Twitter 101

Twitter bird, blue on white

I’ve been speaking to colleagues a lot recently about the value of Twitter. Sometimes I manage to convince one or two to check it out; as a result, they are often looking for a good basic description of Twitter. I’ve tried to collect such posts over the years, but I have found them lacking in at least one or more of the elements that I would include, hence this post is my attempt to provide such a description that is current in July 2013, knowing that in a few months Twitter will have changed enough that parts of this post might become less relevant or even obsolete. Most of this post will pertain to anyone wanting to learn Twitter. However, I’ve inserted a section at the end on identifying social work content for any social work readers.

Why Twitter?

There are many ways to use Twitter. However, in my opinion, Twitter is best for two things: 1) establishing a personal/professional network, that is, people who you want to learn from on any variety of topics, as well as people who value what you have to share; and 2) staying abreast of fast-breaking major events (e.g., hurricanes, other disasters, etc.). You also can just explore what’s on the mind of the Twitterverse at any point in time by following the major trends, although I have to admit that I rarely do that. I’ll focus on the first item for this post.

Twitter Basics

An individual post is called a “Tweet.” Your “Twitter Feed” is a list of tweets (from people who you choose to “follow”) that come up when you click on the HOME option at the top of your Twitter page (once you have created an account and signed in). Sometimes, you’ll hear people use the word “Tweeps” to refer to the people they interact with on their Twitter Feed. In Twitter you refer to a user by their username (sometimes called their Twitter handle) with the @ symbol directly in front of it. For example, my username is njsmyth and in a twitter post (a tweet) you would refer to me at @njsmyth Then I would be notified that you have “mentioned” me. Twitter is not like email–you don’t generally try to “catch up” if you’ve been offline. When you look at a Twitter Feed, you are seeing a “real-time” list of what was just posted. For this reason, people may choose to post the same tweet several different times (e.g., Monday at 1pm, Wednesday at 3:30pm, etc., so that different people see it). At any point in time you will see what people have just tweeted. As a result, the location of the people tweeting tends to vary depending on the time of day and the time zone in which people are located. I’m on the East Coast in the United States. So when I wake up and check my Twitter Feed in the morning, I will see whatever people have just posted (for me, that’s often tweets from my tweeps in the United Kingdom).

If you prefer, you can just use Twitter as your personalized information/news feed and never make a tweet of your own. This is fine depending on your reasons for using Twitter. However, it’s limited in that you don’t tap the power of the “social networking” part of Twitter. To see one example of how powerful this network can be, read my post Extending Your Professional Consultation Network with Social Media: How It Saved a Life

Twitter Accounts

It’s relatively easy to set up an account, and it’s free: simply go to and follow the instructions for signing up. You need an email account. And it helps to have a cell phone (although it’s not required). It’s best if you choose a user name that is relatively short (<10 characters) for reasons that will become clear later. Once you have set up the account you have created the barebones of a Twitter profile. Next, it’s a good idea to add a brief bio about yourself with key words that are relevant to your interests. Finally, ideally, it’s good to upload a photo or other image (called your “avatar” or “icon”)–people will generally not follow you back if you don’t have one. Most of the options under the Account General Settings are self-explanatory. However, you will need to decide if you want your tweets protected or not (the Tweet Privacy option check box). Most people leave their tweets public, that is, viewable by anyone who looks at what you have tweeted (or to anyone reading the public Twitter feed). However, it is possible to make all your tweets protected, that is, they will only be visible to people who you choose to follow. You have to choose though, you can’t make some tweets protected and others public. Which option you choose will depend on why you are using Twitter. If you only want to use it to interact with a small group of people, then you might choose to protect your tweets. There are so many better applications that allow you to interact with people in that way (e.g., group chat applications like GroupMe), that in my opinion, it’s not the best use of Twitter. You also always have the option of setting up a Twitter account that doesn’t include your name and isn’t easily linked to you if you are worried about particular people finding you there. That said, set up your profile in a way that makes sense for your goals. The other account setting buttons (on the right side of the page) provide you with many options to customize your experience. In the interests of keeping this post simple, I won’t get into them here, but I encourage you to explore them, especially once you are starting to learn your way around Twitter. You can view your Twitter Profile by either clicking on your name, or by clicking on the ME option at the top of the pages. Explore your profile page — notice the content on the sides of the page: suggestions from Twitter on who to follow and, below that, what’s trending on Twitter.

