What Is Twitter and How Do I Use It?

Twitter, a popular social media platform, is a micro-blogging platform that millions of users all over the world use to send messages of 280 characters or less to family, friends, or just the general Web community at large. Twitter was launched in 2006 and boasts over 140 million users at the time of this writing, collectively sending millions of messages, called "tweets", every day.

Getting Started

Twitter requires initial registration (free), which consists of just the user's name and email address.

Once verified, users may personalize their profiles using onsite design tools, connect with other users already using the service, and utilize their existing email contact lists in order to find people they already know who are using Twitter.

Terms to Know

Using Twitter requires understanding a basic lexicon of terms unique to this popular social media platform. These are the most common:

  • Tweet: Every message sent using Twitter is called a "tweet".
  • Hashtag: A simple way to organize content around a certain topic, i.e., #followfriday.
  • Following and Followers: Subscribing to another user's content is called "following". If you are subscribed to someone, you are their "follower".
  • RT: An acronym standing for "retweet"; basically, forwarding something from another user to your own followers.
  • Lists: Groups of users sorted by occupation, interest, or content.
  • Trending topics: Content made popular by number of tweets, usually delineated by a hashtag. For example, the World Cup could be a trending topic, recognized by this hashtag: #worldcup. Users talking about this topic would attach that hashtag to their tweets in order to boost popularity and be included in the greater conversation.

    What can you do with Twitter? 

    There are many different uses for Twitter. Some of the most common are:

    • Instant updates. For instance, the Los Angeles Fire Department uses Twitter to keep the community apprised of fire emergences (LAFD).
    • News. You can get up to the minute news updates from many news agencies; for instance, Sky News (SkyNews).
    • Friends and family. The majority of Twitter users use it to keep friends and family apprised of what they're doing at any given moment. 
    • Professional networking: Many people use Twitter as another tool to network with people in their field; in addition, Twitter is a great way to connect with people who might be interested in what you're doing and want to follow you. For example, astronaut Scott Kelly uses Twitter to talk about what he did on the International Space Station, talk about scientific advancements, and give updates on new technology affecting space exploration.

    Breaking news and emergency communication are well-suited for Twitter's instant, real-time structure. Twitter has been instrumental in organizing civil protests and events all over the world, most notably in countries that have limited access to the Internet. It's also used as a communication channel alongside more traditional media services, such as newspapers, television, and magazines.

    Finding Real Time Data, Insights, and Social Mentions

    Twitter can be a great way to find content that other people are talking about on the Web. There are a number of ways you can accomplish this, and here are three that are especially useful:

    • Topsy is a a search engine that follows conversations around the Web based on a Twitter springboard of over 30 million users and what they're talking about. It's an amazing way to find what people are talking about in real-time.
    • Twitter Search offers some pretty decent search tools that you can use to narrow down what you're looking for; they also follow trending topics so you can see what's hot fast.
    • Social Mention is not only a Twitter search tool. You can use Social Mention to search through blogs, bookmarks, comments, and other social Web errata - including Twitter - to find information you might not be able to find in more general search engines.

      Impact on the Web

      Twitter has become an extremely popular way to share content, communicate, and broadcast information. Results from Twitter are included in many major search engines, enabling Web searchers to find real-time information on top of their search queries. Although Twitter does have its share of detractors who believe that the microblogging service serves no useful purpose, it does seem to be a powerful force in how we use the Internet at this time in history.