So you don’t understand Twitter?

I really love Twitter and find it one of the most useful social networks I use. But I regularly get people saying to me things like, “What’s the point of Twitter? I think it’s stupid. I don’t get it.” And therein lie two different things. Asking what it is and saying you don’t understand it is like saying, “What’s the point of French? I don’t understand it.” Well, if you learned French, you’d understand it and find it really useful. Especially in France. So I always try to explain what Twitter is, as that seems to be the best starting point. And that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Half the trouble when new people come to Twitter is figuring out what it really does. And when people like me, absolute Twitter converts, have trouble explaining it, you can see why a lot of people give up on the whole idea. So I was driven to figure out a decent, clear, concise description. Here it is:

So what is Twitter?

Over time, with a bit of effort, Twitter becomes a self-curated news feed of information, gossip and conversation that you’re personally interested in, with all the noise you don’t care about filtered out.

If people are still interested after that, we can spend a bit more time explaining it. Notice that I open with, “Over time, with a bit of effort”. This is a fundamental point. You can’t just go to Twitter, look at the thing and expect to understand it and benefit in any way. It doesn’t take much time and effort to get started, but it takes some.

You start by setting up an account. Once you have an account I highly recommend a third party Twitter application. I use Tweetdeck, because I can sort my feed into columns and keep much better track of things that way. Using Twitter directly from the Twitter site is messy. Also, I have Tweetdeck for iPhone, so I can tweet and read tweets wherever I am. Once you have an account, you must fill in your bio and pic, then you can start to tweet things, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Getting the most out of Twitter is all about following the right people. Whenever someone you follow posts a tweet, it will appear in your news feed. So don’t follow people who don’t interest you – only follow people who you think might say stuff you care about. Initially you can do a few searches with keywords. For example, you can search for things like:

science fiction
dark fantasy
martial arts
kung fu

The list above is an example of the kind of things I’m most interested in. Those are the sort of searches I started with. When people cropped up with those things mentioned in their tweets or their bio, I followed them. If they tweeted interesting things I would reply to them, maybe retweet them to share what I found interesting with people who follow me. If they were boring or inactive, or just on a hard sell, I’d stop following them.

Once you’re following a few people you’ll start to see who they follow. It’s a fair bet you’ll all have shared areas of interest, so follow some of their friends. The hashtag #ff or #followfriday is useful for this. It’s when people list all the people they follow who they think their followers might enjoy. So check out some of those people too.

You see how this is taking a bit of time and effort? It doesn’t have to be much. You can have a search and follow a handful of new people a day. Before long you’ll start to have a very busy news feed. And a lot of those people will start to follow you back. You’ll start to interact with them and away you go.

What do I post?

So, let’s get to what you post. First, you absolutely must fill in your bio and add a picture. Twitter is all about interaction and sharing, so you have to tell people something to help them decide if they’re interested in you. Here’s my Twitter bio:

Alan is an author from NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi & horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu.

It’s concise, as it has to be in the restricted world of Twitter, but says plenty about me. It says what I do, what I like and where I’m from. That’s enough to start with. After that, people will read my tweets and continue to follow if I interest them. So what do I tweet? Everything!

I tweet interesting or funny things that happen to me or that I notice.

I tweet about writing projects, progress on them, ups and downs of publishing.

I tweet about my dog and cats and regularly tweet photos.

That’s all the chit chat stuff. I also share all the links that I find interesting. And here lies the real power of Twitter. On the one hand I interact with people and have a chat and a laugh. On the other, I share information I find interesting. I also find stuff that the people I follow post. If I really like it, I’ll retweet it and share it around some more. Interesting blog posts, news articles, submission calls, new releases, movie reviews – you name it, if it’s interesting, I’ll post the link. That way my followers can see the tweet, which might say something like: Great review of the new X-Men movie , and they can choose to go and read that review or not. If you spend a bit of time reading the tweets of others you’ll soon get the idea.

This is where it becomes a self-curated news feed. I only follow people who interest me, so they’re likely to post links I’m interested in. In the reverse, my followers are likely to be interested in the links I post. There are Twitter users posting links to pony club announcements and Barbie Doll parties (whatever the hell they might be), but I don’t know about it because I don’t follow those people. The folks interested in ponies and Barbie Dolls follow them. See how it works?

I get most of my news from Twitter now, as I follow the BBC, ABC, Reuters and a few others. They post headlines and links and I’ll read the stories that catch my eye. If people’s tweets start to bore me, I’ll stop following them. I’m always following new people who strike me as interesting. And you have to accept that most of what happens on Twitter you’ll miss. Just get used to only seeing the tweets that happen to go by while you’re actually checking Twitter and let the rest slide. All the really good stuff comes around again in retweets anyway.