Finding People to Follow

Now you need to find people to follow. You can do this through searching on key words (e.g., mental health) and see who comes up, or through searching “hashtags,” that is, single word tags that people add to their tweets. If you like the kind of thing people have posted, then click on their photo and you should be able to see their profile, with buttons to follow them, to see what else they have posted (timeline), the tweets they have marked as favorites and any Twitter lists they have created. Feel free to play around with the search function a bit to see what comes up. Try searching on names of organizations that you follow (NPR, Annie E. Casey foundation, NASW). Other good sources of people to follow are to look at who the people you already follow are following. You can find this list on their Twitter profile (click on Following, in the upper left hand corner of the profile page) or on Following on their Profile Summary . You can access someone’s Profile Summary by clicking on their name or avatar in an individual tweet. You can access a person’s profile from the Profile Summary by clicking again (in the Profile Summary) on their name, avatar or twitter name. Twitter profiles also can be found by just adding the person’s Twitter name onto the Twitter URL. For example, my Twitter username is njsmyth, so you will find my profile at As you choose people to follow, their tweets (the name for a twitter post) will come up on your Twitter feed (the list of tweets you see when you log in). The people you follow won’t see your tweets unless they follow you back–if they do follow you, they become one of your followers and your tweets will show up in their feed. If you want to respond to something someone has tweeted, then you hit the reply button and the tweet will start with @ followed by their username. This means it will be directed at them, although other people can see it too, depending on how they have configured their Twitter feed (your account settings has the option to see these tweets directed at one person or to screen them out). The more people you follow, the more Twitter learns what type of people you are interested in following. Twitter will then make suggestions for other people to follow. A Twitter tradition, predating the days when Twitter recommended people to follow, is Follow Fridays. On Fridays, you will see people recommending other people to follow. These recommendations might be tagged with #FF or #followfriday or some other version of that concept.



Click in the “Compose a Tweet” box and start typing. The camera button below the box is there to click if you want to insert an image. The fat exclamation point is the symbol for location: this is where you can tag your tweet based on where you are. You are limited to 140 characters in one tweet, and Twitter tells you how many characters are left to use under the right bottom corner of the box (note: spaces count as characters). Once you are ready to publish your Tweet you simply click the Tweet button (under the right bottom corner of the compose box). Posting your own tweet is relatively simple.  Posting an effective tweet takes more practice–it requires thinking about how to engage a reader and keeping your focus on the main point with as few words as possible, because Twitter is unique in that each tweet is limited to 140 characters . When you have unlimited characters it’s relatively easy to communicate an idea. It requires some skill to communicate well in only 140 characters. For this reason, like in text messages (where Twitter had its origins), there are many abbreviations that are used in Twitter to maximize the use of space. Two examples are:”U” is often used in place of “You;” and “Gr8” in place of “Great.” How to Speak Twitter  is a good article that introduces some of the Twitter language abbreviations. If you are sharing a link that you’ve found helpful, you will come appreciate why Twitter shortens these links–links themselves might take up all of the 140 characters that you are limited to.

Dissecting a Tweet

It’s helpful to understand all the components of an individual tweet. Sandy Kendall has written a very helpful blog post that provides a visual and written tour of every aspect of a tweet. If you’re not familiar with all the parts of a tweet, stop reading now and take a look at her post.


