What is Twitter and How Does it Work? A Twit’s Guide

If you’re looking for a very basic guide on how to use Twitter, you’ve come to the right place. I think many people who work in online marketing and social media management forget that not everyone is on the same page as them when it comes to this frenetic microblogging platform. In fact, nothing conjures up feelings of anxiety for a social media newbie quite like Twitter does.  So before you dismiss Twitter as something that’s reserved for the crazies, let me shed some light on this fabulous social networking tool.


What is Twitter?

It’s a valid question, and you’re not the only one asking it. Twitter has been dubbed a microblogging platform, which essentially means it’s a place where you can share short snippets of content (otherwise known as a ‘tweets’) on any subject you choose – what’s happening in your life, a news headline that caught your attention, or your insane love of all things Harry Potter – it’s really up to you.

Twitter differs to the hugely popular Facebook in that it’s less personal. You can follow anyone you choose and they can follow you without the need for real-life introductions or connections. Essentially, what you tweet goes out into the twittersphere, and if someone likes what you say, they may start following you so that they can see more of your quirky idiosyncrasies, find out more about any services you may offer or simply to follow your incredibly unique insight on a niche topic. Similarly, you can search various topics on Twitter to see what other people are saying about something, and if you like what they’re saying, you may want to follow them.

If you own a business or offer a service, this is a great tool for market research.  You can find out what people are saying about you, your brand, your competition and even your industry as a whole.


How to use Twitter

When consulting with clients regarding social media management, I’ve found that the mention of Twitter usually evokes bewildered looks, often followed by a short account of their very limited time on Twitter. It usually goes something like this:

  1. X signs up for a Twitter account.
  2. X tweets about what they are having for lunch.
  3. X receives notification that he/she has two new Twitter followers.
  4. X decides that he/she will follow them back.
  5. X can’t understand why his/her two new followers are only tweeting about weight loss with links to weight loss sites.
  6. X tweets a few more times about going to the gym, taking a nap and what he/she is having for supper.
  7. X gets five more followers who keep sending messages with @ signs offering links to sites selling protein shakes, sleep disorder e-books and more weight loss supplements.
  8. X can’t understand what all the fuss is about and leaves his/her Twitter profile to fade into insignificance.

Even though it appears that this social media platform has absolutely no system governing it, there is indeed a method in what appears to be absolute madness. And the truth is, once you get the hang of it, you might start to wonder why you ever enjoyed the relatively slow pace found on social media platforms like Facebook.

Twitter Sign Language

Your handle – this is the username that people will use to address you on Twitter. Even if your real life name is Joe Black, you might choose a twitter handle like JoeyB_33. Whenever someone wants to reply to your tweets or mention you in one of their tweets, they would use your unique handle like this: @JoeyB_33

The @ sign – whenever someone wants to reply to one of your tweets or mention you in one of their own tweets, they’ll use the @ sign along with your Twitter handle:


@JoeyB_33 Welcome to Twitter.

RT – the abbreviation for retweet. There is a retweet button that you can click to retweet something, but many people prefer to copy and paste something someone has said and put the RT abbreviation in front of it so that they can reply to the tweet at the same time:


Correction: their PR person doesn’t follow back. RT @JoeyB_33 Celebrities don’t follow back. 

Can you see that following on from the RT abbreviation is what JoeyB_33 tweeted? And can you see that we’ve replied to his tweet before the RT abbreviation? Many use this method as opposed to simply pressing the retweet button so that they can mention the person who originally tweeted, reply to the tweet and also to help their followers keep track of conversations and the surrounding context. If we had only replied, without inserting the RT abbreviation and the quoted tweet, our followers would only see this in their timelines:


@JoeyB_33 Correction: their PR person doesn’t follow back.

Does this make sense if you don’t know the context of what JoeyB_33 tweeted originally? Thought not.

The # symbol – the hashtag is used to denote a keyword or topic in a tweet. This helps to categorise tweets and make them searchable. You can use a hashtag anywhere in your tweet to tag a relevant topic, but don’t overuse them or you could gain a spammer’s reputation, possibly the worst sort of reputation you can have on twitter. Use it sparingly, but definitely use it when appropriate:


Empower your clients with the tools to use #socialmedia as opposed to letting them believe they are doomed to ignorance.

Now, if anyone clicks on or searches the hash-tagged topic #social media, they may just stumble across our tweet.

DM – this is the standard abbreviation for a direct message. If someone sends you a direct message, it will show up in your message box instead of your timeline or your @mentions.

Trending topics – the sidebar on the right of your homepage will show you topics that are popular right now. This is a great tool to see what everyone is tweeting about and to find out what’s newsworthy. Click on any of these topics to see what people are saying. Join the conversation by replying to a tweet that caught your attention or by retweeting someone else’s tweet if you found it interesting.


These are the basics of how to use Twitter. Once you’ve learnt the so-called language of this social media platform, you can look for people to follow. Read a person’s bio to see what interests them and if you have anything in common. Read their latest tweets to see if you like what they’re saying or if they’re offering useful information. Follow them and they may just follow you back. Start saying interesting things yourself. You only have 140 characters, so make them count!


Posted on July 28, 2011, in Just for Fun, Social Media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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