What is this crazy little thing called Twitter?
September 21, 2012 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I have tried to figure out Twitter on my own for over a year. I still don't get it. I googled articles. I emailed people and asked questions. I paid attention when it came up in conversation in online forums. I finally screwed up my courage and set up an account, even though I didn't know how to use it. At some point, I asked someone I met in person about it. But I am still doing it Rong. So Rong in fact that I just stopped bothering to try.

So initiate me. WTF is this secret club about? What do you do on Twitter? How do you do it on Twitter? Why do you do it on Twitter?

I am trying to understand the technical piece of it but, more importantly, the culture or how you use it (er socially?). It doesn't work like an email list or forum and all my efforts to parse it out have failed.

MeFites, Hope me!
posted by Michele in California to Computers & Internet (55 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I *just* used it to figure out when the shuttle would be coming over the parking lot of my work. I did this in part by keeping an eye on accounts I already follow (for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge) and also by following the #spottheshuttle hashtag.

I used to tweet a fair amount but now I use it pretty much as incoming-news-things only. There are lots of mefites on Twitter, and lots of them around here use it as a "let's meet for drinks at [place] tomorrow!" I've never found it useful for "conversations" as such, but for back-and-forth banter and info exchange (including serious news, cat pictures, and so on) it was great when I used it more regularly.
posted by rtha at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you use either Facebook or an instant messenger program which lets you post a status message (brief indication of something interesting--hopefully--that you're doing or thinking about *right now*)? It's a little bit like that (or a collection of those things, since they're all archived) in my mind.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2012

The only reason I'm on Twitter is so I can follow the food trucks in NYC, so I know when they are near work for tasty lunches!

Oh, and I follow some of my online friends, too. I rarely actually tweet.

Just use it how you want to use it. There's no such thing as using twitter wrong.
posted by Grither at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

(And when I say "thinking about" I include neat articles or pictures or other links that you're thinking about because you just read them, or someone just told you about them.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:05 AM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: The key for me was to follow more people--interesting, funny, smart people as well as organizations, businesses, magazines, etc. Then your timeline is full of funny, smart things to read. I follow few people I know in real life and have very few followers myself, but I like reading what others have to say. I also enjoy reading my twitter feed during live events to see what everyone else has to say about it (the recent political conventions or example, or sporting events).
posted by TishSnave at 11:08 AM on September 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't get twitter, either. I got a smartphone about a year ago, and figured I'd do the responsible thing and start tweeting. I kept it up for maybe two months (following friends, @-ing people, tweeting funny things I saw), and then I just lost interest.

There are a few situations that I, personally, find twitter useful for:

1) There's this thing called Journey to the End of the Night, which is a big game of tag around the city, and I manned a checkpoint this year. Twitter was the thing people were using to communicate, using the #jtteotn hashtag, and following that was fun because it let me keep tabs on where my friends were and how the overall game was progressing, and send updates about what was going on at our checkpoint. (And the fact that it makes pictures really easy to share is a bonus.)

2) Whenever something weird happens in a large, populated area, it's gonna show up on the twitters. I do searches for #chicago or #chicagoloop every once in a while when I want to know (for instance) what movie set I'm looking at or if I'm the only one who can smell chocolate.

I have it set to send me an email whenever someone mentions me, and then I'll go check things out to see what's going on. Otherwise, I tend to just stay away from it. Its absence hasn't affected my life too badly.
posted by phunniemee at 11:09 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been using it since the beginning, really. A few of my friends are on it, and a bunch of very funny famous people are on it. My friends and I tweet little funny things that happen, or other updates (including the "what I had for lunch today" classic, but also things like "tornado warning until 9 p.m.!"). So do the famous funny people except they get more bizarre and dirty. I vastly prefer it to Facebook, which is like going to the Mall of America. Twitter's more like a small coffee shop that's full of only people I want to hear from. It's an especially valuable place to be while watching political conventions, or things like the Emmys. It becomes a carnival of snark with like-minded people. That may be just the people I've chosen to follow, though.

Also, I can post my Instagram photos to Twitter so that Instagram hold-outs (my sister, my mother) can see them.
posted by chowflap at 11:09 AM on September 21, 2012

I think a lot of the people who use Twitter are people who wanted to use blogs but couldn't think of anything complex to say. They were the ones whose blog posts consisted of nothing but "so I made some noodles today."

Twitter's like the Seinfeld of the blogosphere.

And maybe that's not really you. That's okay. (I forget which celebrity said this, but when asked if they used Twitter, they said no because "some people just aren't naturally epigramatic.")

I do have a Twitter account, but for the stupidest of reasons imaginable (I sometimes read John Cusack's twitter feed because the dude has ABSOLUTELY NO self-censor, and sometimes it's like watching a weird train wreck while other times he's posting links to awesome videos. I got it in case I ever wanted to comment back.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:09 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you ever use public AOL chatrooms? They're essentially the same, except you can be in a chatroom with your favorite celebrity and some guy for the NY times. Some people will be having smaller conversations, some people will just be shouting into the ether--talking about their lunch or sharing cool articles they've read. Sometimes smaller conversations will branch out from the shouting. It's essentially town square, but town square is filled with everyone you're following.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:13 AM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: Re Facebook: I didn't really get that either, but more in a "I tried it and didn't like it" manner not in a "Where is the damn handle on this freaking door???!!!" manner. So comparisons to Facebook are of limited usefulness. (I considered mentioning that in the post but then thought that was overthinkibg and I could just address it if it comes up in discussion.)

