Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What is Twitter? A Different 101 Explanation

I'm confident that many of you know what Twitter is. And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard and/or read about the service and how it's gaining popularity. All the major media outlets are using it, promoting it, etc.

Twitter gained even more ground during the Iranian protests of a few weeks ago. When the Persian government stopped all journalists from covering the story, the people of Iran (Iranians / Persians) started to send out their messages using Twitter. Those of use who followed the events closely know that Twitter provided the news much faster than many of the news outlets. CNN was broadcasting certain things a minimum of half an hour after it had happened.

In the age of instant news, half an hour seemed like ... well ... old news. Twitter for news, you ask? What is Twitter really? And yes, many media outlets and businesses are using the service, but how is it really benefiting them? Those are all questions I intend to answer, and hope to do so unlike most others. This will likely be a multiple part post, so be sure to tune next Tuesday to learn more about Twitter.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service. Twitter is a "microblog." Think of it like a blog, only much smaller. In fact, you only have 140-characters (spaces and all) to communicate your message. So what you say has to be short, concise and of interest.

Twitter is simply a means to communicate with an audience of people who explicitly want to hear what you have to say --Such audience are called "followers;" which I'll cover in a bit. Twitter allows users to send updates, known as "tweets," via short message service (SMS) via your mobile phone, instant messaging, from your computer at home or work, or through a third-party application.

Some see Twittering / Tweeting as a way to simply report their "status" to friends. Some use Twitter to post interesting links. Some use it as a savvy marketing tool for their business or interests. Still, no matter how Twitter is used, there are countless ways to utilize this real-time messaging application.

Tweet Tweet
If you’re new to Twitter, then my description might seem a bit vague. Allow me to make a comparison --We currently have many one-to-one, or one-to-few, methods and applications of communication including email, IM, etc. Taking that one-to-few and thinking of a one-to-many communication tool brings to mind blogs, for example. But what if you wanted a bit of both worlds? What if you wanted a one-to-X medium that could be as fast as email or even IM, communicates to all who are interested, has the flexibility of a blog especially in its syndicated/RSS features, can be done from the web or from your phone AND allows you to not just "talk" but also listen to others whom you value?! Perhaps ones that share a common goal, a similar business or just share your passion for a topic; whether it be a passion for that one hour, that day, that week or ongoing. That's what Twitter offers. Simply put, it's the telegraph of the web on steroids.

As the Mashable blog put it ... Though users can answer the prompt, "What are you doing?", tweets have evolved to more than everyday experiences, and take the shape of shared links to interesting content on the web, conversations around hot topics (using hashtags ... more on those later), photos, videos, music, and, most importantly, real-time accounts from people who are in the midst of a newsworthy event, crisis, or natural disaster.

Although the following video helps explain what Twitter is, I personally disagree with the use of Twitter they suggest; but again it was made more than a year ago. I do not, for example, want to know when someone is going to sleep, visiting the bathroom, drinking their coffee or anything mundane like that. Are there those who post such things? Unfortunately, yes. But I'm not one of them (thank God), and I don't follow such people; nor do I recommend that anyone should.


What are Twitter @word, #word and retweets?

Let's take one at a time. Given Twitter's limited space, at 140-characters or less, you want to be able to reply to someone who tweeted about a topic of interest. For example, I tweet under my Twitter username "ahmadism". Let's say that I sent out a tweet, which would look like this.
An ahmadism tweet

Twitter @ Reply
A fellow Tweeter (a person on Twitter) may want to reply back to me. Should they hit the now-supplied reply button from the web interface of their Twitter account, their Twitter box (where the 140-characters go) would start with @ahmadism; assuming, of course, they're replying to the user "ahmadism." In the tweet pictured above, I'm not responding to anyone because an @ is not in the 140-character string.

So now you know what the @ symbol does on Twitter. What about the # symbol?
Often referred to as the pound symbol (in the US), within Twitter it's called the hash tag; or more frequently as the one word "hashtag." Hashtags are nothing more than string identifiers to make searching for a topic or keyword easier. Within Twitter's search, and even with the tools of many of the stand alone applications and web services out there, you can search for pretty much any word. But searching for a word will result in its use in a slew of topics, as you can imagine. Searching for the same word with a hash tag symbol in front of it, however, will result in the explicit use of that word for searching purposes. In the tweet pictured above, I used "#tiptuesdays" as a hashtag. That's because I serve themed posts every weekday. And I didn't want to find all tweets that contain "Tuesday;" instead, I wanted to find my Tuesdays posts as they relate to Ahmadism.com.

Twitter Hashtag
Does that make sense? In the previously mentioned Iranian protest, many people naturally used the word "Iran" in their tweets. But we didn't want to find just any "iran" tweets, we wanted to find the ones related to the protests as they're happening right there and then. Following the topic, a quick hashtag emerged as the de facto: "#iranelection". And when the young lady that was shot during the protests another hashtag emerged "#neda" (for her name). And the only way I found about it is because some of the tweets I was following, which contained "#iranelection" also contained "#neda" as a hashtag.

All in all, hashtags help you identify (yours & others') certain posts/tweets instead of following a user on Twitter. Naturally, now that there are strings to follow, trends of such strings can now be measured. Companies that tweet with a unique hashtag, for example, can see how popular their tweets are becoming because of the inclusion of their suggested hashtags. To get an idea of that, I strongly recommend that you visit hashtags.org.

RT ME Shirt
So what are retweets?

To retweet (or "RT") means to allow Twitter users to share the best links, tweets, and gems they find from others using the service. Here's an image of someone "geekix" retweeting a post/update/tweet I submitted.

An example of a retweet of ahmadism

Let's explore what took place here. We see that there are the letters "RT" at the beginning of the tweet (after the username), which means that this post is in fact a "ReTweet." We then see the origin of the tweet specified with the @ sign followed by the name of the user. In this case, this ReTweet was of ahmadism. Finally, the rest of the message as it was originally tweeted (in this case by ahmadism) or as modified now by geekix.

I know I beat a dead horse on this one, but I wanted to really spell it out and cover it.

The rest of Twitter is about how to creatively use it. And for the sake of keeping this already-long-article short, I'll cover that next week. Until then.  ▣

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