If you think the tweet you’ve read would be interesting to others then you can retweet it. This is considered a nice thing to do for someone (people will often thank you for retweeting) and your followers will appreciate good content that you share Retweeting is the key to sharing information across a wider range of people, because once you retweet something, the tweet will come up on the Twitter feed of everyone who is following you. There are two ways to retweet someone. At the Twitter website you click the Retweet button (see How to Decode a Tweet) for an automatic retweet, or the classic method which involves adding RT (for retweet) to someone’s username and the content they have posted. The advantage of the first is that it’s fast. The advantage of the second is that it’s easier for people to see your Twitter handle in the retweet, thereby associating the content with you. MT stands for Modified Tweet. A modified tweet is a tweet you got from someone else that you have also edited, i.e., you didn’t retweet it exactly as they wrote it.

Direct Messages

Once you follow someone, they now have the ability to send you a direct message (DM), the Twitter equivalent of a private message. They will have to follow you for you to be able to send them a direct message. If you click on their name and go to look at the Twitter profile summary or profile, Twitter will tell you if you follow them and if they follow you. You can send them a DM by clicking on the small gear (next to the button that toggles Following, Follow or Unfollow) — several choices come up there and Send a Direct Message will come up if it’s an option for you with this account. The only thing to be careful about with DMs is if you receive one from someone you know that says something like “I can’t believe what you’re doing in this photo” followed by a link that you’re supposed to click on. Unless you have friends who routinely send you that kind of message, it usually means that their Twitter account has been hacked (taken over by someone else) — if you click on the link then your account could be hacked. Just ignore the message or delete it. And if you’re comfortable, you can send a tweet to the person telling them you think their account has been hacked. It may or may not get through to them, but it’s a nice gesture.


Hashtags are single words (or multiple words made into a single word) that provide a way to see all tweets that include that tag.The tag has to start with the number sign # (the hash, hence the word hashtag). Doing this creates a link that pulls in all the recent tweets with that hashtag. For example, the social work hashtag is #socialwork. When you put that into the search box you’ll get a recent list of everyone who has posted and used that hashtag. More and more, organizers of big events like conferences will designate a hashtag for that particular event and will publicize it at the conference asking anyone who is tweeting from the conference or about the conference to use it. This provides a way to follow the activities at a conference, meet people at the conference, and to archive the conference. Hashtags are also the way that people track a “Twitter Chat”, that is, an ongoing Twitter dialogue about a specific topic. Typically, Twitter chats are scheduled at a particular date and time and have a hashtag that is associated with that particular chat.

Twitter Lists

Twitter lists are an easy way to organize groups of people that you follow into categories that are meaningful to you. However, you can choose to follow other people’s lists (if the list is public) and take advantage of the work that they have done creating a list. When you choose to follow someone else’s list you will be able to find the list now under your profile lists. You will now be able to see what people on the list post if you go to your Twitter lists (an option on your profile) and select a particular list. However people on a list won’t see what you post unless they follow you individually. How to Create Twitter Lists Step by Step takes you through the process of list creation if you’re feeling ready to take this on now.

Many Different Ways to Access Twitter

You can use Twitter through the web,, using whatever Internet browser you typically use. Or you can download the Twitter app to a smart phone or tablet computer. Or you can download one of many Twitter clients, that is, software that helps you use Twitter. Many of these Twitter clients have web versions and smart phone versions and they allow you to save lists so you can create a visual “dashboard” that makes it easy to view your lists and your regular Twitter feed. I use a client called Hootsuite, but there are many good Twitter clients out there. If you search Google for “Reviews Twitter Clients for Android” you’ll pull up some articles that compare different Android applications (i.e., apps) –substitute iPhone, Mac, PC, Web, for Android depending on what kind of client you want to use. Since the advent of smart phones, many people don’t realize that it is possible to use Twitter with an “old style” phone, that is, just through text messaging (See Getting Started on Twitter Using SMS for more on how to do this).

