What is Twitter? – a crash course

Here’s my guide to using Twitter from a science research perspective. I’ve been asked about this before and I’ve even had to give this as a mini talk so I thought it was time to share it with the world.

First a very basic introduction. Twitter is a social network where you can post 140 character messages. Your message is then visible on the timeline of all your followers. In general, people follow many accounts and only read tweets at the top of their timeline, so if you post at the wrong time there is no guarantee anyone will see it. Twitter is fast moving and very much a live conversation.

Get an account

Okay, so you’d think this just consists of a single link to the Twitter sign up but you’d be wrong. Starting an account also means choosing a suitable Twitter name, because Twitter is all about discussion and that is much easier if half of the 140 characters of a tweet aren’t taken up with your name. So the best idea is to pick something unique and short. For example, my original twitter name @minus_caffeine was fine but a bit too long, while my current name @MCeeP is better as it fits in conversations without hogging all the precious characters. Although @MCeeP is far from perfect as while it’s great in text, when I say my Twitter address out loud to people I have an inevitable conversation about it – do I mean MCP or MseeP. My advice, choose something you can say without people having to play a miniature word game to work out what you meant.

Posh twitter

Profile Photo

Duck face
Pictured; not a duck

Next comes your photo or avatar image. You’ll find pretty much everything imaginable on Twitter, from squares of pure colour to highly detailed art and professional headshots. Try to remember that while you have ~450×450 pixels to play with, most people are going to view it as a 50×50 thumbnail so any cute details or fine text will be totally lost as a blurry smear.

Although if I can make one request – please, please don’t use a duck face photo (unless it’s of an actual duck…).

Bio

Your twitter biography is the very first thing people will see when they are looking at your profile. It’s your place to essentially explain why you are a person worth listening to or following. Twitter has all kinds of accounts by robots, people and companies, and your bio is where you make it clear why you are on Twitter, by including your interests and background. You get a limited number of characters, so good luck with that…

One thing to remember is that including the line “tweets are my own” is a serious offence and if you put that in the bio then I will hunt you down and make you remove it under the threat of me drawing unflattering stick figures of you until you agree.

Your content

This does vary a bit depending on the purpose of your Twitter account. My advice to fellow researchers is to really just be yourself. It is exhausting trying to maintain a highly sanitised and curated Twitter account, and people get pretty bored of dry updates without any personality. Tweet about your successes but also share your problems. Everyone loves a bit of schadenfreuder and talking about lab disasters is not only a great way to get a bit of perspective and support but also to find solutions you may not have considered.

Obviously, everyone is very worry about over-sharing their work and possible giving up the deepest darkest lab secrets. Personally, I think this is a little over egged. I do work on things I’m not ready to share yet but I still have plenty to talk about and discuss and I simply don’t mention what area I’m working on or the precise aim of what I’m currently struggling with. Twitter is not a journal paper and you are not required to share every detail, it’s okay to withhold information that doesn’t need to be included and by just being mindful you’ll find there is still plenty to talk about without loosing your shot at a Nobel prize.

Following

Your timeline is very personal. Because you choose the people you follow, you get a unique view that is probably not shared by any other user. One of the key features of Twitter is that high degree of personalisation that shows on your news feed. And from the other side, the more people who follow you, the more people will see all your funny cat photos and possible talk and connect with you about your love of strained carrots.

Something that you may quickly realise is that some people care quite a lot about followers and more importantly, following back. There is in fact an entire sub-community of Twitter, based on the concept. Joining it will get you a few thousand followers almost instantly but also fill your feed with tweets of questionable content.

Duckfaced tweet

There is no hard and fast rule to following people. It matters a great deal to some people but others couldn’t care less. My personal rule is that if I have a conversation with someone who then subsequently follows me, then I feel it is polite to follow back and see if they have any further interesting things to say.

Taking to people

Talk to people! Talking to people is (at least to me) one of the great strengths of Twitter. I once read an excellent quote that “Facebook is to talk to people I know, Twitter is to talk to people I don’t”. Finding other people with the same issues and problems and talking to them and getting insight or help is Twitter’s greatest strength. Sitting quietly in your own corner of Twitter and only posting content without any interaction is somewhat missing the point.

For those uninitiated, you tag people to talk to them e.g. to send me a public message you’d write “@MCeeP I just found out your middle name is Colin! OMG, LOL”. Now this is where it gets a little complicated. When you write a tweet without a tag, it appears immediately on the timeline of all your followers. However, if you tag a person, while it is visible to all through your Twitter page, only those of your followers who also follow the tagged person will see it.

If you want to make sure that your followers see a tagged message on their timeline, you can simply put a character in front of the name. Commonly, people will use a full stop ((US.) period symbol) before the name so that it doesn’t detract from the message but is still pushed out to everyone’s timeline.

Twitter is normally blissfully simple to use and this is probably the only example I can think of where there is a form of syntax to determine who reads your tweets. It’s a bit hard to visualise during an explanation but you’ll find it makes more sense when you see it in action.

Favouriting

The Favourite function has many uses depending on what you want out of it. Some people use favourite as a way of flagging tweets to look at or respond to later. But as favouriting something sends a notification to the original author, favouriting also exists as a way of saying “I liked this tweet but I’m too busy cleaning out my pet lemming to write a witty reply”. Either is fine but personally it’s always nice to get favourites. Not as nice as RTs but that’s another thing…

Re-tweeting

While Favouriting is between you and the author of a tweet, re-tweeting is between you, the author and all of your followers. The message you’re sending is very much ‘I thought this was interesting, you should all look at this’. Although I should stress that I think everyone is pretty clear that re-tweeting something is not agreement or endorsement, it’s just saying ‘look at the interesting thing’.

As a blog writer, re-tweets are the life blood of my website. Any re-tweets of my links vastly improve the readership of my blog, and basically make the whole thing tick.

However, from a Twitter users point of view, re-tweets can be really helpful tips to interesting content I might not have seen, or really annoying spam that I have to avoid. It really depends on the person re-tweeting things – for some people, re-tweeting content is their whole reason for Twitter, which makes them like a very badly edited and unreliable news provider.

Basically, my message is : don’t overdo it, but generating your own content is part of Twitter.

Hashtags

Finally, hashtags. These are the phrases you’ll see that start with (unsurprisingly) a # symbol. This is Twitter’s version of keywords, and gives users a way of collecting discussions on the same issue or TV program without having to link each other using names. You can browse tweets via the hash tag, and it’s a great way to find people or try and get your tweets wider attention. For example, if you need help with python code, adding the hashtag #python is guaranteed to get you replies from people that don’t follow you but are happy to help out.

TL;DR

It’s Twitter, not rocket science – just try it. People are pretty forgiving and will help you get stuck in.

5 Comments for “What is Twitter? – a crash course”

says:

Nice post! I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the most out of Twitter for research and academic work. I think I already had some of the basics you exposed here but it would be nice if you could do a follow up on more advanced features, such as the use of lists. I just get lost/overwhelmed with Twitter very quickly but I’m sure its a great resource for science.

Thanks!

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