Granny’s Guide to Twitter

by Dan Collins, former editor

Twitter is one of the many social media platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook, instant messaging, Google+ and a host of others that people use to communicate with one another. One of the things that differentiates Twitter from the others is that in Twitter each message is confined to a total of 140 characters, including spaces. Every short message (or “tweet”) that each Twitter user (or “twitterer”) sends can potentially be seen by every person who “follows” you on his or her timeline. Those people are your “followers.” Likewise, you can see every public tweet sent by another twitterer whom you follow as it appears in your timeline. A timeline is simply the sequence of tweets sent by yourself and the people whom you follow as they emerge. Here’s a section from one of mine:

This is how a Twitter page might appear when you log into it at the web site, In the upper left hand corner, you see statistics about your use of Twitter: how many tweets you’ve sent, how many twitterers you follow and how many follow you. Beneath that, Twitter suggests people whom you might wish to follow, based on a complicated interpreting equation (algorithm) that it uses to assess the kinds of twitters you already follow. Beneath that are trends that give an idea of what many people are tweeting about right now. To the right is your timeline, a moment-by-moment compilation of all the tweets sent by all the people whom you follow.

At the top of the right-hand side, the bar at the moment is indicating that there are twenty new tweets from people whom I follow. If I’ve digested what I want out of the present view, I can click on that, and twenty or so tweets will appear at the top, displacing the ones I’ve been viewing further towards the bottom. The little pictures you see are called avatars, often shortened to avis. Sometimes they are of the twitterer, and sometimes not, just as the “handles” or Twitter user names, are sometimes their proper names and sometimes not. For example, viewing the second from the bottom user here, you can see that she uses the name @unicornmajik on Twitter, but her actual name is Susan Rector. Included in her tweet is a headline with a link to the story and at the end the identity of the twitterer from whom she received the information. If the link is well formed, you may click on the blue text and a new page will open with that story. On the far right, you get an idea of how long ago a particular tweet was sent at the time you last refreshed your screen. Behind, you can catch a glimpse of my Twitter page’s background, which I chose from Hieronymous Bosch. Other people have chosen their own, or chosen one of the numerous pre-determined options that Twitter provides, available in settings.

Avatars are easy to change on Twitter, simply by altering one’s settings. It’s also possible for twitterers to change their handles, though this is a little more complicated and is liable to sow confusion and cause followers to be lost, at least in the short run. It’s important, therefore, to settle on a user name that doesn’t reflect some short-term preoccupation. Keeping in mind the 140 character limitation, it’s also best, if you can manage it, to keep the handle short, so that it doesn’t take up too much space in tweets. The artist known as Jim Treacher, for example, uses @jtlol (for Jim Treacher, laugh out loud). Other such shortenings of common expressions include IMO (for in my opinion) and TWSS (that’s what she said). Because it’s online, and because it’s sometimes hard to convey irony and sarcasm, statements that might be misinterpreted are often followed by emoticons such as ;-) or :-) to indicate do the person or persons whom you are tweeting to that you’re on their side. Interpreted sincerity or its lack can sometimes lead to disagreeable quarrels, so it is best to take care to make your intentions clear, because Twitter, like other online forms of communication, lacks such cues as facial expressions or body language. Use of sarcasm and irony is referred to as “snark,” and those who use it habitually or hurtfully are often characterized as “snarky.”

That @ symbol is one of the important cues in Twitter. Every Twitter name that’s being addressed has that symbol before it. My handle on Twitter, for example, is @vermontaigne, which is a mash-up of Vermont, where I had been living for ten years until recently, and Montaigne, the great Renaissance essayist. Even so, when people view my tweets from the Twitter web site, they will see displayed to the left of my handle in my tweets my name, just as Susan Rector’s is displayed to the left of @unicornmajik. What is displayed there, though, is under your control. It is possible to fill in your sign-up at Twitter so that your identity remains anonymous to other users, and it is similarly possible to make all of your tweets private, so that they are viewable only by those persons to whom you give permission.

