All Twittered Out: The Basics (& Glossary)

Nicknamed the "Fail Whale," this image greets users when Twitter gets a bit overwhelmed.

Nicknamed the "Fail Whale," this image greets users when Twitter gets a bit overwhelmed.

Twitter.com is a micro-blog platform – similar to a mini social network or blog community. Community is a key word. Twitter users have a profile made of an avatar (or display picture), username, short biography, homepage link and their personal “timeline.” Users can change the appearance of their profile by choosing from a gallery of background images and colour schemes, or by uploading their own background image.

A timeline is a reverse-chronological listing of the user’s “tweets” or “posts” to the service. Each post is a maximum of 140 characters. Posts were initially meant to answer the question “What are you doing?” but are now being used to publish, promote and discuss without limits. Many bloggers make a habit of announcing new blog posts they have written via the service. Many brands post major announcements or accomplishments. Individuals use the service to comment outloud about anything that crosses their mind, and to respond to the comments of others.

Twitter users can both follow and be followed. The user’s homepage is a reverse-chronological listing of all the posts made by Twitter users that they have chosen to follow. A user’s “followers” see all of his or her posts on their own homepage. For example, if I have 22 followers and am following 18 users, 22 receive everything that I post and I receive all the posts of the 18 people I follow.

Mentions (formerly “replies”)

When posting a response to another person’s post on Twitter, a user will include @username usually at the beginning of their post. For example:

Screenshot of a reply using @username convention on Twitter

Screenshot of a reply using @username convention on Twitter

The @username convention is also used when addressing or referring to a specific user. If you wanted to direct a question to a certain user, you would begin your post with @their_username followed by the text of your question. If your post referred to the work, thoughts or actions of another user, you would use @their_username rather than their written name. Within the twitter community, @username replaces anywhere that would normally use a name. For example:

Screenshot of @username convention used in place of name

Screenshot of @username convention used in place of name

Twitter automatically hyperlinks @username to http://www.twitter.com/username, so that curious users can easily pull up the user’s entire timeline of posts.

Direct Messages

Twitter users are able to post back and forth to each other in one-to-one private conversations that are not visible to the entire community, even if their accounts are public. To create a direct message, begin a post with d username followed by the text of your message. For example:

Screenshot of a direct message post addressing @westernu

Screenshot of a direct message post addressing @westernu

Users can only send direct messages to users who are in their followers – if westernu has chosen not to follow you, you would not be able to send the above message.


Hashtags

Hashtags are similar to @username but are marked with a # rather than @. Hashtags build on the concept of tagging and folksonomy. Users include #keyword in posts that relate to a larger topic or event. Other Twitter users can then search for “#keyword” and then see a listing of all posts that are part of the conversation. For example, posts about America’s Next Top Model are marked #ANTM, enabling a network wide commentary on the show. Posts about London, Ontario are marked #LondonOnt, enabling anyone to search for any posts related to the city of London. Many conferences and other events are given a #hashtag either suggested by the organizers, or put into use by the community organically. Attendees of the South by Southwest conference will tend to include #sxsw in each of their posts related to the conference . This would allow those who could not attend the conference to follow comments and reviews by attendees, and would allow those at the conference to connect regardless of any other online or offline relationship.

ReTweet

Users will often “retweet” a post by another user. When doing this, they type RT @username followed by the post. For example, if a user posts an entertaining video, their friends may retweet the link to their own friends, giving credit to the original user.

Using Twitter as a Marketer

Twitter accounts can be either public or private, but if your goal is visibility you will most likely want to go the public route. Before doing so, it is important to think carefully before launching into the “Twittersphere.”

A public twitter account will be fully indexed by Google – everything you post through the service can be easily traced back to your name or brand with a quick online search. Twitter is very much a real-time environment where users post thoughts and updates almost as quickly as they can type, often with very little thought or motive.

Screenshot of random public posts including "breakfast"

Screenshot of random public posts including "breakfast"

It is important to remember that while personal users have the luxury of posting every little thing that crosses their mind, as a public platform for your brand you will need to be more careful.

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