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Tech: The Twitter Learning Curve

February 7, 2009

After having used Twitter for a while, I've been exposed to some of the ways people have come up with extending the interface. I've also seen a friend of mine trying to get all of his friends on Twitter. In his moments, I've noticed some common questions and hurdles come up between hearing about it and using everything available for it. As such, I'll post a sort of FAQ over Twitter here.

What is it, and why use it?

Twitter is different things to different people. The basic idea of microblogging is that you place a statement less than 140 characters (letters, numbers, symbols) as an "update" to the site. You can then "follow" accounts to receive their updates as others can do the same to you. The idea has become so popular that a number of spinoffs have come up to try to get their part of the field.

There's the local view of it, in which you post messages in hopes of getting your friends to come along. Things like "Anyone up for a Starbuck's run?" or "It's dinner time!" fall into this category. This places Twitter as a communications medium to people you know.

There's some Twitter accounts which are only meant to indicate when something happens. Certain webcomics, certain services, and some websites use Twitter as a distribution medium to report information. You can then "follow" these accounts to receive information about their services.

Still more accounts use it for the general term: "micro-blogging." They post random general musings about life, maybe linking to an offsite blog when 140 characters is not enough to communicate the idea.

What's this I hear about mobile updates, and what are all these programs?

Twitter has a service where you can send and receive updates by text message. This doesn't cost anything but the cost of sending and receiving text messages. I'll warn you: Twitter will exponentially increase your text message count. But this service is nice for receiving up-to-the-minute information about some of your followers. You need to selectively turn on mobile updates for whomever you want to receive from.

Twitter has made an API so that people can make programs that interface with Twitter. There are many programs to choose from on a variety of platforms. There's an application for each flavor of computer operating system, plugins for your browser, apps for the iPhone/iPod Touch, even separate "widgets" for Facebook, Myspace, and your own website. There's a long but not exhaustive list here.

How do I talk to other people?

Twitter's interface allows two ways to talk directly to other people: one public and one private.

The public method is called @replying. (Pronounced "at replying") The way Twitter parses messages is such that anything immediately following the @ sign is treated as a reference to an account. The main Twitter site (and many applications) will then convert it to a link to that account's page, whether or not it exists. However, if you should place this reference at the beginning of your message, it is treated as a reply to that person's last message. The message is placed in your main timeline, but if someone is following you but not the other person, they will not receive the message. (This option can be changed in your settings.)

The private method is called "direct messaging." This is like the private message function of a message board, or even an email. The message is sent to the person's inbox, and they can then reply via direct message back to you. To do this from the main update screen, by text or on whatever application you could use, type "d username message." For example, if you wanted to send me a private message about The Toy Top, you could say "d icesoldier You need to update your blog more often."

What are these symbols I'm seeing?

To be able to place more information is such a small space, the users of Twitter have created "hashtags." You can find more information about them here. The basic idea is that you can create a short handle for what you're talking about (There's no formal create-a-tag; you just start using it), and then place it in your message immediately following the # sign. So if I wanted to talk about this site, I could include #thetoytop in my message somewhere. Then, if you're following the hashtags account, the tags in your post become indexed on the main hashtags site.

That's the level of Twitter proficiency I'm at right now. If you have any more questions, feel free to comment them here, email me, or even send me a Twitter message.

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