My use of Instant Messenger, er, is a very bad comparison. I have used IM. It became a problem and I haven't used it in a long time. So my online social experience is mostly forums, email lists, and email.
posted by Michele in California at 11:15 AM on September 21, 2012

I follow sports writers and a few comedians. None of my friends Tweet. I use Tweet deck to watch multiple lists at once. I also follow some official university accounts from my daughter's college so I can keep up on what's up so I can have a halfway intelligent conversation with her. If there is breaking news, I search on hashtags.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:15 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, what is it you're trying to do, exactly? There's no precise right or wrong way to use Twitter. But there probably are some guidelines or best practices if you're trying to use Twitter to reach some kind of goal.

That said, I find Twitter to be the opposite of a secret club. The whole point of it--for me--is that I'm (at least marginally) connected to all sorts of people I have no real-life connection to. It's been a tool for discovery and conversation with people who share common interests, and it's a good way to keep up with celebrities, writers, and people I admire.
posted by serialcomma at 11:17 AM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I use it to follow one specific sport I like. It's good because a lot of the journalists use Twitter and talk with each other and interact about things that they will later filter down and put into articles. So it's a bit like having a microphone in the teacher's lounge.

Here are the things that it provides for me:

1) Live comments from experts and eyewitnesses about stuff I'm interested in.
2) Quick reactions from experts to breaking news that affects the thing I'm interested in.
3) The experts pointing out to each other which of the articles are really good and important, so they help filter their own output for me.
4) Good places to eat in various towns when they travel.
5) A lot of them will actually respond to tweets, so I have much greater access to them. Sometimes they want to hear what people think. Sometimes I can notice an error in a just-published article and tweet them to get it fixed.

For me it makes sense as a place to follow professionals whose output you are interested in. As a thing for following random people just being themselves, I too had no idea wtf why.
posted by fleacircus at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I use mine mostly like a combination feed reader/instant messenger. With one look at my timeline, I can see what my favorite creators/writers/actors are up to. I can find out what people have been reading or blogging or listening to. I can tell all of my friends (in 4 states and 2+ time zones) about a cool new site/post all at once, and I can view the same kind of stuff from them on any device I want. It's asynchronous chat, and and it lets me keep updated on what my friends are doing. I do not post about my bowel movements or my food (unless I'm posting about a new restaurant or recipe that people might care about).

I can also use it as pretty much the most up-to-date (but probably not the most accurate) news source around. Oh, there was a hostage situation in Pittsburgh today? It was reported on Twitter 15-20 minutes before any of the local news outlets had anything up. Or maybe traffic was bad and I want to know what happened. A quick search and I can find out which roads were closed and when they'll be open again.

Disclaimer: I use instant messenger A LOT, but can't always connect with friends and family because of time concerns. I do not use Facebook because my facebook feed is full of oversharing high-school acquaintances and I'm too cowardly to block the people I don't like on there.
posted by specialagentwebb at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2012

I'm a Twitter addict, but it's almost entirely read-only for me.

I follow almost entirely media people -- mostly sports for me with some local and national news. They point to articles about things I'm interested in and offer quick opinions and jokes. It's kinda of like the front page of MetaFilter if there were no individual posts and everyone just posted links and opinions into one big communal thread.

I find new people to follow by recommendations from people I like who I am already following.

Once in a while I'll tweet at someone to ask a question or to make a comment, and sometimes a conversation will start but mostly those tweets get ignored. Which I'm more than ok with.

I follow a local politics hashtag to keep track of what's going on in my city.

All in all it's a great time killer for when you're on the bus or bored in a meeting. A lot of people use it more conversationally but I'm happy using it as a more personalized RSS feed.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2012

I use twitter to keep track of sites and links I want to revisit later. So, I'll tweet/share something interesting so I can quickly find it later. I also use it to network by following interesting people in my field or relevant businesses.
posted by marimeko at 11:23 AM on September 21, 2012

The chatroom analogy is apt. You can also click on a hashtag and see all the tweets that have that hashtag. That's pretty much it. You can follow people and then you will see their tweets. Other people can follow you if they want to and then they will see yours. You can reply to tweets or just directly address a user.

Basically: You say something (ostensibly) interesting in 140 characters or less, and the people who follow you will see it. It's a good way to engage with people and have a social media presence.

Is there something specific you're trying to do with it that you haven't been able to?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:23 AM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: EmpressCallipygos isn't describing Twitter, per se, but conversation. People talk on the telephone about noodles, too, but you probably don't want to converse with them. Avoid noodle people.

Twitter is like a crowded party. Stand next to the guys talking about last week's football game, and if you hate football, you'll be bored to death. Stand next to the people chatting about how Metafilter changed their lives, and you'll be able to jump in, have a great conversation, and meet the friends of your friends so you'll eventually chat about non-Metafilter things with them when you meet at a cocktail party elsewhere.

Pick smart people to follow, engage and smart conversations, and be entertained. Pick people whom you wouldn't want to sit next to on the bus, and you won't have a very pleasant experience.

The advice I give to everyone is to start by just using Twitter on your computer, at the actual website. It's easier to see the "big picture" when you see it as it was (mostly) originally designed. Multiple people who were using it on their phones or devices immediately saw a difference in their experiences, and once they were more familiar, branched out to using devices.

I use Twitter as my primary way of interacting with the world online. I use it to:

1) Follow breaking news and get links to in-depth news stories.

2) Follow my colleagues, who post links to their own blogs, and well as a vast array of articles and research material related to my profession.

3) Learn everything I know about apps, sites and tech from colleagues, friends, gurus, etc. to I don't miss important things or waste time on stuff that hasn't reached that critical mass in the mainstream news media.

