Minh Uong/The New York Times
By HANNA INGBER
Published: October 23, 2013
Using Twitter sounds so simple. Type out no more than 140 characters — the maximum allowed in a single tweet — and hit send. That’s all, right?
Not quite. Twitter’s interface may look simple, but it is not, and its complexity has turned off many people who tried the service. This is a problem because one of the big questions facing Twitter before it starts trading as a public company, perhaps as early as next month, is whether it can attract enough users to become a robust outlet for advertising dollars. Although Twitter brings in money from advertising, it does not yet sell enough ads to make a profit.
Still, in the few years since it started, Twitter has quickly gained users. People and organizations of many stripes — celebrities like Justin Bieber, brands like Oreo, even the economist Jeffrey Sachs — have flocked to Twitter to share information and thoughts.
In a prospectus released for investors last week, the company said its worldwide monthly users grew to 232 million in the third quarter, up from closer to 200 million early this year. According to a Pew survey, the percentage of American Internet users on Twitter as of May was 18 percent, more than double the percentage in November 2010.
But those numbers are a far cry from those attained by Facebook, a top rival. Facebook has more than a billion users, and according to a Pew survey, Facebook was used by 67 percent of American Internet users as of late last year.
Will Twitter become a platform used by the masses? Maybe the best way to answer that question is to use the service yourself. Here’s a primer.
SET UP AN ACCOUNT Signing up to Twitter is simple. Just choose a username, known as a handle, and a password. Most people try to use their name or a variation of it as a handle, like @BillGates. Try to keep it short. You don’t want your handle taking up too many of the 140 characters if someone mentions you in a tweet.
Next, give other Twitter users some sense of who you are. People who don’t know you but find themselves interested in your Twitter feed will want some clues about whether they should “follow” you — meaning add your Twitter messages to the ones that they see in their unique feed. Unlike on Facebook, where people connect with their friends and family, on Twitter most people follow others with similar interests or professions.
Start by adding a profile picture to your account. A headshot, cartoon, image of your puppy — anything is better than the default egg, which screams Twitter newbie.
And fill out your bio. Use the 140 characters available for your bio to explain who you are and try to give a sense of what topics you will tweet about. You can also include a link to a Web site, maybe of the company you work for or a personal site. Here’s an example of a strong bio from Laura Seay, a political scientist:
“Proud Texan. Colby College political scientist. I study governance by non-state actors & U.S. policy in central Africa. Scenic Maine texasinafrica.blogspot.com.”
BUILD A COMMUNITY Next, find people to follow. The Twitter messages written by accounts you follow will show up in your feed, also called your timeline. It’s easy to get deluged with tweets, so be selective about which accounts you follow. You want your timeline to feel alive with smart, interesting, informative and entertaining tweets. But remember that “unfollowing” an account is only a click away, too.
Decide what topics you’re most interested in, like college football or Canadian politics or New York restaurants, and then search by name for writers or commentators on those topics. You can also search by topic or geographic area on https://twitter.com/search-advanced.
Once you find an account that tweets regularly on a topic you’re passionate about, see what that account follows. For example, if you’re a fan of Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti), a feminist author and speaker, you can follow her and then discover others interested in gender issues by looking at her feed. To see everyone a person is following, click on the person’s name and then click “Following.”
Once you’ve found people to follow, engage them. Send them a link to an interesting article. (To save character space when sending a link, use a Web address shortening service like Bit.ly.) Interact with them: respond to their tweets by hitting “reply,” mention the articles they share, show that you like a tweet by hitting the “favorite” button. When all else fails, try a compliment.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE To engage with people, it helps to know some of Twitter’s insider language and etiquette, which is a big part of what can make the service confusing for new users. “RT” means retweet; it is used when repeating what someone else said. If you want to add commentary, place it before the RT. Here’s an example of Cory Booker, the senator-elect from New Jersey, retweeting and adding commentary to the Twitter user @LindsCarter on Election Day last week:
Twitter pros often amend their tweets with “via” or “h/t,” which stands for hat tip. These are ways to give credit to someone who shared the information first. Acknowledge others in the Twitter community, and the favor will most likely be returned.
UNDERSTAND THE SYMBOLS Twitter users often add hashtags, like #Brooklyn or #SuperBowl, to enable others searching for that topic to find their tweet. They work well in specific instances — during events like professional conferences, for example, when you want to know what others are saying about a panel.
But hashtags, while a nice idea, often feel so #2012. They’ve been overused and aren’t terribly useful for searching. Hashtag fans will disagree, but my advice: Use them sparingly.
An important technical rule governs the use of the “@” sign, which is the beginning of every account’s handle. If you start a tweet to someone with “@,” only that person and those who follow both of you will see the tweet. This is so you can have a semi-private conversation with that person without cluttering up others’ timelines. To make the tweet appear in the timelines of everyone who follows you, add a word or character before the “@” sign, even just a period. Here’s an example from Dan Nowicki, a reporter at The Arizona Republic:
BUT TWEET LIKE A PERSON A lot of people join Twitter and think they are supposed to suddenly start writing in short bursts of words barely strung together. Who needs pronouns or subject-verb agreement? This is Twitter!
Twitter is still a conversation, and you will want to be understood. Write the way you speak. Let your tweets flow like sentences. And let your character come out.
ORGANIZE YOUR FEED One of the best ways to organize the madness that can become Twitter is by using the platform’s lists tool. Create different lists based on your interests and then add people to them. At 9 a.m., when you want the news, you can pull up your media list and see what your favorite news services and journalists are tweeting. At 5 p.m. on a Friday, pull up your entertainment list to get weekend plans.
TELL OTHERS And finally, the best way to build your community is by telling people that you’re on Twitter. Add your handle to your business card, your e-mail signature and, when possible, the bottom of your correspondence, like so: Follow me on Twitter@HannaIngber.