Finally, here’s a few things not to do:

Don’t just promote yourself – I’ll often talk about my writing and occasionally promote it and ask people to buy my books in one way or another, but very infrequently. I want at least 10 tweets about other stuff to every 1 tweet about myself, and a much bigger ratio when it comes to actually pushing my stuff. It’s not about selling yourself – it’s about being yourself. If you’re interesting, people will check out what you do.

Don’t just vomit minutiae constantly – If you have a really good breakfast, sure, tell us about it. But we don’t care about what you have every day.

Don’t spam people – Just chill and interact, all casual-like.

Here’s a golden Twitter rule:

Will this tweet entertain or inform my followers in any way?

Ask yourself that question before every tweet and don’t post if the answer is no. Of course, a lot of people are pretty poor at judging that stuff and think they’re a lot more interesting than they really are, but we’ll let natural filtration take care of them.

Here I am – follow me if you think I’m interesting: @AlanBaxter

What about you? Do you tweet? Feel free to offer your tweeting advice in the comments.


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63 thoughts on “So you don’t understand Twitter?

  1. Interesting post, and though you only mentioned news in passing, I think it’s worth noting that a lot of people (myself included) get all their news through Twitter, even without following news corporations. Whenever something important happens, you can guarantee that people will be Tweeting about it within five minutes, and it will show up in the trending topics. It also saves me having to sit through boring news reports on TV or trawl through news websites on the off chance of finding one or two articles of interest; at least through Twitter, if something interests me, I can go and look it up to find more about it. Otherwise I can ignore it.
    Unfortunately it also means I hear about Justin Bieber much more than I would like… Ah well…
    Just my two cents worth 😀

  2. Absolutely – but the beauty is, you don’t have to go and read any more about Justin Bieber and can ignore all those tweets!

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head there…

    I can’t think of anything to add to it. I’ve been using twitter since 2007 and do so more for the social aspect and also just for the instant communication with people.

    I would have never thought that I could ask a writer or artist a question before twitter and get a reply!

  4. @Damian: I think that’s another thing I love about it. Though I do have writerly friends in real life, I don’t really get to talk to them much, but on Twitter it’s easy to find a group of like-minded writers who are battling through the same problems (writer’s block, messy plots etc) as I am. Helps me feel less alone 😀 Plus it’s always a good way to gather tips and inspiration for writing.

  5. I love the analogy to French.

    It’s still jarring for me to get on a writer’s website or community (Facebook group, etc.) and see someone say they’re thinking about getting on Twitter, but not sure about it or if it’s worthwhile. I guess I’ve been on long enough and derived enough benefit from it that I see it as almost indispensable.

  6. I completely agree with everyone. I hear people all the time saying they don’t understand how to use twitter or what it’s for but I find it so easy to use. I just don’t understand why people don’t get it. I don’t watch TV news so I get all my news from twitter, publishing news as well. I also use twitter for things like job announcements, writing tips and events.

  7. I agree. At first I didn’t see the point but only started bc my husband asked me too. It’s so incredibly useful though. The first time I heard about egypt uprising was via twitter. I’ve chatted with other authors and it’s become my writing community. I’ve even gotten writing opportunities through twitter.

    I do confess to some innane tweets though, just so people know I’m a real person. Not a lot, just a few mixed in with geeky RTs, writing stuff, & a couple promos. I always wonder what’s the right ratio though. 🙂

    When people ask me abt twitter I usually say it’s an ongoing conversation, etc… But I think your explanation is better.

  8. Thanks for the comments, guys. And I agree, it’s become indispensable. If I could only have one social network now, I’d keep Twitter.

    I mainly use Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter, along with this blog, of course. Out of the first three, Twitter rules.

  9. I found it incredibly difficult to get started. It literally took months to figure out that

    1.) You can make it work for you however you want it to
    2.) It is awesome
    3.) It is way more entertaining than Facebook… and more relevant

    Excellent post, btw… wish I could have seen something like this a year ago!

  10. Great post Alan. I always liken Twitter to a big pub party, with lots of conversations happening around you as you wander about.

    It’s loud, so you can’t get into detailed debates as you share short sound bites with interesting strangers, and if you say something stupid and obnoxious, everyone goes quiet and looks at you.

  11. Alan you have it sorted technically and I do not disagree with what you have said but I do not think you are using Twitter to even 5 % of capacity. You see the thing is that the real use of Twitter is to promote and connect others which will automatically lead to massive promotion of you.

