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How to use Twitter - Everything you need to know

Barry Collins
12 May 2015
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We show you how to get started on Twitter, from choosing a username to your first tweets

Almost a decade after it first launched, Twitter remains the hottest social network on the internet. It’s a service for chatting with friends, interacting with the rich and famous (and Keith Chegwin), getting a response from businesses, getting your message read out on the radio, and sharing interesting links and, of course, photos of cats. Yet, it’s frequently abused – not just by morons posting death threats to celebrities, but by ordinary users who don’t quite grasp some of Twitter’s intricacies.

In this guide, we’re going to provide practical advice on how to get the most from Twitter, with tips for those who’ve yet to open an account through to those with tens of thousands of tweets to their name. We’ll deliver guidance on the difference between Twitter’s public and private channels, how to properly deal with nuisance and spam accounts, advice on the best Twitter clients, and much more.

Quick Twitter Glossary

@reply When you message or reply to someone directly over Twitter. The message is still public, and will appear on the timeline of anyone who follows both participants of the conversation.

DM Direct message. Twitter’s private messaging channel, where only the recipient(s) will be able to see your messages, unlike public tweets.

Favourite Clicking the star icon beneath a tweet will Favourite the tweet. It’s a way of showing you like a particular tweet and also a means of bookmarking a tweet for later reference, if it contains a link to an article, for instance. Go to https://twitter.com/favorites to view yours.

Hashtag A means of tagging tweets about a particular topic, ie. #QuestionTime. Often used by TV shows or events. Click on a hashtag to see all the tweets about that topic.

HT Hat tip. Used when crediting another user for something mentioned in a tweet. (i.e. “Here’s that link to the review. HT @ExpertReviews”)

MT Modified tweet. When someone has edited another person’s tweet (normally to keep within the 140-character limit) and republished it on their own timeline.

NSFW Not safe for work. Signifies the tweet contains a link you probably don’t want to open in front of easily offended colleagues.

RT Retweet. The process of rebroadcasting someone else’s message on your own timeline. Look for the two arrows symbol beneath a tweet to retweet it.

1. Choose a memorable username

The first task on Twitter is arguably the most important – choosing your Twitter handle. Ten years after launch, you’re not about to walk up and claim @BobSmith (the @sign appears before every Twitter username), so think of something original or ways to adapt your name: @BrightonBobby, for example, or @BobTheAccountant. Twitter isn’t case sensitive, by the way: @BrightonBobby and @brightonbobby are one of the same.

If your chosen username has already been reserved, Twitter will suggest alternatives, normally involving numbers (@BongoBobby3) or extra punctuation (@Bongo_Bobby). Avoid the latter, as unusual characters such as underscores are difficult to type in on mobile phone keyboards. You can change your Twitter username later if you make a bad choice by going to Settings and selecting the Account tab. You will still keep any followers you acquired under your original name.

2. Lurk and learn

After you’ve chosen your username, Twitter will ask you to pick a range of interests and suggest accounts of people you might follow on the network. Pick a dozen or so to get going with and spend the first day or so just watching and learning – seeing how people use the service, how they interact, and picking up the customs. You won’t have any followers at this stage anyway, so there’s little point in posting, as nobody will read it.

During the set-up process, Twitter will also suggest friends who use Twitter based on contacts from the email address you signed up with. Following and interacting with friends is a good way to get started, as they’re going to be more responsive and forgiving of newbies than @Lord_Sugar, who has four million followers to tolerate.

3. Protect your tweets from prying eyes

Anything you publish on Twitter is, by default, thrust into the public domain. Anyone can read it, even if they don’t follow you, either by using Google, the Twitter search engine or by visiting your Twitter page at www.twitter.com/YourUsername. If you don’t want employers (present or future) or other unauthorised parties to read your tweets, go to Settings > Security and Privacy and tick Protect My Tweets.

From here on in, only people you specifically approve as followers will be able to read your tweets. This does place severe limitations on how you use the social network: others won’t be able to retweet or quote you, and only your approved followers will see your replies to their tweets. So unless @PiersMorgan already follows you, you won’t be able to tweet him your opinion of his latest column. Which is probably a good thing…

4. What’s private and what’s really private?

A classic Twitter mistake is to believe that tweets or replies directed to one person (i.e. messages starting with that person’s @name) can only be read by that person. In fact, anyone who follows you both will see that message appear on their timeline, and that tweet will also appear in search and on your Twitter page.

