March 1, 2012

A Brief Introduction to Twitter

I’m often asked how Twitter works. It’s quite a difficult question as there are a multitude ways to use it (which is a blessing and a curse). One of the biggest issues with Twitter is its lack of pickupability, i.e. its hard to just pick up and use. This is why a lot of people find it hard to engage with it but it’s something Twitter is working hard to fix. So without further ado here are the basics.


A tweet is simply a message that consists of 140 characters or less. Your tweets are shown in the timeline of people who follow you. There are also other ways your tweets can be viewed, such as via search. You can set your tweets to private, which means only people who follow you can view them, but the majority don’t do this. The character limit is in place because initially people tweeted by sending SMS. You can still tweet via SMS but web and mobile apps are more popular now days.

The Stream

Also known as the timeline the stream displays tweets made by people you follow in chronological order (most recent tweet first). @reply tweets are excluded from the stream (more on them below). However there is an exception to this, if someone you follow @replys someone else you follow it is displayed. I.e. if you follow Elizabeth Hurley and Shane Warne all the @replys they send to each other will be displayed in your stream (lucky you!). I assume the theory behind this is so you can see what your friends (or the people you follow) are talking about.


Hashtags are words preceded by the hash symbol (#) that are used to group and organise tweets. They cannot contain spaces or punctuation #whichiswhyyousometimesgetlonghardtoreadones. Twitter didn’t actually intentionally develop hastags, instead they organically grew as Twitter uses required a way to group tweets. Twitter then embraced them and now show related tweets when hashtags are clicked. There is a good overview of hashtags in Twitters help.


@replys are used to direct a tweet to a particular person (e.g. @digitgas you’re awesome). When the @ is at the start of the tweet it is not shown to your followers (see caveat above). However don’t mistakenly think that only the intended recipient can view it, they are still publicly viewable.


@ mentions can be used to refer to someone (e.g. Rad site by @digitgas). If the @ is not at the start of the tweet it will be treated like normal. I.e. it will be shown to all your followers. This is a great way to do ‘shout outs’ letting your followers know about great (or not so great) people or companies.

Direct Message

Direct messages, as the name suggests, are used to send a direct private message to someone. Direct messages can only be sent between people who mutually follow each other.


If you retweet something you are saying ‘check this out’ to all your followers. Retweets are show in your followers streams attributed to the original author but “retweeted by your username” is added to the bottom. If an @reply is re-tweeted it will be shown to all your followers. Retweeting, as a button, has not always been a part of Twitter so you may see RT being used to denote a retweet. RT can also be used when you want to add a comment to a retweet.

This is just a brief overview of of Twitter (one that has gone longer than I expected). By no means have I covered everything but I think I have covered the basics. Leave a comment if you think I have missed something or have a question. As always the best way to learn is to do, so start up a personal account and give it a proper go (it’s a bit of a slow burn). If you would like to learn more Twitter basics is a great place to start, the Twitter 101 article had a good run down.