4) Follow actors, directors, producers and authors whom I find entertaining or amusing.

5) Connect with local contacts to make plans for professional and networking activities.

6) Market to my prospective clients.

Many people use it like texting, for just chatting, and that's not productive for my time. I used it as my own private TV/Radio/Newspaper, filling my stream with interesting material so that I can soak it up, read what fascinates me, and share things that I think will fascinate others.

Not interested in what people have for lunch? (Good.) Don't follow people who tweet like that. Figure out who (in your circle of friends, community, media options, experts, etc.) intrigue you, and follow them. When you see an opportunity, start or join a conversation.

You might not need Twitter. It's essential for me, professionally and personally, and has dramatically improved my productivity in terms of research and curation of thing about which I'd never have known. I've found great professional resources, and made friends internationally with colleagues I'd otherwise only have met, in passing, once every few years. But it all depends what you want to use it for, and how artfully you use it.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2012 [18 favorites]

Twitter can be many things -- what do you feel like you want to use it for?

It can be entertaining -- I follow the West Wing twitter accounts, because they're fun. There are lots of famous, funny people on Twitter to follow.
It can be informative -- follow your favorite restaurants to learn about special deals and dining opportunies, or keep track of where the next Occupy protest is setting up
You can use it to inform -- talk about what you're blogging or little things related to your blog that you come across that might not merit full blog posts
You can use it as a Facebook status analog -- tell your friends and family members what you had for lunch.
You can use it to participate -- follow hashtags and tweet to them and get involved about conversations about what's going on on TV or in a local protest or whatever

Depending on which of those things you want to do with Twitter, you'll need to do different things, and build a different audience. You can try to use it for all of those things at once, but then you run the risk of either annoying the crap out of your followers (who expect one kind of content and get another), or finding the whole stream really overwhelming.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You could think of Twitter as an email list. Subscribers are followers to your list, or you've subscribed to theirs.
- You may have some Followers (people on Twitter who've "followed" your account) and anything you tweet will be received by these folk.
- You may Follow some users. Anything they tweet will be shown in your Twitter interface of choice.

The subject of your tweets does not have to follow any rhyme or reason, but sometimes people come to expect certain things if you consistently tweet on particular things. You're free to share as much information about yourself as you want, or none at all.

Through the use of #hashtags your tweets might reach a wider audience. Trending topics often use hashtags as everyone adds their two cents on the same subject. Sometimes you may even find new followers as they discover your tweets.

My personal usage of Twitter is mainly generic non-committal updates of my life, without trying to share too much detail. I might proclaim that I'm having dinner at a 4-star restaurant or a -1 star dive (perhaps followed by a tweet of me complaining about stomach problems). I follow a certain number of friends who post things on occasion, and it lets me see what sort of shenanigans they're up to.

I also follow a few organizations or well-known celebrities (like jscalzi), just to see what they're doing. Some of these I follow because of their wit and humor, and I like "looking in" at their insights and observations (i.e. George Takei). Others I might follow because of their ideologies or mindsets are interesting (i.e. Rachel Maddow).

And I also follow local food trucks to see if they're going to be in my area. I follow a local wine store to see what sort of new product they've received or are currently promoting. I follow my favorite sports teams for game updates or trivia or contests.

I'm sure there are other ways I've been using Twitter, but I think these are the primary ones.
posted by CancerMan at 11:28 AM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: Re what am I trying to do with it:
At the moment, I am trying to just try it out. And haven't managed to get into it enough to figure out if it does anything for me.

(Yup: That lame.)
posted by Michele in California at 11:28 AM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: As we speak, I'm following journalism conferences I can't attend because I have to stay here and work. People link resources in Google Docs and attach photos of the conference session slides -- really helpful!

I also follow stuff related to my beats.
posted by jgirl at 11:34 AM on September 21, 2012

Good advice above but I would add that Twitter is not a constant stream of links to your own website - why would people follow you for that? It's boring and they can subscribe to your rss feed instead.

Use the search box on Twitter to find people that you have something in common with, that link to things you find interesting and engage with them, e.g.

"Thanks for that useful link @interestingperson, I've bought one for my son."

Search for topics you're knowledgeable about and write an @ reply, e.g.

"@namehere that hospital closed its orthapaedic dept last year, try this hospital instead"

Also, the people I intereact with on Twitter are for the most part, friends from a now tumbleweedy blog that had a great community - have a look at the communities you're active in elsewhere for people who are also on Twitter and make connections that way.
posted by humph at 11:36 AM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: My wife keeps asking me to "show her how to use Twitter." What I've told her is that I really can't. Twitter is a whole lot of things.

At its most basic it's a way for people to post very short (140 character) messages to their "followers." Their message will show up in the feeds of their followers, along with all the other messages that person is following. People can (for the most part) follow anyone they want to follow.

Ok, so it's a tool that does what I just said it does. But it's not a unitasker like, say, a potato peeler that can only be used to peel potatoes. If I ask you what a potato peeler does you can tell me.

Twitter is more like a rubber band. What does a rubber band do? Well... some people use them to wrap money in bundles. Other people put them on their wrists and snap them whenever they get the urge to smoke. Other people shoot them from their fingers. Some people use them to tighten their braces in their teeth. Every day people figure out new uses for rubber bands.

So what can you use Twitter for? Here's a few examples:

Follow your favorite bands as they tour the country. "We're in Omaha today. Great gig in Texas last night." Well, maybe it turns out the guitarist for the band is very funny and he makes jokes all the time. Or maybe he posts interesting photos from his tour. I follow Weird Al on Twitter and he's always posting photos with amusing captions. I follow Paul and Storm, who are always posting nerd jokes or funny observations about their travels.