Learning Twitter

Every social media platform has its own culture (norms, customs, good etiquette). As a result, it’s helpful to get a little background on the culture of the platform that you are trying to learn about. The blog post New to Twitter?  summarizes each of a list beginning Twitter resources. I recommend reading some of them over just to give yourself a feel for how things work. You can save the better ones as references to go back to when you have a question. It’s also really helpful just to do your own Google search with terms like “How to” and “Twitter” Or to go into YouTube and search on the same. You’ll find a lot of good information out there and the repetition will help you learn it at a deeper level.

Probably the most important thing to remember if you are trying to build a Twitter network is that you are building relationships, not simply mechanically interacting with technology. So all the concepts about relationship building apply here: e.g., say thanks if something is helpful or appreciated, don’t just talk about yourself (or your organization), give people the benefit of the doubt (and not assuming), etc. Finally, don’t be afraid to just jump in and get started. Let people know that you’re new to Twitter and just learning about it — most people will be pleased to help a new member learn the community.

For My Social Work Readers: Finding Social Workers on Twitter

I recommend that social workers start by following some of the people mentioned in the 101 Best in Social Work Twitter Accounts post. It’s an excellent starting place for identifying social workers to follow. I also maintain a Twitter list of social workers –I’ve constructed it just based on profiles that I’ve found, so it’s by no means comprehensive. Twitter used to cap each list at 500 Twitter accounts and then recently increased that cap to 5000, so my list just broke the 500 barrier. There are many weekly Twitter chats that would be relevant to social workers. To start, check out @SWSCMedia — they sponsor several weekly Social Work chats under the hashtag #SWSCMedia Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment with the search function by putting in key words and hashtags for topics that you are interested in. This is a great way to identify relevant content and people who are excellent candidates to follow. The most important part of learning a new social media platform is to give yourself permission to be a learners. Observe. Look for some people who seem to be using the platform effectively and then use them as role models. And take a little time to explore, just to click buttons and look around. Over time, you’ll learn the culture and conventions.

If any readers have some good Twitter learning tips to share, please add them in the comments — teaching Twitter is definitely a good community project.

Addendum: Twitter Chats

I’m adding this in response to DorleeM‘s comment below about Twitter Chats. Twitter Chats are “real time” discussions on Twitter about some topic of shared interest. Hashtags are used to track the conversation, so each person who posts needs to add the chat hashtag to their tweet so that everyone will see it, if they don’t follow the person who is talking. Most chats run for about one hour and are scheduled in advance. However, there’s no reason you couldn’t start a conversation up spontaneously by agreeing on a chat hashtag while you’re having a conversation that involves multiple people. DorleeM has a great post on her blog that lists some of the mental health-related chats that could be of interest to social workers and other human services professionals. She also includes some good links for more detail on how to do a Twitter Chat. Once you have a sense of the basic Twitter mechanics, I highly recommend participating in a chat. It’s a bit overwhelming the first couple of times that you do it, just because of the speed at which things happen and the number of separate conversation threads that are in play. But it’s well worth the time and effort. Each time I participate in a Twitter Chat I leave with at least one new person I have established a connection with, as well as some interesting things to think about.

Second photo provided courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr

16 thoughts on “Twitter 101

  1. Great job Nancy , I am new to Twitter and your guide is helpful, all research minded social workers would benefit by embracing Twitter and social media


    • Thanks so much, Graham. Your statement, “all research minded social workers would benefit by embracing Twitter and social media” warmed my heart. And I’m so pleased that you found the post helpful!


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  6. Excellent article on all the basics, Nancy!

    If I may just add one additional useful twitter feature – the ability to participle in twitter chats ! As I explain in , a twitter chat is essentially, a real-time chat where you get to talk with others about topics of interest to you via twitter.

    This post provides you with the instructions/links to show you how to participate in a twitter chat, as well as the schedule for the most common social work and mental health related twitter chats.


    • Thanks, Dorlee. One of the posts I linked to had some information on Twitter chats, but I would much rather have a post from you mentioned in the comments


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