What is Twitter?

What is Twitter? A guide for beginners

Despite the fact it’s been around since 2006, Twitter can be a confusing and sometimes intimidating place — even for web veterans. In the first of our “how it works” articles, we take a look at what Twitter is, what people use it for, and how to get started if you’re new. If you are ready to dive into the wonderful world of Twitter, or you are just curious about how it works, then read on.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a social network with some similarities to other social networking sites like Facebook.

Twitter homepage

It can be accessed on a computer via twitter.com, or on a smartphone via the Twitter app. Twitter could also be described as a “micro-blogging” service. Users can compose short messages called “tweets” which are published and shared with the world.

When you log-in to your Twitter account the first thing you will see is your Twitter feed — an ever-updating list of Tweets from other people (see the example below).

Twitter feed

An example of a Twitter feed

People use Twitter to keep up-to-date with current affairs, events, and the activities of their favourite celebrities. It’s constantly updated and changing, and gives users the feeling of being ‘on-the-pulse’ — breaking news is often mentioned on Twitter before it appears anywhere else.

Think of it like a constant waterfall of information, where users can decide exactly who they want that information to come from. Twitter is also highly interactive — anybody can write a tweet and respond to the tweets of others.

Differences between Twitter and Facebook

Twitter vs Facebook

If you are familiar with Facebook (as a lot of people are), there will be some things in Twitter that will seem familiar — you have a profile picture, you can post ‘updates’, you can see the activity of other people and you can connect and communicate with others. There will also be things that are different and may take a bit of getting used to — a few of these differences are listed below:

Everything is public

Unlike Facebook, everything you publish on Twitter is public and can be viewed by anyone in the world. Although it’s possible to make your account private, people generally use Twitter to broadcast their thoughts, opinions and news to the world. It isn’t really designed for one-on-one, personal communication.

You don’t have ‘friends’

You can follow any other Twitter user, without needing their permission or approval. This does not necessarily indicate that you know each other or that you are friends in real life — many people use Twitter to follow their favourite celebrities or brands.

Tweets are short

Twitter is not the place for lengthy stories or updates. Your tweets are limited to a maximum length of 140 characters, which encourages short, snappy messages and updates.

If you have something long to say you can simply use Twitter to share a link to content on your website or elsewhere on the web. Bloggers, journalists and news websites will often use Twitter to make their followers aware of a new story or article on their website.

Who uses Twitter?

Twitter has 250 million active users around the world (according to their corporate website) and around 70% of them use Twitter on their mobile. Although this pales in comparison to Facebook (who claim to have over 1 billion active users), Twitter users are younger, more diverse, and more willing to interact their favourite brands. According to this report Twitter is most popular amongst 18-29-year-olds.

Learning the lingo

Twitter does use quite a lot of jargon which can initially seem a little confusing.

There is an excellent Twitter Glossary over on their website with a comprehensive list of Twitter-related phrases. We have picked out some of the most important terms below, along with an explanation for each one.

Tweet

A short message (limited to 140 characters) that is published on Twitter. Tweets can contain text and images.

Hashtags (#)

A hashtag (represented by a # symbol) is used to denote a particular topic or theme of conversation, for example #Football, #news or #funny. You can click on a hashtag and see a list of tweets that contain the same hashtag. If a particular hashtag is being used by a large number of people, it is said to be “trending”.

Twitter hashtag

An example of a hashtag in use


Follow and Unfollow

If you “follow” another Twitter account, their Tweets will appear in your Twitter Feed (see below). You can also choose to “unfollow” people.

Twitter Feed

A stream of tweets from people who you follow. Your feed is arranged in chronological order (i.e. newest tweets are at the top) and is constantly being updated as people publish new tweets. This is the main part of Twitter and the first thing you see when you log in.

Twitter Handle

Your unique Twitter username. Handles are preceded by an @ symbol. For example our Twitter handle is @ZevenDigital.

Mention

If you want to communicate with another Twitter user, you simply include their Twitter Handle in your Tweet. They will then be notified that you have mentioned them. You can carry out a conversation or discussion with another user by ‘mentioning’ each other in your tweets (but do bear in mind that your conversation is completely open to the public).

Reply

You can respond to a tweet by clicking the small “reply” button next to it. Your reply will begin with the other persons username.

Retweet (RT)

If somebody enjoys your tweet, they can share it with their own followers. This is known as “retweeting”. Twitter will notify you when one of your tweets has been retweeted.

Direct message (DM)

Although Twitter is public, you can send a private message to another user (rather like an email). This is called a “direct message”. These messages are also limited to 140 characters, and you can only direct message somebody who follows you.

Lists

If you follow a lot of people, you can organise them into different lists. These could include things like friends, celebrities, news, jobs and so on.

Getting started with Twitter

The best way to get to grips with Twitter is to simply dive in and get your hands dirty. It may look a little daunting if you’ve never used it before, but fear not! The Twitter website does a good job of holding your hand and telling you what to do next — including choosing a username, finding interesting people to follow and writing your first tweet.

To create an account all you need is an email address. To sign up, either go to twitter.com or download the Twitter app for your phone or tablet and follow the instructions.

Using Twitter for your business

Many brands and companies have a Twitter profile, and it’s not uncommon for bigger companies to employ a specialist person to manage their Twitter account. The BBC, the prime minister and even the Queen all have an official Twitter presence.

Twitter can potentially give you an audience of thousands and an opportunity to interact with your customers in a way that simply can’t be done with traditional forms of advertising. But it’s also a double-edged sword that can sometimes go horribly wrong.

Here’s an example of what happened when British Gas launched their “ask British Gas” Twitter campaign on the same day they announced a price increase:

British Gas tweet

This tweet from a member of the public has so far been retweeted by 156 people.

You can’t be a control freak

As a business, you can’t go in and simply blurt-out advertising messages like you would on TV or in print. You have to be prepared for a potential backlash of scrutiny, sarcastic comebacks and ridicule — especially if you run a large or sometimes-unpopular business. Because unlike traditional advertising, on Twitter you are not in complete control — you share the power with your audience. This can be scary, but if you do it right it can be used to brilliant effect.

Take a look at Innocent Drinks on Twitter as a fantastic example of a company who understand their audience and are willing to interact with them.

A little help from the professionals

Managing your company Twitter account can be fun, and if done right can actually help you increase sales. If you feel confident enough and you can commit enough time to it, then by all means get in there and do it!

There will be some who don’t feel they have enough experience, time or technical knowledge to manage their own social media presence. If you are one of those people then you may want to consider outsourcing. We include complete social media management in our SEO for small business package. There’s more information about that here.

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