Follow your favorite celebrities. Sure, you can follow Paris Hilton or Justin Timberlake, but I like following minor celebrities that I wouldn't normally hear anything about in the news. I use the term "celebrities" basically to mean "people who I am aware of but are not necessarily aware of me." They can be as minor as the mods on my favorite community weblog or as well-known as someone who is on Saturday Night Live every week. People like Wil Wheaton, Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, the Mefi Mod Squad, some other "internet famous" people, Neil Degrass Tyson, Patton Oswalt, Adam Savage.

From following those people I have discovered other amusing people to follow. I'm now aware of people like Phil Plait and Chris Hardwick.

The best part is that there is no barrier to entry and unfollowing people is just as easy as following them. I think I followed Kevin Smith and Steve Martin for about 30 minutes before I got annoyed. Unfollow.

Local information. I follow a bunch of local newspapers, weathermen, town politicians, minor local celebrities, police and fire depts, and even a guy who monitors the local police/fire scanner all day long and posts interesting updates. As a result of Twitter I'm very informed about the goings on in my sleepy little town.

Breaking news An hour ago I was walking back to lunch when four fighter jets in formation flew over very low. I came back to my desk and searched "boston flyover" on Twitter. This was maybe five minutes after the jets flew over and I had my answer. There was some POW/MIA event at city hall and the flyover was part of that. Thanks, Twitter!

See smoke off in the distance? Chances are someone close to it has Tweeted about it. Feel the building shake? Search Twitter for "Earthquake." The tweets probably got there before the shock waves hit.

Space missions and other long-term projects that have occasional news. I followed Mars Curiosity from the time they were building it, through launch, through landing, and now that it's on the surface. I'm following along as they build the Orion capsules. I get news about Space X.

What I call Novelty Accounts. For a time some guy tweeted the stupid things his roommate said. It was hilarious. People are tweeting as Darth Vader, or sexually aware Amish women, or Hector Salamanca from Breaking Bad, or cats, or squirrels, or whatever. You either get them or you don't. You might not, that's ok. I tend to get bored with these after away but they're usually amusing for a while.

Follow your friends. I have a few amusing friends who post jokes to Twitter. It's like joking around the water cooler only your friends can be everywhere.

These are just a few of the ways I use Twitter. Other people use it in other ways. You might discover a new way. Or, you might discover you have no use for it whatsoever. That's fine too.
posted by bondcliff at 11:37 AM on September 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

The slightly pathetic truth, I fear, is that one part of what I find compelling about Twitter is seeing whether stuff that I tweet gets retweeted, retweeted with added commentary, or replied to. So the read-only model wouldn't work for me. I recommend tweeting actively. Try not to worry about boring or alienating people - it is super-easy for people to unfollow you, so gradually your followership ought to settle down into the people who want to hear what you've got to say, even if it's what you had for lunch.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:38 AM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: I don't use my personal Twitter account much except for sending quick private messages to friends who mostly communicate via Twitter.

But I am staff on a science fiction convention and Twitter is one of the ways we get news out. I've set up our website to automatically post to Twitter, Facebook, and a couple of other places when we post an update, and I also communicate with panelists and attendees and keep an eye on what they're saying about us that way, periodically searching on hashtags associated with the con and replaying or retweeting the ones I find if that action's applicable.

We had a huge snowstorm right before the con a few years ago that took out power in much of the city, and by following our local utility's Twitter feed and by searching for its hashtag I was able to keep informed about where in the city had power and where didn't, and to let our attendees and panelists know, and to get info out quickly about who couldn't show up as they canceled.

Last con, I even ran an impromptu Twitter contest one evening as I noticed several panelists and attendees were tweeting about the con. I posted on the con's feed that I was in the bar and the first person to come up to me and say a particular amusing phrase to me got a free drink, with the difficulty being that they couldn't ask the person they were sayign it to if they were the convention tweeter first. Someone took up the challenge, and there were several very confused bar patrons before they found me!

I want to come up with more Twitter/Facebook/email newsletter challenges like that for the heck of it for next year, as it provides amusement and perhaps a modicum of publicity.
posted by telophase at 11:39 AM on September 21, 2012

* That would be "replying to" and not "replaying" above. *sigh*
posted by telophase at 11:41 AM on September 21, 2012

Yeah, people use it in many different ways. I (disclaimer: have been on it less than a year and am still sort of figuring it out) use it primarily in two ways.

One is to follow news and generally consume stuff online, much like reading websites. All the news sites/stations/papers I would read every day if I had all the time in the world, I follow on twitter. This is basically like getting all the headlines, and then I can choose what to read/watch in depth. Same for interesting blogs, politicians, and a few funny accounts that tweet little jokes or clever tidbits. And informational things like traffic updates, the power company, etc. This is the passive information-gathering, reading part.

The other, more active/involved way, is a) I tweet my own blog posts and articles, as well as random non-work related thoughts. But not too much of any of that. I try not to just blather on. I think of it as a combination of announcing when I have a new thing (like a blog post) plus making publicly the best of the observations that, if I had a friend with me all the time, I'd make to them.

And b) I follow people who live near me and/or who write about the topics I write about, or related topics. (And people I know, from online and real life, wherever or whatever they live and tweet about.) These are people I will tweet to and respond to, which leads to either a one-off comment or a conversation. And I re-tweet things that strike me as especially good or funny.