Another important symbol is #, which is called a “hashtag” when it is used as it is on Twitter. A “hashtag” is created and used to cue the attention of people who are interested in the same subjects. For example, people who were deeply affected by the untimely death of Whitney Houston might share news, statements and observations by using #whitneyhouston or just #whitney. If you were to use the search box at the top, Twitter would compile for you all the most recent posts by people identified by that hashtag or subject marker. Other hashtags might not be so obvious. Top Conservatives on Twitter use #tcot, and Occupy Wall Street use #ows. Naturally, each side uses the other’s hashtag to snark at or hurl insults at the other. On Twitter, the sending of such unwanted messages, whether by hashtag or directly to someone’s handle is called “spamming,” whether it’s technically spam (a term taken from unwanted email solicitations sent to one’s account) or not. Likewise, a person who is in some way opposed to one is likely to be denominated a “troll” by the person or persons to whom he sends unwanted messages. Twitter has its actual spammers, who will try to get twitterers to visit their commercial sites, up to and including porn sites, and also spammers who will try to get twitterers to open links that will infect their computers with viruses. If you are sent a message by someone whom you don’t know, it is always best to click on the avatar to find out a little about that user before opening anything that they have sent to you. If a person signs up for Twitter without uploading an image, they will be assigned an avatar in the shape of an egg. When you inspect further, you are liable to discover that that person has few followers and is following few people, and that the messages in their timeline are all inducements to click on the same link. Don’t. You may choose to ignore such users or to block and report them, but if you report someone, do your homework first to determine that they’re not simply some obnoxious person, but an actual spammer. Obnoxious people and generous people abound on Twitter, and a person who is momentarily obnoxious to one may turn out to be quite generous to others. It is important that we respect the rights of all to express themselves on Twitter, though it is certainly fair game to block someone for frequently employing expletives or other vulgarities.

When you see a tweet to which you would like to respond, mouse or touch pad just to the left of the time stamp at the upper right hand corner of the tweet, and you will see several options emerge. If you hover over them, you will see that the first one is for replying, and resembles a keyboard “return” sign, featuring an arrow pointing to the left. If you click on that, a box will appear with that person’s handle already filled in, ready for you to send a message to that person.

You are now cued up to type what you would like to say. You see on the bottom right that you have 126 characters left with which to send your message to this person. Just below is the message to which you are presumably responding. In addition to including links, you have the options to attach a photograph (at the camera sign) or to include your location (the target or surveyor’s symbol). After you’ve composed your message, you click the Tweet button and it is sent.

If you wish to send a message that doesn’t respond to anything tweeted by someone else on twitter, simply type it into the message box that is always at the upper left of your Twitter page. If you wish to address it to a specific person, add, either at the beginning or end, that person’s handle, beginning with the @ sign. You may do this with multiple recipients too, by adding all their handles beginning with @, with spaces in between. Handles must consist of letters numbers and non-punctuation marks only.

In this case, the message will be visible both to the person to whom you’re sending it and to anyone who follows that person. You may, if you prefer, send this person a private message. The way to do this would be to place your cursor before the @ sign and to type in the letter d (for direct) and a space. You may even get rid of the @ before the rest of the handle when you are direct messaging. That message will be sent to that person’s direct or private mail, viewable only by him. Keep in mind, however, that unless your tweets are locked—and this will keep the numbers of your followers low—a person may copy and paste your message into a publicly viewable tweet, so you must still be careful what you say if you don’t consider this person trustworthy. As a general rule, it is very bad form to share another person’s private message without that person’s expressed permission, and it is liable to get one shunned. One of the great attractions of Twitter is its immediacy, but that is also one of its dangers. It is much easier to be circumspect in a long post at a blog, where the time used in composing is also time for reflection, than it is on Twitter. Often, sharp comments on the spur of the moment are best left to oneself, despite the temptation to get a whack in what amounts practically to “real time.” If you do decide that a sharp comment is necessary or desirable, please make sure that you have full understanding of the context before you hit the tweet button. You can find the comment by clicking on a person’s avatar and viewing their timeline. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that a person named Kurt Schlicter has tweeted something that you find uncaring. Clicking on his avatar will bring you to this screen.

You can see his last several tweets, and by clicking on the blue lettering that says “View more Tweets,” you can inspect a much greater block of his timeline. It may be that Kurt is responding to an insult hurled at him by someone in an earlier tweet. Imagining once again, for the sake of argument, that that were the case, you might decide to let it go and not become embroiled in a quarrel that’s not worth your while.

Another important function of Twitter is “retweeting.” If you find yourself in agreement with a person’s tweet, or simply think that it deserves a wider audience for whatever reason, including its manifest ridiculousness, you can “retweet” it. Placing your cursor just to the right of where you would hover it to send a reply, you will see the closed loop symbol for a retweet. Clicking on that gives you a message box that’s already largely filled in, like this:

One of the weaknesses of Twitter as it exists in the official web application is that you can’t alter the message when you retweet, except by copying it and pasting it into a reply box with your comments. That is one reason that many people use other applications that they feel give greater flexibility to Twitter. If you retweet someone’s message, many followers will view that as an endorsement of the message. You may have to explain to them after the fact that it is not, or you can copy and retweet with your view.

