What Is Twitter? A Beginner’s Guide To One Of The Web’s Simplest Networking Tools

Open any newspaper, read any online news story, listen to your favourite radio presenter or watch TV, and at some point you’ll hear or see the words “follow me on Twitter” or “share this on Twitter”.

And yet, despite its widespread use throughout the media, the entertainment industry, the business world and in millions of households worldwide, “what is Twitter?” is a question I still hear regularly.

So – what is Twitter?

You’ll often hear Twitter described as a micro-blogging site. Imagine a blog where you can only publish posts up to 140 characters in length (the same amount of space as you have in a text message on your phone). In a nutshell, that’s what Twitter is; an easy way to conduct text message-sized public conversations with all your contacts at once.

On Twitter, you make new contacts by “following” people. If you come across someone who really interests you – for example, a political figure, a commercial brand, a celebrity or one of your real-life friends – you click a button to follow that person, and when they post a “Tweet” (Twitter-speak for a message), these Tweets will appear in your “timeline” – a real-time list of messages posted by the people you follow. By the same token, if someone is interested in reading your Tweets, they will follow you, and any messages you Tweet will appear in their timeline.

Most Tweets are addressed to nobody in particular. When Twitter started, the question at the “post a Tweet” box was “What are you doing?” – and so, you’ll often see Tweets that tell you that someone’s going into a meeting, or travelling home from work, and so on. But you’ll also see Tweets that contain links to news stories, or special offers, or which share photos or videos.

You’ll also see Tweets that mention specific people; you’ll recognise these because somewhere in the message will be a username preceded by the “@” symbol. This type of Tweet is known as a ‘mention’. If someone sends a Tweet that mentions your username – for example, @debbidoo (my username – do pop by and say hello!) – these messages are publicly visible, appearing in the public timeline, but they’re also delivered to a special “mentions” mailbox on your Twitter page, so they’re easier for you to find and reply to.

If you need to speak to someone privately on Twitter, you can send a “direct message”, which is only seen by the specific users you send it to. Again, direct messages you send and receive have their own special mailbox, so they’re easier for you to find and respond to.

And really, that’s all there is to Twitter: it’s a very simple way to send short broadcasts to anyone who’s interested, have conversations with people, share your news, your images, your videos and your opinions, and get the latest news in manageable, easy to digest chunks from anyone you’re interested in following.

Who uses Twitter?

All sorts of people use Twitter. The media, private individuals, politicians, celebrities, small businesses, big brands – whoever you are and whatever you do, you can use Twitter to communicate and network. News channels use Twitter to break the latest news stories. Musicians use Twitter to announce tours and record releases. Twitter is used in live TV and radio shows to get real-time opinion from viewers and listeners. Businesses advertise job vacancies and special offers on Twitter. Even the British Royal Family uses Twitter, albeit through their press office rather than personally; Twitter was one of the ways the Royal Family announced Prince William’s recent engagement.

Why do people use Twitter?

People use Twitter for all sorts of reasons. Over the past couple of years Twitter has become very popular with businesses who want to speak to, and hear from, their customers. Twitter is a very useful marketing tool, because it can be used to share news, create exclusive offers, and receive real-time feedback from customers. In fact, many businesses use Twitter as a customer services tool, keeping customers up to date with technical problems, parcel delivery statuses, and so on.

Celebrities use Twitter to communicate with fans, who are attracted to the possibility that a celebrity might answer their questions; often, a celebrity’s Twitter followers are the first to know about a forthcoming project or other important news.

People use Twitter to socialise, of course; when you can’t be there in person, Twitter is a great way to chat with all your friends at once, and make new friends.

And Twitter is such an amazing tool for breaking news; the media often turns to Twitter to pick up news stories or research the public’s reactions to global events.

Should I use Twitter?

Absolutely! If you like to communicate and make new friends; if you’re involved in a business that could benefit from sharing its news and offers with many people at once without paying a penny for the privilege; if you want to keep an eye on the latest news, or weather forecasts, or sports results – then yes, you should definitely give Twitter a try. It may take a couple of hours to find your way around, and a few months to build up a decent list of followers who want to hear what you’ve got to say, but it will be worth the wait; Twitter is one of the simplest, yet most effective, free communication tools on the Web, so if you have any interest in communication at any level, Twitter is definitely for you.