I would start, at the very beginning, by simply following every person or entity that you already follow in other ways. E.g. if you read the NY Times regularly, follow them. If there are blogs or websites you read, see if they're on Twitter. Then follow people who are talking about specific topics that interest you, like health or food or whatever. You can search for this stuff on Twitter itself (that's what the # is for, type in #food) or just keep an eye out for the "follow me on Twitter" button elsewhere online. Keep following more people and unfollowing the ones that prove annoying, and eventually you'll see how it works. You can observe other people talking to each other to see how that part works, before you start. (You can also do this really slowly over time, I'm only following like 250 people so far.) Twitter will also suggest people for you to follow, which once you have enough can be useful sometimes.

Also when I first started I read a bunch of Twitter etiquette articles, and that helped. I still read one if I come across it.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:47 AM on September 21, 2012

Michele, how many people have you followed? Also, have you tried saying anything ("tweeting")?
posted by brainwane at 11:48 AM on September 21, 2012

Re what am I trying to do with it:
At the moment, I am trying to just try it out. And haven't managed to get into it enough to figure out if it does anything for me.

Starting out on twitter is a bit like having an email address in 1989. You only really know two other people who have them, and you can't quite figure out why you'd want to bother when you could just call them. It's just such a low key platform that you're not likely to find it super engaging until you actually figure out how you want to use it and find other people who are also using it that way. That's both the beauty of Twitter and its main problem.

I signed up a couple of years ago, and never really got into Twitter. My friends weren't saying anything there they weren't saying on Facebook, and I didn't really feel like following Stephen Fry was adding enough to my life to make me visit the site every day. I used it very occasionally to touch base with people that weren't on Facebook, and that was it.

But really, I never really found Twitter useful or engaging until I what I wanted to do with it -- keep up with some of the local food chatter in Toronto, and follow fun celebrities. I'm still not super engaged with it, but I find it amusing for occasional check-ins.

You can try following a few people you're interested in -- some fun celebrities, some local businesses, some people who talk about issues you care about -- and see if any particular use of it jumps to the front for you. But if it doesn't, that's not a failing on your part. If you're getting the information you need and prefer a different form of entertainment, that's totally okay.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:50 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

-- I read my Twitter timeline religiously, but I never ever tweet. So that's #1, you don't have to post anything if you don't want to.
-- The recommendation to begin following Twitter on your PC is a good one. Go to the website and log in.
-- Now, choose 5 or 10 people or things you are interested in. CNN is a good one, and maybe also a local news station. I know you are interested in alternative/holistic health, so if there's a practitioner of that that you enjoy, you can search to see if they have a Twitter account. If there are writers or TV shows that you really enjoy, search to see if they have an account. If there are local restaurants or independent stores (like a health food store) that you like to frequent, search to see if they have an an account. When you search and find someone/thing you are interested in, follow them.
-- Then, a few times a day go to the Twitter website or just keep it open in a tab if you are on your computer frequently. When you check it out, you should have anywhere from a few to many tweets to scroll through. Lots of those will contain links that you can click on to go to an article or a YT video, etc (sort of like a mini-FFP on MeFi).
-- Within the Tweet there might be another Twitter handle mentioned (@xxxxx). You can click that to move through to their Twitter account and from there follow them if you'd like, building up your list of people you follow.
-- If someone/thing you are following posts stuff that you think is dumb or uninteresting, just unfollow them and they quit appearing in your list.
-- You can also follow any friends, family, etc that you want to socialize with to see what they are up to, what they are reading or watching, what they are thinking about.
-- After dipping your toes in for a while, you might eventually read something that spurs you to reply or maybe you just want to read and not really tweet yourself. Either is fine.
-- Like most places, Twitter has it's own lingo. If you don't understand something like an abbreviation or how hash tags work (#thing), you can find info about that on Twitter's help section or just google it.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 11:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like the OP, I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to Twitter. I know how to post a Tweet, and I subscribe to some interesting people, but I have no idea what the hash tag means (#) when it's in front of a name or phrase, and I'm not entirely clear on RT and other acronyms and functions.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:00 PM on September 21, 2012

I was late to Twitter too, but I enjoy it, for all the reasons people have mentioned above. It's a fun way to discover things you had no idea you didn't know. I follow Huffpost and The New Yorker and NPR, and then I get directed to all kinds of interesting articles that I can either follow up or ignore.

Professionally Twitter has helped me, too. I do interviews occasionally, and recently had the chance to chat with an author whose work I love, and whose late father was also a writer. As I was doing a bunch of prep for the interview - googling, etc. - I happened to have my Twitter open. A message popped in from someone at the publisher connected with my author. They said something like, "Bigname Author is here in the back room, signing books!" And then some of us who were fans of the author started chatting. One guy who happened to be a Bond expert said, "Oh, ask him if they're going to be re-releasing Blah Blah Blah Bond Book Blah." I scratched my head, because this author has never written a Bond book. I pursued it, then found out that his father had written a Bond book under a pseudonymn. I thought I was an expert on the guy, yet I never knew his dad had written a Bond book! It made for a fun question in the interview, and I would never have known about any of it if I hadn't had my Twitter open.

I haven't read all the responses above yet, so I may be reinforcing what others have said - You can use Twitter promotionally, too, if you're selling something (and who isn't these days). I'm in an artsy field, and there are so many arts groups and bands and writers and artists and people in my field that I want to connect with, because you never know - they could be coming to town, there might be a chance to collaborate, I could feature them on my show, they could ask me to illustrate a book for them, etc. etc. And I'm slowly growing an awareness of my brand and my art as I interact on Twitter. It was happening on Facebook too, but I somehow plateaued over there. Twitter has put me and my product in front of a whole new audience.