It’s usually a good idea to go the latter route, when you can. If you change something in someone’s tweet when retweeting in this manner, you can indicate that by changing the prefix RT (for retweet) to MT. MT works the same as the command RT, but it shows that you have altered the text, even if it is simply by shortening it, and it is courteous to use the MT command, because you may have omitted some context or made the tweet less immediately legible (for instance by employing contractions rephrasing or eliminating determiners). If you change something substantive, you should always use MT to indicate that. If you fix a spelling or grammatical error, it’s not necessary to do so, unless you wish to embarrass rather than help the original tweeter. If you’re retweeting a message by someone you like and agree with, make it a habit to fix their errors before you accidentally shame them by sharing them with your followers, but . . . don’t be a pedant. This is meant to be an informal method of communication.

Notice that when most people post links to Twitter, they use link shorteners to make them more compact. Twitter has its own URL shortener that you can use, but it is not the most efficient one, in case you need the extra room. To give you an idea of why that’s important, when you have only 140 characters, here’s a link to a post at my blog:

And here is that link shortened with one of may of the available link-shorteners on the Internet, in this case, Word Press, which is a blogging platform:

When someone clicks on the shortened link, their browser is sent very momentarily to the link-shortening site, then directed to the proper page. Some popular link shorteners include:

And there are many more. Remember that brevity is the soul of twit. Observe how other people manage to say what they mean to say within the 140-characters limit, and you’ll soon find yourself getting right to the point. There are means available to stretch your message, if you need to, such as by using an ellipsis . . . to show that you’re going to continue your message in the subsequent tweet, or by using [cont.]. Some twitterers resort to using services that will open into a message box that contains more than 140 characters, such as twitlonger, but it is best whenever possible to stick with the parameters assigned by Twitter, so that people don’t have to leave their timestreams to see what you mean to say.

You can also “favorite” a tweet to refer to it whenever you wish, for example, if someone’s link sends you to a long article that you just don’t have the time to do justice to right now, or if they connect you with a Twitter-connected post or service that you are likely to want to refer to time and again. Favoriting a tweet is Twitter’s version of a bookmark, but it also pays a compliment to the tweeter, particularly if the tweet is of his own composition rather than a pointer to another resource. Try to use your favorites sparingly in this way, so as not to devalue them.

Some of you may have used Google+ at some point, and some may find they enjoy it and want to stick with it in addition to Twitter, Facebook, or whatever other social media they find fun or useful. One of the selling points of Google+ is that the user can group various online friends and acquaintances into Circles. For example, you may address your buddies about topics or using language that normally you would not address to your Great Aunt Marian. In Twitter, you can refine your timestream by creating “lists.” These are, in effect, sub-timestreams. You may wish to gather all your news junkie friends into one list, people who agree with you regarding politics into another, and the other folks on the PTA advisory board into still another, and finally those who share your passion for NASCAR, so that you don’t have to go searching for the information that’s relevant to your present interest. I have before mentioned that some of the applications that re-present Twitter for you have certain advantages, and one of them is that they often provide columns on your screen wherein you can simultaneously view your general timestream, messages directed specifically to you but shared publicly, direct messages which are private to you, and any lists that you may have created. In the technical sense, that means that you can supervise them all at once. My recommendation is that you learn to use Twitter first as its presented at its own site, then once you have a reasonable mastery consider whether you might like to use one of those applications. I say this in part because every so often Twitter goes down because of technical issues or because the Twitter people are changing something about it. In that case, all of the applications become temporarily unusable. However, every Twitter application also has its downtime for the same reasons, and at those times Twitter is accessible still through its own site. That said, here are some of the Twitter applications (called clients) that you can use to sort things out, as listed by Top Ten Review’s 2012 post.

Of course, it is an easy matter to tweet your followers to ask for their own recommendations. People love to share their opinions, as a general rule.

To whom might Twitter be attractive? To people who are interested in what other people are broadcasting and who would like to broadcast, in the moment. Let’s say that you are a sports junkie, but often find that you cannot follow [insert your team name here] as closely as you like because you find yourself often on the road or because you have demanding children who prefer to watch their shows and who want your attention right now, where right now is almost all the time. You can easily use your smart phone to follow not only the regularly updated scores other fans of [insert your team name here] are providing, but also their deft and daft commentary on the game, practically in real time. Or let us say for a topical example that you have relatives in Syria, and are deeply concerned about what is going on with the Assad regime. Syrians who tweet and people who follow events in Syria will keep you apprised of what is going on right now, before it appears in an AP article, and sometimes their versions of events will be quite different from what appears via the wire services or other reports. Some of these observers may actually have a better understanding of what is happening than what is provided in filtered reports, as well, and in many cases tweeters will present information and accounts that will not make news sources, either because of censorship or bias. The same is true of local and national news in the United States. Or, you may wish to know that the Girl Scout meeting scheduled for this evening has been cancelled due to weather as soon as that information is available. On the other hand, you may wish to broadcast information. For example, if you are a college teacher, you may wish to tweet your students that the bookstore has still not acquired the edition of Jane Eyre that you ordered, so they’ll be reading Frankenstein this week instead. You could send that via email, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll bother to read that between now and when next you meet, because their smart phones will only show them that they have unread emails, not that one is from you. On the other hand, if you send it to your group as a tweet, it will be displayed as coming from you, their professor. It is like sending a text message to a group of people, only much easier. Or, you may work for some kind of campaign, be it political or associated with a charity with which you are involved. If you send a message via email to your subscriber list, you reach them and whoever else one of them might choose to forward to from their email. If you tweet your message, it’s much easier for your recipients to share that information to the people who follow them, and they in turn may broadcast it again to their followers. In those senses, Twitter can be used as an amplifier of the information that you wish to broadcast.

