How to use Twitter

Many, many people find themselves a bit lost when they first start using Twitter. They don't really get how to use Twitter. They don't really understand what Twitter is. Here is a clear, plain English, real-world explanation that answers the questions "What is Twitter?" and "How to use Twitter?" and that explains the various messaging functions of Twitter such as @, DM, D, Retweet, RT, and #.

First, with all due respect to Twitter founders Biz and EV, Twitter is misdescribed as "microblogging" - it is more accurately described as "one-to-many instant messenger". It's really very similar in its most basic ways to an instant messaging program, except that instead of it being one-to-one, it's one-to-many - instead of "you send a message and I see it", you send a message and many, many people can see it. In fact - anybody who "follows" you will see it. Followers are simply people who have told the Twitter system "I want to see what that person says whenever they post a message."

It's that simple. If somebody "follows" you, they see whatever you write. If they are not following you, they won't see it (there is one exception, which is explained below).

Messages that you write on Twitter, by the way, are known as "Tweets". Personally, we never use that term, because we think it's idiotic and too cutesy, and that it undermines the real grace and power of Twitter, making it harder to take seriously as a legitimate means of communication.

Once you have an understanding of "Twitter as one-to-many instant messenger", then it's really easy to understand the rest. Here is how the various messaging functions of Twitter work:

Imagine you are at a big party, and you stand in the middle of the room and say something, to nobody in particular, out loud in the middle of the room.

That's a regular message on Twitter. That's how it is when you type a message into Twitter and hit 'send'. The people who follow you may or may not be paying attention to you; they may or may not hear you.

Now, let's say that instead you go up to someone at the party, and tap them on the shoulder to get their attention, and then say what you want to say directly to them.

That's the same as using "@username" on Twitter. You have their attention and are talking to them, and they will hear you, but anybody who is around listening can hear it too.

It's important to note that you don't have to be following someone to send them an @ message, and they don't have to be following you. They will still get it. (This is the exception mentioned above.)

Now, instead, let's say that you go up to that person and whisper in their ear, so that only they can hear it. That's analogous to using "D username" on Twitter. Only the person in whose ear you are whispering (or, sending a message via "D their-username-here") can hear it.

By the way, the "D" stands for "Direct Message", and for that reason, in Twitter lingo, people will say "DM me", meaning, send me a direct message using the "D username" function. You can only send DMs to people who are following you. If they are not following you, the Twitter system will not let you send them a direct message.

It's important to note that for an @ message, there is no space between the @ and the username, but for a private message, there is a space between the "D" and the username.

Now, sometimes someone whom you are following will say something so profound, so funny, so witty, or so dumb, that you will want to share it with all of your followers. This is known as "retweeting", or, in Twitter lingo, "RT". This is very similar to forwarding an email, only instead of forwarding email, you are ‘forwarding' the message to all of your Twitter followers.

There is no command for retweeting something - you just copy and paste it and send it on out as your own message. But there is a protocol, and that protocol is that you preface the copied message with "RT" or "Retweeting" or some other words that indicate to your followers that you are quoting someone else; and you put that someone else's (the person you are quoting) username right after the "RT" words, along with the @, so that that person will be sure to see the message and know that you quoted them. For example, my username on Twitter is AnnePMitchell. So if I said "Check out the Perseids meteor shower on Aug. 12 & 13!", and you wanted to forward, or ‘retweet', that to all of your followers, you would type:

"RT @AnnePMitchell Check out the Perseids meteor shower on Aug. 12 & 13!

To recap all of the above, if you wanted to just sent out a message saying "Check out the cool stuff at The Internet Patrol!", you would simply type that into Twitter.

If you wanted to bring it to my attention, but in public, you would type:

@AnnePMitchell Check out the cool stuff at The Internet Patrol!

If you wanted to tell that to me privately for some reason you would type:

D AnnePMitchell Check out the cool stuff at The Internet Patrol!

And finally, if it was me who had said "Check out the cool stuff at The Internet Patrol!" and you wanted to pass that along to all of your followers, you would type:

RT @AnnePMitchell Check out the cool stuff at The Internet Patrol!

Finally, the last thing you need to know to really jump in and start swimming in Twitter, intead of feeling over your head, is just what the heck all those words with the # in front of them are.

The # is known as the "hashtag" - this is not a Twitter term, but rather a term that has been used in programming for years, and has become common usage to refer to the # symbol.

The hashtag (#) is used in Twitter to signal a key word or keyword - something that lots of people are talking about - and messages that have the #word in them are contributing to that topic. That way, if you are interested in what people are saying about that subject on Twitter, you can search for that hashtag. So, for example, as I write this, Twitter has been all over the news because people are using Twitter as a way to communicate about the demonstrations in Iran over the recent Iranian elections. So, if I wanted to see what people were saying on Twitter about the situation in Iran, I would search for the hashtag "#iran". And, if I wrote something on Twitter about Iran, I would include the hashtag "#iran" in what I wrote, so that others searching for the messages about Iran could find it.

By the way, the Twitter system does not care about upper- versus lowercase letters - it doesn't matter to the system whether you capitalize something or not. "annepmitchell" looks the same as "AnnePMitchell" to the Twitter system, and this is true for commands as well ("D" and "d" will both work, for example).

We hope that this simple explanation of how the various Twitter functions work has been helpful! If you haven't already signed up for Twitter, this information really does give you the foundation you need to confidentally jump in and start using it - so sign up for Twitter here!

Once you do that, or if you are already on Twitter, I invite you to follow me at

And please send me an @AnnePMitchell message to let me know if you found this article useful!


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