If you want to be a good Twitterer, there are all kinds of articles on the webs about Twitter etiquette (Twettiquette). Most experts recommend lots of interaction. For instance, don't just tweet self-promotionally. Respond to others' tweets when you're moved to, re-tweet when you like something, and initiate chats with others. Tweet about yourself, but tweet things that have nothing to do with you, too. Thank people when they follow you. And you can do some judicious self-promoting too, as long as it's not over-frequent. If I want to tweet something I'm hoping a certain, say, online magazine or publisher will notice (I'd like to write for them someday), I'll add their name to my tweet so they'll be sure to see my tweet in their feed. Sometimes I get noticed, and at least one new project has arisen because I did that.

Magical things can happen...I drew a caricature of one of my fave music artists. He not only noticed it, but said other people had found it and loved it too. We're in touch now, and there's a possibility that I might be drawing a comic book about him.

Anyway, yes, Twitter is worth pursuing. So go for it!
posted by cartoonella at 12:06 PM on September 21, 2012

I don't know that I can add much that hasn't been mentioned upthread, but here's some concrete examples from my experiences from yesterday alone:

1. Friend tweets "Can anyone recommend a good GPS?" I gave her my opinion.
2. I ask 5 specific people if they are going to trivia night as we'd planned. Some answer yes, some answer no.
3. I tweeted a picture that makes fun of Apple maps. A bunch of people found it funny and retweeted it to their followers.
4. I favorited an article by someone in my career field for later reading. (I use favorites as bookmarks; some people use them for "liking" something.)
5. I complained about the fruit flies in my kitchen and someone responded with a useful tip.

So, it's basically anything you want it to be. I like to have conversations; some people just like to read what others write and not get too interactive. It's all up to you.
posted by desjardins at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2012

I follow people with my professional interests and share links around my professional interests. Occasionally I'll just share something that happened and is interesting like if I found a bat in my underwear drawer. (I did not.)

My partner uses it for one-liners. I actually don't think he uses Twitter in a serious sense at all.

There's a lot of reciprocal following and so on.

I'm not a huge fan but it's a good distraction sometimes. I'm trying to use it less as a one-way broadcasting method and more with a little give and take. I'm a fairly introverted person so I'm not really looking for a way to have tons more interactions online. As for random discussions with online strangers, I kind of like Metafilter for that. But Twitter can function as a discussion platform or as a broadcasting forum, where you're either broadcasting yourself or receiving broadcasts from others.

You don't have to Tweet to 'get' Twitter, you can follow things interesting to you and never Tweet once.

It's also possible you simply don't have an open need for Twitter to fill, or Facebook.

As far as functional stuff -- how do I reTweet? How do I direct a comment at someone? There are lots of posts like this around, that kind of tell you the basics. And you can always observe what others are doing and learn from them.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:22 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: At the moment, I am trying to just try it out. And haven't managed to get into it enough to figure out if it does anything for me.

It sounds like you're maybe looking for more basic and technical information? If not, I apologize if this is getting too bare-bones, but here's a quick primer on Twitter UI/concepts:

--User accounts: ex: @neilhimself, @starwarsuncut, @gregpak. These are the people (and organizations, and websites, and spambots) that post content to Twitter. You can click on their names to see their profile page (with a reverse-chronological list of their tweets.) On their profile page, you can also choose to Follow them; what this does is adds them to an aggregate list that you can read at the "Home" tab up top. Unlike some social network sites, following is not mutual, and does not require any sort of approval from the person being followed.

--Tweets: Limited to 140 characters, though long URLs and stuff can be automatically truncated. Apart from just the straightforward "writing what's on your mind", there's a few other things that you can throw in:
---if you include someone's username (with the @ symbol in front), it will link to their page and will show them a notice (if you're wondering if you've gotten @-tagged, you can check under the "Discover" tab at the top.)
---Tweets can be replied to. You can see what replies a tweet's gotten (or what it was replying to) by clicking on it. You can reply to a tweet by clicking on it and hitting "Reply". This reply will show up as a tweet on your page, and will be visible for people who click on the original tweet.
---Retweets. You can retweet a tweet by clicking on it and hitting "Retweet". This will publish the tweet to your account, with a link back to the original creator. You can add text to the retweet, as long as you stay within the character limit.
---Hashtags. Ex: #muslimrage, #fridayreads, #JPL. These are a way of tagging what your tweet is about. If you click on a hashtag, it'll take you to a list of tweets that include that hashtag. Really handy for current-events stuff, and for silly jokes. Twitter has a sidebar of "Trending Topics" for hashtags in heavy use.
posted by kagredon at 12:35 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use my Twitter to ask work-related questions--I just asked a British magazine for the email address of one of their contributors. Works fast, good, easy. I'm not looking for followers or witty banter with my pals, although many people do. I follow people and things I find interesting, and I have no clue how people decide to follow me. And somewhere along the line, a certain group of advertisers decided that I'm useful to them, so I get paid to tweet once or twice a month.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:44 PM on September 21, 2012

I'm on Twitter, and it works for me. I also advise libraries how to use Twitter and what works for me personally might not work for them professionally. So I agree with what other people are saying "Think of the sort of thing you would like to use it for" People have given you a lot of types of examples. Here are mine.