  12. Tom – the advantage is that as Twitter is so busy, moments like that pass into obscurity very quickly. Unless you trigger an RT-alanche!

    Michael – I don’t disagree entirely. But people know when they’re being sold to and no one responds well to that. I don’t think Twitter is to promote, but it IS to connect. It’s all about interaction for me. And the simple truth is that if you’re interesting and entertaining, promotion is a by-product anyway. That’s why I said in the post: “It’s not about selling yourself – it’s about being yourself. If you’re interesting, people will check out what you do.” That’s promo as a by-product and I’m very aware of not coming across like the only reason I’m there is to promote myself. I’m not interested in other people that are only interested in promoting themselves, so I don’t want to act like that either. But I do promote what I do as a part of my interactions, so it’s fine balance.

  13. I meant promote others and connect others. Definetely no point in saying what you are doing, selling or thinking. Make retweets about 40% of your tweets, “connecting others” tweets about 30% and the rest conversation.Your account will fly

  14. Ah, I see! Well, absolutely – I’m a serial retweeter. It’s all about sharing the good stuff.

  15. I only wish there was some way to filter the people you follow. I’m thinking of my own followers for this; I am passionate about Montreal Canadiens hockey and I have a lot of followers who are as well. But I also have a lot of followers who are writers or are following for some other reason, and I’d hate to lose them because they don’t want to see one more tweet from me about whether or not Jaromir Jagr is coming to MTL or going back to the KHL. It’d be nice to be able to go to a person’s profile and click off a list of keywords that you wanted (or didn’t want) to see.

  16. That’s a massively complicated thing and it would be a pain filtering all followers. I think most wouldn’t bother. Twitter is all or nothing!

  17. Janet, Tweetdeck lets you set up a separate column for each list. One column for everyone, one for the hockey tweeps, another for the writer tweeps, etc. Everyone will still see your tweets on whatever subject, but unless there’s overlap with the members of one group and the other, conversations you have with one group won’t appear in the other’s feed.

  18. Tony, that’s true for Janet’s feed, but I believe her concern is all her non-hockey followers getting tired of all the hockey tweets, etc. It’s unavoidable that all your followers will always see all your posts. I often apologise to my followers in general when I’ve been excessively tweeting on one particular issue or subject.

  19. I am a beginner and have only been on Twitter for abt a month. I am watching listening and learning and loving every minute. Alan this article has ben outstanding. Thank you.

  20. Being New to #Twitter, this was an Awesome Read! I think I would rather have 1000 followers that I converse with and share opinions with, than have 250,000 followers that Ignore You!

  21. Hi, I’m an Irish author and have finally been persuaded by my kids to join Twitter but I’m finding it awfully difficult to get the hang of it. (Maybe as a writer I’m too verbose!!) Anyway, I was about to give up on it but after reading your article I’ll keep going. Thanks for the info and encouragement Fingers xx!!

    Pauline xx

  22. So you were never a new twitterer Tim Parkes? Boy what a nice person you are!

    Luckily I persevered and – thanks to Alan’s advice – am now a convert and flying at it.

    Luckily your teachers didn’t say “new pupile go away” when you started school – or maybe they did!!

    Keep up the good work Alan and I in my turn will be delighted to help any new tweeters who look for help. Thank you.

  23. I am a new user of Twitter! This was not a slight against you Alan, excellent article, but as a brand new user of Twitter yesterday, I found the lack of any obvious help facility frustrating/irritating. Time is precious, I need to have it running quickly, and even a basic explanation would have helped. So where does the new twit 🙂 go for help? As Pauline so rudely pointed out (I should have been clear), she initially found it perplexing.

  24. Tim,
    Did you mean that the Help button at the top right of the Twitter page (once you’ve signed in) didn’t convey the information in as concise a manner? I’m honestly perplexed. I just went to check it out, but it seemed pretty straight forward, though I agree there is quite a bit to read. You can surf around the help and faq areas of Twitter too though.

    If you have trouble that this article doesn’t address, I would be happy to help also. My alias on twitter is also ‘ganymeder’. There’s lots of friendly people on Twitter that would be happy to help you if you have a specific question. 🙂

  25. Hi, thanks for writing the article, i`m a bit less confused, but i dont understand some things.
    i`m an artist & i`m promoting my work on various sites, i have 400+ followers on twitter wrightsonarts, but all i see it people mostly advertizing their art or products ,& the odd random thoughts. i have written 5 tweets today, some in reply to others msgs,, & uploaded 2 photos, i get no response…whereas i did the same on facebook art groups & got 10 likes & coments…..
    it just looks like people are “advertizing” at each other,i installed tweetdeck too, that doesnt help, what does help is seeing it as a micro blog, & texting service…..

    rebecca said “on Twitter it’s easy to find a group of like-minded writers who are battling through the same problems (writer’s block, messy plots etc) as I am.”

    i dont get it, i see no groups, i just see advertizing, am i meant to direct msg people?
    Stu ……thinking of giving tweeting up!

