Let’s get back to Twitter. Part 1 of this series shared ways that Twitter can help you with professional development, networking and relationship building, and professional reputation and branding. Part 2 gave step-by-step instructions on how to set up an account and create your profile. Now it’s time to learn how Twitter works and how to use it.

How to access Twitter

There are two ways to access Twitter: from the Twitter website or from a third-party application. Most regular users, including me, choose one of the Twitter applications because they have more features to enhance the user experience. The most common applications are Tweetdeck (desktop-based — you download the application and any updates to your computer), Hootsuite (web-based) and mobile applications for your cell phone. I use Hootsuite for my iPhone, iPad and laptop.

How does Twitter work?

Twitter is a micro-blogging or public texting service. You send messages, also called updates or tweets, that are 140 characters or less to your followers, and you see the tweets of the people you are following. How do you follow someone? You go to their profile page, for example, http://twitter.com/deirdrereid, review their bio and tweets, and decide whether you want to follow them. If you do, click on the Follow button underneath their header photo. When you follow me, it means you are subscribing to my tweets. When you are signed in on your Twitter homepage (http://twitter.com), my tweets will appear there along with the tweets of all the other people whom you are following.

If I choose to follow you back, I’ll see your tweets on my homepage. Unlike Facebook where ‘friending’ is mutual – that is, if I’m friends with you, then you’re automatically friends with me – on Twitter, following is not mutual. I can choose to follow you back or I may not. Despite what some say, you don’t need to follow back everyone who follows you. Why should you? They may tweet about topics you don’t care about. Why should you be obliged to see that? Be selective in whom you follow. You can unfollow anyone at anytime by going to their profile page and unclicking the Follow button.

In your settings (the topic of my next post), you can choose to receive an email alert when someone follows you. When you learn of someone following you, review their bio and tweets and decide if their content is interesting or valuable enough to you that you’d want to follow them.

Tweets are limited to 140 characters, so you have to get creative with spelling, punctuation and grammar to stay within the limit. Because links can take up much of those 140 characters, Twitter applications have built-in URL shortening features.

The @ symbol is used directly in front of a username (@lancearmstrong) when you are talking or replying to that person, or mentioning them in a tweet. You will never see a username without the @ symbol preceding it (except in Direct Messages — I’ll explain further down).

Twitter reply

Twitter mention

Your conversation — your @ tweet (message or reply) to a person — is seen only by the two of you and anyone who follows both of you. Those mutual followers can eavesdrop or participate in your conversation but no one else will see it in their stream of tweets, unless for some reason they are looking at your profile page where all your tweets are displayed to the public. For example, I send a tweet to @Mary. @Scott follows both of us so he will see it in his stream (on his homepage) too. However, @Allison only follows me and not @Mary, so she won’t see that conversation in her stream.

An RT is a retweet – when you share someone’s tweet with your followers, giving the original author credit for their tweet. There’s a Retweet button or option on each tweet on your Twitter home page or in your Twitter application. Retweeting simply copies the tweet with the author’s username and resends it under your username as well.  Retweeting is a great way to share interesting or valuable messages or links with your followers.

Twitter retweet – first Mike retweeted Neal’s tweet, then I retweeted Mike’s

A DM is a direct message – a private tweet to a person who follows you. No one else can see it. You write a DM to @Mary like this, “D Mary What time shall we meet on Friday?,” preceding your message with a “D” but no “@.” There are also options (buttons to select) to send DMs on your Twitter home page and in the Twitter applications; that’s how direct messages are usually sent. Direct messages go to your email and a special area on your Twitter home page or Twitter application. You cannot DM someone who does not follow you; it must be a mutual follow in order to DM.

The # symbol (hashtag) is used to label or tag tweets. People will add a hashtag to their tweets from or about a conference and its content, for example #asae10 in the first tweet shown above. Hashtags are also used for Twitter chats – public chats at set times, usually weekly, in which anyone participating will use a hashtag, like #blogchat, to mark their tweets. Participants will set up a search on the hashtag to see all marked tweets so they can participate in the chat or simply read its tweets. You can do this by setting up a search column in your Twitter application.

In the next post we’ll review your Settings to understand what features are available and to have your Twitter account optimized for your use.

Twitter Basics series