What's This "Twitter" Thing?

If you live in South Africa, you've no doubt heard quite a bit about Twitter in news lately: between @pigspotter's feud with the JMPD and the ANC Youth League threatening to close it down because of Julius Malema impersonators.

You may even have been inspired to sign up for it to see what all the fuss is about... and then soon lost interest because you didn't see the point. If so, you're not alone.

Despite Twitter's growing popularity, it has a peculiar status in that is seems unable to explain decently what it is, what it does and what it should be used for. Even people who "tweet" constantly often have a hard time explaining exactly why they find it so compelling.

Given that so many others have failed, I'm going to give it a go anyway:

What Is Twitter?

Twitter describes itself as a "micro-blogging platform". While that's certainly true, it still doesn't give you much information.

Essentially Twitter is a kind of social networking tool, sort-of like Facebook, but a lot simpler. When you have a Twitter account, you're encouraged to post tweets - a short message of up to 140 characters long - which are then published to your Twitter profile page and sent out to anyone who "follows" you (sort of like a Facebook "friend"). You can follow other Twitter users, which means their tweets are shown in your feed. If you and another Twitter user follow each other, you can send private tweets to each other that don't appear on either of your profiles.

And that, in a nutshell, is Twitter. Sounds simple, right? But if you've looked at somebody's Twitter feed, you've probably seen a lot of things that look like this:

(by my friend @angelameadon)

That looks pretty confusing. What are all those funny letters and symbols?

If you've been using SMS for a while (since the days when it used to matter how long it was), you're probably familiar with that abbreviated SMS English that was originally developed by users in order to convey as much meaning as possible is as few characters as possible. Twitter users have developed a kind of short-hand for the exact same reason, but it's a little different because Twitter isn't just on your phone: it's on the Internet.

The part saying "#WikiLeaks" is called a "hashtag", which is kind of like a subject for an email. A tweet doesn't need a hashtag, but if you're tweeting about something that a lot of people are talking about, you might want to include one (or two, or three). That way when someone is looking for tweets about the WikiLeaks scandal, all they need to is search for "#WikiLeaks" and they can find all the tweets they need.

The bit that says "http://v.gd/Vmo1Ej" is actually a website address, even though it doesn't really look like one. Since the rise of Twitter and other similar services, a bunch of tools have appeared that allow you to turn a long web address (called a URL) into a short one - short enough to be included in a tweet. The one above actually redirects to the full address: (My personal favourite URL shortener is http://goo.gl/ - but there are plenty of others to choose from).

There are other tricks and shortcuts you can learn too, but you don't actually need any of them to use Twitter. And once you get into it, you'll find you'll pick them up pretty quickly.

What Is Twitter For?

The nice thing about Twitter is that it's not really intended for any specific use... it's a platform. It's entirely up to you, the user, to decide what to do with it.

Some people I know only tweet about life-changing events, others use it to make business announcements. Some use it for sharing interesting things they find on the Internet, others use it to post every inane detail about their day. Some choose not to tweet at all, they only use it to follow other people. I use it for a combination of all these things, depending on the mood I'm in.

But more importantly, I use it to syndicate the content I create. Whenever I post a new entry on this blog it automatically sends out a tweet to my followers with the title and a shortened URL pointing to it. That way my readers don't need to check in here all the time, they can just wait for the next tweet.

Another nice thing about Twitter is that it's connected to everything. I originally started using it when I connected it to my Facebook profile... whenever I tweeted it would automatically copy into Facebook and update my status there. It was easier to update Twitter than Facebook directly. I don't use it for that anymore, but I do use it to post stuff into Google Buzz and LinkedIn.

Plenty of other services are set up to send stuff to your Twitter account, so when you do things on the other site, it automatically tweets about it. Supported services include Foursquare, YouTube, Blogger, Wordpress, MySpace, Posterous, Tungle and a bunch of others. Twitter can really become a kind of hub of your online life.

(Incidentally when you post your Foursquare checkins to Twitter, which then forwards them to Google Buzz, you can make your Foursquare posts appear on your Google Maps... which is pretty cool)

So It's Just Another Internet Toy?

Well it can be, but it can also be a serious tool. More and more companies are starting to use Twitter as a way of syndicating their web content and engaging with their customers.

For example, in the same way I have this blog hooked up to my Twitter account, you could hook your company's website up to a special Twitter account made for your company. Every time you post a news item to your company website, it would send out a tweet... then your staff and clients who follow your brand on Twitter would all have that post appear in their Twitter feeds.

Online news sources use that feature really well (like @News24 and @EWNUpdates), but other companies use it all the time too, like @NuMetro, @google and even @twitter themselves.

Customer engagement is a nifty way of using Twitter too. When a customer is upset about your company, odds are they'll go onto the Internet and complain about it... and Twitter is a place where that happens often. If you set up a search on your brand name, you can instantly spot when people are talking about you and respond to them then and there: in real time and in public.

A few months ago I had a frustrating customer experience with MTN... I wasn't getting any joy through the usual channels. (Full disclosure: I'm not only an MTN customer, but I've done some work for MTN as an outside consultant in the past) When I eventually tweeted about my frustration, I got an almost immediate response from @MTNSouthAfrica who worked quickly to help resolve my problem. I was sorted that same day.

How Do I Use Twitter?

Well the obvious place is to go straight to http://www.twitter.com/. From there you can do just about all the Twitter stuff you might need to do. You can also download official Twitter apps for your smartphone so you can tweet on the go.

If you feel a little limited by the standard Twitter stuff, there is a constellation of 3rd-party Twitter clients available. One important difference between the official Twitter apps and these 3rd-party ones is that usually the others will allow you to use more than one Twitter account, whereas the official ones don't. This may be useful if, for example, you manage your own personal Twitter account as well as one for your company's brand. With a decent 3rd-party client, you can manage them both from one screen.

Although there are many to choose from, my personal favourite is TweetDeck. TweetDeck comes with a version for your desktop/laptop (whether it's Windows, Mac or Linux), or a version for your smartphone (if you use iPhone or Android) that works in much the same way. Not only does TweetDeck allow you to have multiple Twitter accounts hooked in, but you can also connect your Facebook, Foursquare and Google Buzz accounts and use them all from the same application.

TweetDeck clients
 If you'd rather not install extra software on your computer, you can always use HootSuite - a tool similar to TweetDeck, but it runs inside your browser window. HootSuite also has matching smartphone apps with the same sort of functionality.

When it comes to connecting your Twitter account to your other accounts, that's usually pretty easy: when you're on a site you're hoping to connect, just look for a button saying "Connect to Twitter" or something similar... you'll usually need to login to your Twitter account to grant permission, then you're away and tweeting!

When you sign up to Twitter, don't forget to follow me, @owenswart, and be sure to let me know you're there so I can follow you back!

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