Twitter 101

Twitter can by cryptic and confusing. It has its own vocabulary. People who have heard that Twitter is nothing but inane messages about what people ate for breakfast can hardly be blamed for not jumping in and learning the proper Twitter syntax. In this post I will try to demystify Twitter. Consider it a “101” tutorial. If you have questions, comments, or corrections please leave them below.

Twitter is a revolutionary way for people to communicate to others what they’re thinking, feeling, reading, and doing. Businesses use Twitter to promote a brand or product, and to support their customers. They also use it to learn what customers like and don’t like, and what their competitors are doing.

Twitter is also a great way to find out what is going on in your community and to stay informed of the subjects, authors, events, and companies that interest you most.


People who are interested in what you have to say can “follow” you. These are your followers. They will see your tweets in their timeline. One of the things I like most about Twitter is that it is both open and asynchronous. People can follow you, and there is no requirement or expectation for you to reciprocate. You have the freedom to participate in any conversation in the proverbial cocktail party that is Twitter. Want to know what Carl Zimmer is writing? Follow him (@carlzimmer). Want to know what’s going on at Dropbox? Follow them (@Dropbox). Follow whomever you want.

However, before you can send someone a private direct message (we’ll get to that later), they must first follow you.


People, organizations and brands that interest you can be “followed.” You will see their tweets in your timeline.

To find people and organizations to follow, start with those you know. Most organizations prominently display their Twitter name (or a link to it) on their homepage. After you follow someone, look through their tweets to see who they mention. Look at who they follow. These are good candidates for people you might want to follow.

The author of your favorite book likely has a Twitter account. Follow them. Follow the magazines and newspapers you read. Follow local businesses you frequent. Follow your favorite politicians, or the ones you can’t stand. Do a Twitter Search for a topic of interest and follow people who write the most interesting and relevant tweets. Follow the government agency about which you care most. And, if you get desperate, follow a celebrity or two. Be sure to follow your friends, too.

@ Mentions

When you prefix a Twitter username in a tweet, you’ve “mentioned” them. This is important because your tweet will be more visible to them; it will show up on their “@ Connect” tab (on the website), which is a timeline that contains only tweets that contain their username.

@ Replies

A special type of mention is the @ reply. When the mention is at the beginning of the tweet (nothing preceding the “@”), it is an @ reply. Because it is a mention, replies will show in the “@ Connect” tab of the person mentioned. What makes replies special is that they will only show up in the timelines of people who follow BOTH you and the person you mentioned. This construct is ingenious, as it allows you to engage in lengthy back and forth conversations with people without worrying that you might be inundating the rest of your followers with tweets that are likely not relevant to them. If your followers also follow the person to whom you are replying, those followers will see the tweets.

Replies are public. Anybody visiting your account will see all your mentions, including replies.

Direct Messages

Sometimes you have something to say to someone that you don’t want everybody else to read. When you need some privacy, send a direct message. The only person who will see your direct message (DM) is the person to whom it was sent. To send a DM, precede the tweet with a “d,” followed by a space and the person’s username.

A DM is similar to a text message, except that it doesn’t have to be initiated from a phone.

In order to send someone a DM, they have to be following you. This prevents spam.


Hashtags are special words or codes used in Twitter that are prefixed with a hash character “#.” They are often used to add a bit of editorialization to a tweet. Their real power, however, is when they are used for events. If everybody attending an event uses the same hashtag in their relevant tweets, those tweets can be aggregated using search. This acts as a powerful way of gathering different viewpoints, aggregating notes, and participating remotely. Below are a few tweets from the recent AAAS Annual Meeting 2012. Attendees used the hashtag #AAASmtg.

Tweets from the recent AAAS Annual Meeting 2012


Some tweets are good enough to reshare. To do that, simply retweet it to all of your followers. Getting retweeted by an “influencer” is a fast way to spread a message to many eyeballs. In order to increase the likelihood of an influencer retweeting your morsel of wisdom or important announcement, mention them in the tweet. It’s acceptable to ask your followers to retweet, if done judiciously.

It took a long time for Twitter to officially embrace the retweet. They have added a “retweet” button. When used, the tweet is immediately tweeted to all your followers, which is nice. The downside of this method is that you have no ability to add your own comments to the tweet. If you’d like to retweet with comment (sometimes referred to as quoting a tweet), create a new comment and paste their tweet into it. Precede the tweet with “RT,” a single space, and a mention of the person (with the “@” symbol prefix).

The "unofficial" retweet construct, without comment.

Some people add their comments to the beginning of the tweet, others do it at the end. I prefer to add a “<~" arrow after the tweet and before my comment. It is okay to modify the original tweet, so long as the meaning remains unchanged.

One Reply to “Twitter 101”

  1. LOL! Great overview. I’d send my Dad here, except I don’t want to encourage him. Bad enough he spends all his time on Facebook, lol.

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