where they point.
It turns out that every one of these limitations comes from one of Twitter’s biggest strengths–SMS support. Twitter, from the beginning, has been made to be used on a simple, unadorned cellphone. While this undoubtedly has made it a success, we have to live with the above problems.
Cell phone messages (so-called SMS messages) are limited to 160 characters. This means that messages from Twitter have to be shortened. This is where the length limitation comes from. It’s worth noting that messages longer than 160 characters are supported by some phones, but the other phones hold us back. Some people feel that the brevity forced by this limitation is what makes Twitter enjoyable–it forces people to be succinct.
The cryptic commands and link mangling are both ways to cope with the limited space. The commands have to be short, and the link mangling is done to make the web-link shorter.
The slowness is just the nature of the beast. It turns out, that some people have lots of followers. When these people Tweet, every one of their followers must be notified. Today, those two users alone are responsible for over 15 million messages that must be sent. To put that in perspective, if they started at midnight (which they didn’t), that would be 264 messages per second!
Suddenly it makes sense why Twitter falls behind!
How To Use Twitter On The Phone
There’s a list of commands here.
To send a public message to all of your tweeps, just message the Twitter number (40404 in the US).
To reply to a user named kagato, send a message like “@kagato I liked your omelet recipe.”. This message will appear on your public profile as your Latest Tweet, appear in your public timeline, and generally be messaged to that user.
To mention a user named kagato, send a message like “Omelets are AWESOME! Right @kagato?”. In this case, the message will appear as your Latest Tweet, be messaged to all of your Tweeple, and generally be messaged to that user as well.
You’ll often see mentions like “Hanging at out an awesome Omelet Bar in Vegas with @kagato and @freeformz”.
To send a private reply to a user named kagato, send a message like “d kagato Pssst! Omelet’s make me gassy.”. Be very careful when sending private messages. It is very easy to accidentally type “dkagato …”. In that case, your message would go to all of your tweeple!
To mark a user’s last tweet as one of your favorites, send a message like “fav kagato”. Note that this will sometimes mark a later tweet than the one that you intended when Twitter gets behind. You can also just send “fav” to mark the last tweet you received (from whoever) as a favorite. Again, this can suffer when Twitter gets behind.
To follow a new user, send a message like “follow kagato”.
To nudge a user (silently indicating to them that they aren’t talkative enough), just send a message like “nudge kagato”. Not many people use this one.
To disable all phone messages, send “off”. To enable them, send “on”. You can also put a user’s name after them to just muzzle a specific person. That can be helpful when people are drunk-tweeting. Just don’t forget to unmuzzle them when they sober up.
To find out information about a user, send “whois kagato”.
To retrieve the latest tweet from someone, send “get kagato”.
To be vain and get information about yourself, send “stats”.
To invite someone to twitter by text-message, send “invite 415 555 1212” (substituting whatever their number is).
How To Use Twitter on the Web
Just play around at twitter.com.
Ironically, one you log in, just type a message like you would on your phone. There are buttons for most of the features (following people for instance), but messages, @replies, @mentions, and direct messages all work in the little box.
The search functions here can be nice. The public timeline can be nice. Otherwise, it’s about like your phone (at least in terms of functionality).
The most useful feature that is on the website is the ability to control whether you get “mobile updates” for a user. This lets you get realtime updates for some people, while other people only appear on the web (or in your Twitter Client, if you use one).
I mostly have close friends and coworkers enabled for mobile updates. This lets me catch messages like “Anybody up for dinner?”. Setting dinner plans over Twitter can be a very cool pick-me-up at the end of the workday.
On the other hand, I have many other people I follow. I occasionally (maybe once every other day) check my Twitter client. This lets me pull in the full volume of Twitter on my own time (instead of over my entire day).
Other Neat Stuff
There are other services available over Twitter.
You can use twitpic.com to put links to pictures in your Twitter messages.
People often put “tags” in their messages for people to search for. Whenever you see a message like “I love Chicken Tikka Masala #food”, the #food part is a tag available for searching.
Sometimes you’ll see a message like “Just bought some $AAPL because $MSFT is down”. These are used to indicate that a word is a stock symbol.
Some people even put links to their location on a map. The possibilities are really endless.
Twitter Clients
If you become a “hardcore” Twitter user, you may download a special program just to access Twitter. If you’re really into it, you might even get a special one for your iPhone or BlackBerry.
Twitter Clients are where things get pretty crazy. The functionality like stock symbols, location links, @replies, TwitPics are all integrated into various Twitter clients. From my phone, I can take a picture of something and Tweet about it with a link to the location on a map. It’s surreal.
Other Twitter Quirks
The one other thing that always seems to trip people up is retweets. Let’s say that you hear about some new thing you like. For example, you might receive a message like “freeformz: A bank car overturned at 4th and King, free money!”. You, understandably, might want to send this to all of your friends so they can become wealthy with you.
However, knowing that freeformz will soon be a rich man, you don’t want to offend him by implicitly claiming that you are the source of this blessed information. This seemingly simple scenario can be confusing.
Many people re-tweet with a message like “RT @freeformz: A bank car overturned at 4th and King, free money!”. The RT indicates that it is a retweet. Some people will do it like this: “A bank car overturned at 4th and King, free money! (via @freeformz)”. In either case, it does the same thing.
To complicate things, sometimes people want to add some more to the message. This makes it really confusing. For example, you might see this “RT @freeformz: A bank car overturned at 4th and King, free money!– I’m RICH!”. In this case, it’s easy to miss that @freeformz was the one with the initial message and that the re-tweeter added “I’m RICH!”.
In other words, read carefully, and watch for signs that someone added a message to the end of a re-tweet.
Twitter is a powerful and useful tool for forcing people to effectively communicate through cryptic abbreviations and haikus. Hopefully it can be as transformative for your time-wasting as it has been for mine.
Good luck, and have a lot of fun!

About Jayson Vantuyl

I live in San Francisco, California; have an awesome son, David; and make machines do (subjectively) interesting things. I'm generally an all around handy fellow.

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