If you want to communicate privately with someone, use the direct messaging (DM) system. On the Twitter website, you can access this by clicking Messages in the top left. Twitter recently added the facility for group DMs, allowing you to hold private chats with more than one recipient. By default, Twitter only allows you to send DMs to people who follow you, but you can now allow anyone to send you DMs by going to Settings > Security and Privacy and ticking the relevant box at the very bottom of the page.

5. Don’t shut out followers

Whilst starting a tweet with someone’s username doesn’t make it private, it does mean only those people who follow both your and the recipient’s account will see it. Many people don’t grasp this, so you’ll commonly see tweets such as “@GaryLineker was wrong about that offside” which only followers of both the sender and Gary’s account will ever see. If you want to mention someone at the start of a tweet, but want all of your followers to see it, pop a full stop at the start of the message. (ie. “.@GaryLineker was wrong about that offside.”)  

6. Get a Twitter client

The Twitter website is pretty poor for power users: your timeline doesn’t update automatically, and replies and direct messages are hidden away. If you want to keep an eye on Twitter whilst you work, download a Twitter client for your PC. Our favourite is the TweetDeck app for Google Chrome, which can be installed in the browser and then pinned to the Windows taskbar so that it effectively runs as a standalone app, even if you don’t have Chrome open. (Right click on its icon when you first launch it and select Pin this program to taskbar).

TweetDeck provides separate columns for your timeline, notifications, messages and favourites, all of which update in real time. You can also use TweetDeck to manage more than one Twitter account. We prefer the dark theme and to reduce the default font size to its smallest setting, both of which you’ll find if you click on the Settings cog in the bottom left corner of the TweetDeck window. If you don’t use Chrome, you can run TweetDeck as a web app from www.tweetdeck.twitter.com. Push F11 to make the TweetDeck window run full screen.    

7. Mute, block or report?

Twitter is plagued by idiots, spammers and trolls. Unless you’re a celebrity, you’re unlikely to bothered too much, but knowing how to deal with troublemakers is crucial. Twitter provides three options: mute, block or report.

Mute hides someone’s tweets from your timeline, allowing them to continue sending you messages that you won’t see unless you take them off mute. It’s a good way of politely ignoring a nuisance follower, without them knowing you’ve outright blocked them. Blocking prevents the person from following you, and none of their messages will appear on your timeline. It won’t completely prevent them from reading your tweets, but it stops them from interacting with you (unless they set up a new account). Report is how to deal with spam, or offensive or threatening messages, which Twitter may investigate. Twitter doesn’t have a great track record in dealing with abuse, but it’s promised to step up its game. All of these options can be found by clicking the three dots beneath each Tweet on the Twitter website, or in the various clients and Twitter apps.

8. Filter tweets on particular topics

Want to follow someone, but you’re tired of them banging on about a particular topic? Twitter clients such as TweetDeck and many Twitter apps allow you to mute tweets based on certain keywords. In TweetDeck, you can set this up by clicking the Settings cog, choosing Mute from the left-hand panel and choosing Text content. Add the phrase you wish to ban (ie. Arsenal) in the Using field and click Mute. Now all tweets about the team will be banished from your TweetDeck timeline – as long as they use that word and not 'Gunners' instead.

9. Stop Twitter bombarding your inbox

By default, Twitter will ping your email account with alerts for absolutely anything: anytime someone mentions you in a tweet, someone retweets one of your messages, every time the cat breaks wind. If you don’t want your email account to collapse under the weight of Twitter alerts, go to Settings > Email notifications and start unticking boxes. Unless you’re thunderously popular, we find alerts every time you get a new follower and every time you receive a direct message to be useful. Anything else is chaff.

10. View your Twitter analytics

Primarily aimed at businesses, any Twitter user can access their Twitter analytics at https://analytics.twitter.com – and once you’ve started, you’ll never stop. The site gives you an absorbing insight into what are your most engaging tweets, or which earned the most retweets. Click the Followers tab at the top, and you’ll find out what percentage of your followers are male/female, what their interests are, and where in the world they come from. It’s a battery of data, and if you’re really sad, you can export it all into an Excel spreadsheet and crunch the numbers even further.

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