  26. I completely agree with you Stu. I’m a writer and mostly follow other writers/agents/publishers. It is all about hype. I’m sick of writers who know each other a**e-licking each other.’Well done girl”Congrats,fab book’ when the book in question which I’ve bought on the strength of this turned out to be rubbish. Some people have propelled their (not great) book into Amazon’s top 10, simply via twitter. It’s scratch my back – I’ll scratch yours. Every day I’m deleting people I’ve followed. They’re just trying to sell their book. Twitter seemed like a great idea but I’m pretty disillusioned with it.

  27. You just need to better organize who you follow. You’re doing the right thing – delete those who squawk and follow those who are interesting. It takes a while to build a solid follow list.

  28. Hi,

    thanks for your replys, i`ve come to a better understanding of twitter now,met some interesting artists on there & figured out how to market myself “a little”!

    Alan, can you explain the # ? i`m a bit confused,
    I`m watching a few artists who market their work on twitter, one of them has a profile as

    I’m a #fineart #painting #seller on #Etsy with a #gallery of #modern #abstract #art

    i dont understand why he has all the #`s does this help people find his work somehow?

    Hope to hear off you


  29. That symbol is a hash and when you put it in front of a word, it becomes a hashtag. When people search on Twitter, they search using hashtags. Therefore, that person’s account will likely pop up in any searches for #fineart #painting #seller #Etsy #gallery #modern #abstract and #art. Which, if you ask me, is more than a little bit overkill! It’s not really necessary in bios, but it helps when people are talking about a specific subject.

    For example, you could search for anything happening regarding a particular activity (#writing) or event (#tripoli) or person (#bieber) and so on, and then all the tweets from people including that hashtag will come up and you can see what people are saying about that thing.

    Play around with it – you’ll get it.

  30. I’ll start by saying I now have a much clearer understanding of what Twitter is for. I don’t think I will find it very useful, but at least I know more. Thanks for that.

    The reason why people say they don’t understand it, is that very few people are able to explain what the purpose of Twitter is. And I think most people want to know what something is for, before trying it. I mean how can you try something if you don’t know what to do with it?

    People who don’t get it, are probably the people who won’t use Twitter anyway, even if someone did manage to explain it. Take me. I really don’t care what any celebrity has to say. I admire certain people for their singing ability, their acting talent or their sporting accomplishments, but they aren’t really any less boring as the rest of us. The majority of their tweets still fall in the “I’m eating a sandwich” category.

    I still don’t think I will find it very useful, but at least you made things a bit clearer

  31. You don’t only follow celebrities. And you don’t follow celebrities who only tweet about their sandwiches. You follow all kinds of people – just regular people as well as celebrities – and only if you find what they have to say interesting.

    “The majority of their tweets still fall in the “I’m eating a sandwich” category.”

    This is absolutely not the case, and you unfollow anyone who does happen to be like that. No one I follow tweets that stuff – they tweet interesting things, that are pertinent to me and my interests.

  32. Well, sir you are the first person out of I don’t know how many have given me a reason to try twitter. I would have used back in June when Dad passed away (after I called the closest relatives and friends).

  33. This was helpful. But many of those who you assume don’t understand the point of Twitter only because they haven’t explored it or tried it for themselves actually DO understand what Twitter is but still find it pointless. And I am one of those people.

    I don’t understand how Twitter will help me filter out noise. Having a Twitter account doesn’t stop other media, so it doesn’t translate to less noise in my life but MORE. If I focus only on Twitter then I’ll miss out on a certain amount of serendipity. I don’t care much for sports but every now and then a sports headline might catch my eye for another reason. Much of what I learn and enjoy I only happened upon while doing or reading something wholly unrelated to what I was seeking in the first place.

    I don’t “get” Twitter. I’ve tried it in the past, tried it again recently, and just find it pointless. I’m not interested in reading and writing 140-character postings on a continuing basis, except maybe to and from my significant other or a couple of close friends, and even then there’s a limit. A few text messages back and forth on my mobile and we’re done.

    If I want to go to France or Quebec or read French literature, then I’ll learn French. You can’t posit that I’m somehow ignorant of the purpose of the French language just because I’m not interested in learning French. Nor can you assert that those who don’t “get” the point of Twitter just don’t understand how wonderful and sublime it is. There are vast numbers of intelligent, thoughtful, sociable and well-adjusted people who don’t see the point of Twitter and aren’t interested in participating.