- Personal account - this is just short updates and replies and direct messages to people. I keep TweetDeck running on my desktop at all times and it's a nice way to see what people are talking about, like a radio on in the background. I occasionally retweet things. I have some friends for whom direct messaging on Twitter is actually the best way to contact them. DMing me on Twitter goes straight to my email. My ratio of people following me to people I follow is about 10:1. People who follow me are librarians, MeFi people, real life friends and internet friends for the most part. I maintain a few separate lists with Tweet Deck including: family and close friends (like eight people), MeFi co-workers, people who mention me, people who mention the digital divide, everyone else. When there's a concference I am interested in (or at) I will often follow the conference hashtag. I don't use it on my phone much at all.
- Professional account - this is just an account that retweets my blog for people who want that (some do)
- Literary account - I had one for a while that retweeted Donald Barthelme quotes
- anonymous account - complaints only, no one knows what this one is to the best of my knowledge

For libraries I often advise them to use the tool as a way to push out event announcements and notable stuff, follow all the local businesses and news sources, interact with other libraries and other librarians, and announce new things in the collection and/or share photos and created content. Many libraries are doing this very effectively.
posted by jessamyn at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I follow about a half-dozen daleks on Twitter. They yell about things and at each other, and it makes me happy.

When I found a specialty soda I really liked, I looked up their twitter handle and tweeted about the tasty drink. They replied to me, and we had a short conversation. Since then I've posted a couple photos of their sodas in interesting compositions (little stuff on my work break), and they usually retweet them. One even was featured on their site. That was pretty nice.
posted by itesser at 12:59 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was late to twitter and like some of the others who've responded, I am more of a consumer than producer.

In my field (I am an archivist), people live tweet conference sessions, which has proved very popular since it's not a field where people make a lot of money and there are a significant number of people who don't get financial support for professional development and can't afford to make it to every conference that relates to their job or interests. Sometimes presenters will tweet links to their presentations or papers/studies that were referenced. People generally agree on the hashtag (#) phrase to use so that someone interested in a particular conference can do one search and find all the related tweets. For example, this year I couldn't attend the Society of American Architects conference but I can search #saa12 and get a sense of what the hot topics were. It's not the same as attending in person, but it does allow one to keep up with important trends and topics. Of course you have to wade through a lot of tweets about meetups and and other recreational outings. I've also found job postings in my field on twitter that I hadn't seen elsewhere or at least they showed up on twitter first.
posted by kaybdc at 1:00 PM on September 21, 2012

The best nutshell description of Twitter I've come across is that it enables "ambient awareness." That is, by following the right people (friends, relatives, colleagues, news sources, experts on topics you like, etc.) and then checking your feed every so often, you gain a new kind of awareness of your personal universe — different from social settings, different from the dinner table, different from reading or watching news, and hard to describe until you try it, experience it and "get" it.

The "ambient awareness" concept is from a NY Times Magazine article in 2009 by Clive Thompson called “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” which included this bit:
Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting…. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.” … an invisible dimension floating over everyday life…
Essentially this applies to Facebook as well, but the simplicity of Twitter vs. Facebook, plus the fact that you can follow anybody — mutual "friending" is not necessary on Twitter — make "ambient awareness" much more achievable on Twitter.

[selflink ahead] For a more extend answer to your question about "the culture and how you use it," see this 2009 blog post at NiemanLab.com, in which I mentioned Thompson's article and used that quote.
posted by beagle at 1:10 PM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Michele, please don't bolt on completely new questions to an existing one. Thanks.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 1:27 PM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: Okay, let me try that again: How do you determine what or who to follow if you have a particular general interest and completely suck at figuring out what people might call that? What thread do you pull to get it to all unravel?

(Is that acceptable?)
posted by Michele in California at 1:42 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: It is often easier to find people through their blogs. For example, I like to follow film critics so I search for critics who have blogs (pretty much all do). Most of them will include a link to their twitter account on their blog. Twitter search is not all that great for such things.

Also, once you've found a couple of people to follow, click on the link of who they follow (using the website as mentioned above; it's easier). They are likely to follow other people with the same interest.

It shouldn't take long at all to start following lots of people. The key is knowing what information you want and being able to add/delete followers as you start reading more of your incoming tweets.
posted by perhapses at 1:50 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: Start outside Twitter -- find the websites or blogs of a few people involved in your general interest and look for the links to their Twitter profiles.

Then follow them. And look at the people they follow, and the people they retweet who say things that interest you and follow them. It's an iterative process, if you follow a zillion people the first day, you'll find it overwhelming and frustrating.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:58 PM on September 21, 2012

Or start inside of Twitter. You can search for topics, and see who pops up. If they sound like they know their stuff, follow them. Have a look at who they follow, and pick some more. Also, when you're on somebody's page that you like, click Lists and see which Lists they follow, and which Lists they're on. Check out especially Lists they have created. Follow a good List, and you're automatically getting a pretty nicely curated topical feed.
posted by beagle at 2:15 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: Follow a good List, and you're automatically getting a pretty nicely curated topical feed.

Speaking of, Phire maintains a (pretty awesome) Twitter List of Mefites.
posted by kagredon at 2:21 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: Definitely find people outside Twitter. If you start looking you'll see a lot of people/organizations have their twitter handles visible, you probably just didn't notice. Most popular blogs have a Twitter feed where they'll link new articles and other interesting stuff that might not be worth a full blog post. Go to the blog, hit Ctrl-F and type "Twitter" to find their twitter handle.

You can try searching Twitter for that person, though sometimes it's a wash (too many people with a similar name)

Look at Retweets. Retweets (ie: quoting a tweet from someone else) always show who tweeted the original. If you see something interesting that is a retweet, consider following the original person.

Prune. Add people who look interesting. Remove people who are too noisy/annoying/talking about things you don't care about. It's not rude to unfollow people.