You may be going on a blind date, and all of your friends might be on tenterhooks to hear how it’s going. When this date repairs to the bathroom, you have a chance to bring them up to date. You have just gone to see a movie that Roger Ebert has praised to the skies, and it’s absolutely dreadful. You can wave your friends away from it, and castigate Ebert in the same tweet, as he’s also on Twitter. Or imagine that Nicki Minaj does something absolutely revolting at the Grammys. You can use Twitter to tell her just how you feel about it.

Not everyone who tries Twitter finds it to their liking, but those who do find it habit forming. Some people even claim to use Twitter as a productivity tool, which is possible. There’s such a wealth of information available online that it’s hard to know where to turn. People who share interests similar to yours will often find resources that you had no idea even existed. In this sense, Twitter is a more intelligent version of Stumble Upon. You may find that your Yahoo home page, or your Google Reader are becoming stale to you. Twitter can help you find new sources of information on the subjects that interest you. Perhaps you would like to make new friends. All of who frequent Twitter find that we do. Some of us even know couples who met each other because of Twitter. It’s much more immediate in that respect than Facebook, or the comments section of a blog. To put it simply, it is much more conversational. If you stay with Twitter, whether you use it frequently or not, you will find yourself becoming part of and also helping to create communities.

Sign up at and give it a try. You may find that it becomes part of the fabric of your life. Do remember to upload an avatar and to fill in your self description. These are cues to other twitterers that you wish to be a presence on Twitter and are willing to make the effort. You may have friends who are already using Twitter. You can generally find this information cross-referenced from their other social media user profiles. In a pinch, you can use the search box at the top of your Twitter page to try to look people up, but this tends to be clumsy. The very best way to network on Twitter is to notice to whom your friends address themselves and check out their profiles and timelines, then simply add them by clicking the Follow button. You may also watch those people whom the people you follow retweet often, and decide to add them. If you are following someone who is a celebrity, either in meatspace (the “real world”) or online, they may not follow you back. A person who has many followers generally doesn’t have the time to respond to them all, and sometimes they are caught in a situation where they feel uncomfortable playing favorites or appearing to do so. Or, they may only care for sycophants. Either way, there will be people who are broadcasting information that you may find interesting who will not follow you back. It might be that they simply haven’t noticed. Unless you know them from another context, it’s best simply to let it ride. You may consider those one-way relations to be like watching a television broadcaster.

On the other hand, those celebrities, online or otherwise, who do make an effort to respond to what others might regard as insignificant people deserve your praise and goodwill. The Golden Rule applies in Twitter as elsewhere in life for most of us. If someone addresses you directly, please make it your practice to respond. If they retweet something you’ve written, thank them, and return the favor when the spirit moves you. There are a million reasons to use Twitter, but in order to be recognized isn’t, as a rule, very far down on most people’s lists. Be whom you would like others to believe you are on Twitter, and when they grace you by generously accepting the premise, generously return the favor. It is by means of this kind of pretending that we come closer to becoming that person.

There is no reason for you to feel compelled to follow rude or aggressive people on Twitter, unless you find nastiness amusing, but do try to keep some people whose views aren’t in line with your own in your timelines, so that it doesn’t become an echo chamber. Twitter has the potential to be very democratic in the best sense, but too often it becomes an echo chamber for some form of narrow elitism. You can practice tolerance and equanimity on Twitter, and it will carry over to your “real life,” as many things in Twitter are apt to do (such as “tweet-ups,” where twitterers from the same area congregate in meatspace).

Disagreements and arguments are a part of Twitter, but don’t get too caught up in them. Above all, Twitter is supposed to be fun. If you find that too much of your time on Twitter is consumed in bickering, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you find yourself exasperated, take a break or change the topic. It’s not realistic to think that you’re going to bring people around to your view even in a long series of 140-character tweets, and more often than not, sniping exchanges will grow tiresome for those who witness them and cause all concerned to lose some face. Go forth and tweet, but if you find yourself in continual broils, perhaps you should look in the mirror.

I hope to see you there.