Why Tweet? I'll Tell You How to Make Use of This Fun and Powerful Tool

A moment in time from my Twitter stream.

For something that was so geeky when it started out that even geeks didn't know what to do with it, Twitter  sure has taken off like a rocket. When I first tried it in January 2007, I didn't get it. The idea was that your tweets  answered the question: "What are you doing?"

And what most people posted was what they were doing:

"I'm having coffee with friends."

"On my way to the office."

"Heading home."

If your friends weren't on Twitter it wasn't very interesting.

Then came the SXSW music, film, and interactive festival and in the space of a week Twitter became useful. People sent messages from the conference sessions. They broadcast which sessions they were going to and which they were skipping and why. People made lunch, dinner, and party plans through tweets. If you weren't at SXSW,  you could keep up with what was going on vicariously through our friends' updates. For the people there, Twitter became a powerful tool for organizing and informing. When Twitter was up, that is. Twitter as a service was so young then that the site crashed a lot. I think it was down more than up during SXSW that year. It didn't matter. People fell in love with Twitter.

So what is Twitter anyway?

Twitter is a social networking service, like Facebook and Myspace, where you post messages of 140 characters or fewer and read the messages of other people. Like Facebook, you have friends and followers. You follow other people's messages (friends) and other people follow yours (followers). Together all the tweets you follow become a stream of information.

A lot of information.

Why would you want to do this to yourself? What's the benefit to you? Information, news, and friends. I follow a lot of people, and from that stream of information I get breaking news from all the major news sources, I get updates when my friends post new articles on their blogs. I find links to useful, funny, moving, and sad things all over the internet. I also keep up with my friends and they keep up with what I'm doing. The messages are short (140 characters doesn't go far), but the conversations are far reaching. Because Twitter moves faster than email, it can be like having an IM chat with someone. Except that "someone" could be lots of people all over the world, or right next door. Twitter is how I stay informed and connected. Let me show you how it works.  Ready?

Let's begin with the basics: getting your account set up on Twitter. First go to http://www.twitter.com/ and click the "Sign up now" button to get to this simple sign up screen:


Nothing about this is tricky, except picking a username. Since you only have 140 characters to send a message, when someone would like to reply to one of your tweets your username will count against the number of characters of the message. For example if my username was just "t" people can send me a longer message than if my username was "trishussey." The fact is my username is trishussey. I did that to strike a balance between length and people knowing who I am. So when you pick a username pick something relatively short, easy to spell, represents you in a way that you are happy with. It's going to be part of your public persona, so give it some thought.

Once you complete the sign up, you'll receive an email with a link to click to confirm your account. This is done to make sure only people sign up for accounts, and not computers.

Your next step is to click on the Settings link and fill out basic information about you. This is really important, because this makes sure you look like an actual person, not a computer-control bot sending out spam. Related to this is a picture. I know people feel weird about the whole picture thing, but again, it makes sure people will know you are a member of the human race.

If you'd like to keep things under the radar for a bit, check the "Protect my tweets" box. This keeps what you say out of public view. Then, in order for your friends to read what you say, you  will need to approve their request to read your tweets. It's  understandable to feel like you want to do this, but try to keep things open. You can change your mind later if you really want to.

Okay, set up account: check.

Settings: check.

Picture: check.

Now it's time to post a couple tweets, just something simple like "Hi, I'm new here and learning the ropes…"

Right now, your Twitter home screen (your timeline) is pretty blank. You need to follow people. Let's start with …

Me! (trishussey)

The VO! (vanobserver)

This column! (vo_techplanatns)

How, do you start following? Simple. Click on the links above and you'll come to the Twitter pages and just click "Follow". The other way is to click the "Find People" link and do a search. Know a few people on Twitter? Let them know you (finally) joined and follow them.

That's enough to get you started. In the next installment I'll talk about Twitter etiquette and how to make the best use of Twitter.

In the last part of this series I'll get into some tips from Twitter power users.

And check this out, too:   Twitter tips for beginners.  Happy tweeting!

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