FWIW I find Twitter to be a peerless news/information/interesting thing discovery tool. And I follow a few comedians for larfs, and a few spacecraft because I'm living in the future.

Consider not using Twitter.com. It's better than it was, but it's still not that great. 3rd party twitter clients are generally much better. (I quite like Tweetdeck, which isn't really 3rd party any more. But at least it doesn't have "promoted tweets" for the moment. There are many others to choose from.)

Oh, also: Don't complain about "too much noise" on Twitter because you have the power to do something about it: Unfollow the noisy people.

And finally: You don't have to Twitter. Seriously. We went to the moon and back without Twitter, it's not vital and you'll live a long and healthy life without it. It might not be for you.
posted by Ookseer at 2:27 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: I follow a lot of web developers on it, since that's what I do for a living. Mostly for the links they provide. Sometimes I'll use it to search (for example I searched the local mall's name today to find out if there was a big line at the Apple Store [there was]).

I follow a handful of people I know in real life - none of whom post a heck of a lot, and I also follow companies that make apps I use, as well as local restaurants and local shops that interest me. It's nice to know if they're having a special on something I'm interested in.

I work from home, so it's a nice "escape" on occasion - I don't follow a ton of people, so I'm not inundated with tweets.

I find developers through their websites (or if they're a guest on a podcast I listen to), or from people I'm currently following mentioning them - I'll click through and see if they're someone I want to follow. It's super easy to follow and unfollow, so I don't mind following someone for a week or two, and removing them if I'm not interested in what they have to say.

Oh, and I use the Tweetbot app on my phone, tablet, and desktop.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:30 PM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah I know I don't have to Twitter. I did not hesitate to delete FB when I got tired of it. But I would like to figure out how to get the door open, look around, have a taste, decide for myself. A year of wondering where the doorknob is doesn't answer the question as to whether or not it is for me.

kagredon failed to define 3rd party twitter clients. I guess that is something to google. I get the general idea from the phrase, but had no clue there was such a thing. Maybe one of them is more handicapped friendly and won't mystify me with hidden doorknobs.
posted by Michele in California at 2:35 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: Michele, a 3rd party Twitter client is a program that lets you tweet & read the tweets of others without having to go straight to Twitter.com or use Twitter's own mobile app. Tweetdeck is popular, but you might try two or three clients before you hit on one that feels good to you.

Personally, I decided to ditch the one I was using and just use the mobile app since I don't tweet a lot or post pictures. Most of the time I use Twitter as digital bookmarks of what I was thinking or reading or for silly remarks about neighborhood fauna. It's also great for real time events like Netflix outages, mobile phone outages and why my city has no water. And I follow a deals site so I can grab freebies or discounted goods.
posted by dragonplayer at 3:22 PM on September 21, 2012

Best answer: There's a huge group of people on Twitter that use it for health communication, which seems like that might be of interest to you based on your other activity here on Metafilter, Michele. You asked specifically about how to find people that tweet about things in which you're interested; one way to do this is to look at hashtags that are relevant to you using Twitter's search function. People who tweet using hashtags that are interesting to you are probably tweeting other stuff that's also interesting.

You might like the #hachat, which is a hashtag used by the Health Activist group on Twitter. This is a mix of patients, caregivers, health care providers talking about health activism. Take a gander at the other people who have used that hashtag (if it interests you) and follow some of them.

Here's a huge list of health-related hashtags, where you might be able to find stuff more closely related to your specific health interests. Again, look at the people who use hashtags that are relevant to you and follow some of them.

Another way that I find people is by looking at the lists of people that I follow to see if they're following people that I might want to follow, too. Yeesh, that sounds complicated, but it's not. I follow a lot of health people on Twitter, so you could - for example - look at my Twitter page to see who I'm following, and who is following me, to get ideas of who to follow. Look at their biographies and the last few tweets they've sent out to see if they might have stuff that you'd like to read.

Finally, what I usually do is I just follow people that seem like they might be interesting based on their previous few tweets. If it turns out that I don't care for what they post it's super easy and invisible when I remove them. They don't get an email or anything that says "k8lin stopped following you," which makes it pretty easy to just unfollow people who are no longer interesting or relevant to me.
posted by k8lin at 4:10 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all: Twitter only works if you see it like a running stream you can jump into and out of, and not an exploding list of Things You Must Read. You can't worry about missing something, because it goes too fast, you just have to see what's going on at that moment. And then go back to whatever you were doing before.

I follow more than a few authors I adore just because I like to hear what they're up to/what new stuff they have coming out.

I follow a local "scanner" account that tells me about every car accident in my area, most of which never make the news, which is morbidly fascinating. There is also a weather forecast account for my area.

I follow some comedians, like Lizz Winstead and Sam Seder, because they're hilarious and I love what they have to say.

I follow lots of midwives and doulas because they're a side interest of mine; they often post interesting new medical findings, changes in state law, or amazing stories of their fascinating work.

I follow a boatload of webcomic people because I love their comics and they're often funny on Twitter as well as in their work.

I follow people who work on the same political interests I share, feminists, ex-Christians, etc. etc.

I follow people I know from Metafilter, people in my area whose accounts I stumbled over and liked, and people I know in real life because this way, I keep up with their lives even if we don't call and talk or run into each other. I can comment on the picture of their new iPhone and they can laugh at something my kid did.
posted by emjaybee at 8:10 PM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you very much to everyone who participated. I feel hopeful now that I can at least get the door open and try it out.

Muchas gracias.
Merci beaucoup.
Veilen dank.
posted by Michele in California at 8:20 AM on September 25, 2012

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