    You’ve done a good job, however, of explaining how those who are interested in the basic idea of Twitter can make the most of it.

  34. Thanks.

    “many of those who you assume don’t understand the point of Twitter only because they haven’t explored it or tried it for themselves actually DO understand what Twitter is but still find it pointless”

    Well, that’s fine then. This post was for those people who don’t understand. Of course, if you’ve decided something isn’t for you after exploring it and understanding it, then that’s fine. I refer you back to the first paragraph of the post.

  35. Ditto for me Mr Baxter….Nice write up regarding twitter…its the one of the most useful networking site on the web.

  36. Jun – I decided to avoid Lists in this first post as it’s purely about getting started. But I really should post a follow-up about lists, hashtags, trends and so on.

  37. Hi Author,

    Cheers for the article – however, I’d like to point out I found this article searching for a psychological aspect of what the point of Twitter is – It could be that I’m too old (30) or maybe that I have read Walden too many times (once) but I contend the need for news and information isn’t a compelling reason. For instance, unless you’re a mover and shaker, almost all news items can come to pass without any need of you knowing.

    Maybe I’m not interested in passively receiving information from 3rd parties? Say for instance, I want to “follow” Adam Carolla and I’m unaware of Twitter – can’t I just check for updates at his own website?

    This is all rhetorical of course, as I contend that the alleviation of boredom with some delusion that you’re “communicating” (vague) and “sharing information” (euphemism) is just to make it seem more scholarly than just passing time.

    PS. I do lots of things that are basically just passing time, but I don’t try to act like there’s something groundbreaking about it.

  38. You have a very condescending tone, Nik, and seem to completely miss the point. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine, of course. But to suggest that people are only alleviating boredom is not only wrong, but also subtly insulting. When it comes to the sharing of news and information, Twitter IS groundbreaking. It enabled political revolutions, for example. Were those people in Tunisia and Egypt just alleviating boredom? I learn a lot and share a lot through Twitter, as do millions of others.

    Try looking at something outside your own limited understanding and see what you come up with.

  39. I find your information about Twitter quite useful and accurate. I recently added a Twitter account and immediately recognized the powerful medium that it is. Having the ability to access a plethora of real time information at one place is genius. I can see the benefit of having a little patience and learning how to put it to good use. It’s SLOWLY becoming my favorite source for social networking. Thanks for your insight!!!

  40. This article started just fine, then suddenly went into a mode assuming the reader has a background to things twitter related. It didn’t help me and I’m now off to search for an article that can describe it better

  41. You lost me at paragraph 5 – third party what, tweetdeck, what the hell are you talking about???????????
    Even more confused now.

  42. Take a deep breath and calm down – it’s quite simple.

    A third party means neither you or Twitter, but a… third party. An application is something you use to access a site or service. Therefore, a third party Twitter application is something provided by neither you or Twitter, but by a third party, in order to use Twitter more easily. For example, Tweetdeck. Or Hootsuite. Or a host of others. A little bit of research will reveal a variety of applications out there to help you streamline your use of Twitter. I recommend using one.

  43. Mmmmmm, yes, well, thanks for replying to me, appreciate that.
    But I think this is all beyond me, so will call it a day with this twitter lark, accept defeat and retire into my middle-aged analogue world! Where did I put my pen?

  44. I think if you don’t get it, you probably never will, and those who do, can’t believe that the rest of us don’t.

    I suppose I just don’t see the point of saying things to no-one in particular, and “following” people you don’t know. I’m the sort of person who will go looking for information if I need it, I don’t want or need to be plugged in.

    Clearly not for everyone

  45. “I think if you don’t get it, you probably never will”

    Really? How does anyone ever learn anything then? If you don’t want to get it, that’s fine.

    For what it’s worth, Twitter is a great place to go looking for information, but it’s not for everyone and that’s fine.

  46. @alan @Nik Weinstein

    Actually, Nik wasn’t being condescending. He was simply wondering something and thinking out loud. You were the one who was being condescending, if you ask me. Multiple times too.
    I came to this article with the exact same mindset as Nik. But instead of a ‘what is twitter, really?’, we got a ‘How to use twitter’, instead. Which is all fine. Except the title was quite misleading, lol.
    You can act condescending to me too, if you want. Idc.
    And just to show that you need to learn to be ‘less rude / condescending’ to EVERY READER, lol.
    Look at your reply to @Hillary Starbuck:

    “Take a deep breath and calm down”
    Like… wtf? You don’t talk to people like that.

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