If you're not using Twitter yet, you may feel as if you've missed out. Don't be put off by its excessive popularity with SXSW geeks or by the whining of Twitter haters who missed the fun. Twitter is an interesting and practical real-time messaging system for groups and friends. It's just not completely obvious how to get into the "club". So, here's a newbie's guide to this new platform. We don't cover every feature of Twitter, but this should help get you started.
What is Twitter?
Twitter is an online service that enables you to broadcast short messages to your friends or "followers." It also lets you specify which Twitter users you want to follow so you can read their messages in one place.
Twitter is designed to work on a mobile phone as well as on a computer. All Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters, so each message can be sent as a single SMS alert. You can't say much in 140 characters. That's part of Twitter's charm.
Twitter is useful for close-knit groups (although there also are some fairly large mobs on Twitter). If you follow your friends, and they follow each other, you can quickly communicate group-related items, such as "I'm going to the pub, come along."
If you enter items into Twitter, they can be private, so only friends you've authorized can see them. Items can also be made public, which means anyone who knows your Twitter ID can read and subscribe to them.
Twitter is free.
How to get started
Go to Twitter.com, fill in the "Sign Up" box and click "Sign up for Twitter". For best results, use your real name when signing up; otherwise your friends won't be able to find you easily. It's also helpful to upload a picture. If you select the "Protect my updates" box, people won't be able to read your Twitters unless you authorise them. You'll have more fun if you leave this box unchecked. Just be sure not to Twitter, "Leaving house open and unlocked for the weekend: 225 King Street". (You'd be surprised.)
Now that you have a Twitter account, tell your friends your username or send them the link to your Twitter page. Each users has his own page, in the form twitter.com/username.
Hook up your mobile phone
The Twitter network works for you even if you're not at your computer or browsing the web. Once you are registered, you can connect your mobile phone and instant messenger account. Go to Settings from the drop-down menu in the top right-hand corner and select "Settings". From the options now on the left, choose "Mobile". Connecting your phone to your Twitter account is a straightforward process. Note that messages you view on a phone also are readable on your personal Twitter web page.
You can make Twitter send you a message every time a user who you are following has posted a Twitter message. This can be fun, but it will drive you crazy if you are following a lot of people. If you don't want to be barraged by a stream of random messages but still want friends to be able to reach you, select "Direct Message". Then when other users send a message to you and you alone, you'll be alerted on your phone or IM account. Otherwise, you won't get an alert.
Also, if you have an iPhone, iPad, Android phone, BlackBerry or Windows Phone 7, there are dedicated mobile apps you can download.
Sending Twitter messages, or "Tweets"
You can send a Twitter message, or "Tweet," from any of your registered devices.
From the web page, enter a message in the entry window at the top of the page.
From a mobile phone, send an SMS message to 40404. Your phone's caller ID is attached to your Twitter account, so the system will know it's from you.
The mobile apps vary, but you should get a brief tutorial when you install it.
In all these cases, all your "followers" will see your message on their own Twitter pages and possibly on their mobile devices as well.
Following and joining friends
If you've gotten this far, you're able to send messages into the Twitter system, and your friends can find your account and follow your updates. Here's how you can see their messages.
On the web: to add a friend, first be sure you are logged into your account. Then go to his or her Twitter page and press the "Follow" button in the top right corner. To find a user page, use the search box on your own Twitter page.
Once you click "Follow", you'll start to see his or her Tweets on your page if his or her account is set for public access. If the account is private, the system will send a "friend" request that must be approved before you start to see updates.
You also can see who your friends are following by clicking the "Following" option on the left-hand side of their Twitter page.
You can see conversations by hovering your cursor over a Tweet. This will give you an option to "Open" the Tweet. When you do so, you can see the entire conversation.
Managing your friends is much easier by using a full web browser, but you can do everything on a mobile app if you wish. Check your app's "Help" menu if you are having difficulties figuring it out.
In case you were wondering what the numbers mean...
A bunch of numbers are on your Twitter page. The most important figures are these:
• The number of "Followers" you have. These are the people who are paying attention to (following) your Tweets.
• The number of "Following" you have. This is the number of people you are following.
Public figures and Twitter celebrities will have more followers than friends. People who want to watch more than participate will have more friends than followers. People who just use Twitter to communicate just within their own social group will have roughly the same number of friends and followers.
You can send a Twitter message directly to another Twitter user. Enter a username message, and users will get your ping if they have direct messages enabled on their phone or IM account.
If you enter a Tweet with @username at the beginning of it, your message is understood as being intended for that particular person, although others will be able to see it.
Hovering your mouse's cursor over a friend's Tweet gives you options to reply to that specific Tweet, re-Tweet it to all of your own followers, or Favourite it with a star.
Turning off Twitter
Twitter messages may drive you insane. If you want to turn them off, turn off notifications from within your mobile app.
If you're sick of Twitter on the PC, just avoid the website!
Using a hashtag is much like directly Tweeting another person, only it applies to topics. Say you are talking about chocolate; simply add a hashtag, or # symbol, to the front of a topic word to share with other chocolate lovers. The Tweet "Making a flourless chocolate mudcake #chocolate" will appear on the feeds of anyone keeping tabs on the #chocolate tag.
You can't follow hashtags on the Twitter web page the same way you follow people; to view a hashtag, you have to use the search box at the top of the page and type in the term — including the hash mark — and hit Enter.
You can also use the Discover button on the top left of the page to see what topics are trending at any given time.
Twitters to follow
• Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, posts funny, insightful and thought-provoking Tweets unmatched in the Twittersphere.
Recent Tweet: "Kryptonite, the only cosmic substance that can harm Superman, comes in the same radiant GREEN as GreenLantern's power rings."
• Stephen Colbert, very funny man and host of the Colbert report.
Recent Tweet: "Harry Potter made its e-book debut. I camped out all night in front of my Kindle for it."
• Conan O'Brien, American comedian and talk show host.
Recent Tweet: "I finally saw Drive. Man, it really captures that awkwardness of when the girl you’re courting watches you kill a henchman on an elevator."
• Erin Gibson, comedian, feminist, jerk, nail polish enthusiast.
Recent Tweet: "Looking for the perfect man to raise my kids while I'm off doing my own thing."
• Stephen Fry, British Actor, Writer, Lord of Dance, Prince of Swimwear & Blogger,
Recent Tweet: "Hopelessly addicted to the app Draw Something. And no, I'm not going to tell you my username. I draw like a ... person who draws badly ..."
• CNET Australia, only the best technology website on the planet.
Once you get going, you can check the @Connect button on the top left to wee who Twitter recommends for you.