Twitter masterclass: Advanced tweeting

You've signed up to Twitter and you're bursting with ideas. It's time to have some fun, as we take you through the features that will make you a Twitter ninja

Yesterday we talked the newbies through the first steps on the Twitter ladder, in part one of our Twitter masterclass . Today, we'll be looking at Twitter's extra features, and considering the different ways the site is used. If you already know your @ from your RT, skip to page 6 to have your say on the etiquette of Twitter usage, or page 7 to discuss the recent influx of celebrities. Or why not keep reading: you might learn something...

Link it up

As well as sharing your thoughts, jokes and rants, you can share cool stuff from the Internet on Twitter. Twitter will automatically turn a URL into a link, but the length of a Web address will eat your 140 characters faster than you can say: 'Click here!' That's where URL-shortening services come in.

The best known is TinyURL, but there are plenty of others. What these services do is take a long URL and shrink it down to a much shorter unique code. For example, the URL to our Become a Twitter Expert page, http://crave.cnet.co.uk/software/0,39029471,49300955,00.htm, becomes http://tinyurl.com/dyfj4w.

The shorter the URL the better, so for the CNET UK Twitter feed we use bit.ly, which has a Firefox extension and a separate feed of all your shortened links. Or you could go for is.gd, which cuts our example URL down to a thrifty http://is.gd/iUAI. These sawn-off URLs work anywhere -- in emails, on blogs -- and not just on Twitter.

With a short URL, you have spare characters left to write something clever and give your followers a reason to click. And, when they have, they can reply to tell you how cool it was...

Nice to @ you

Once you've followed a few people, you'll probably want to respond to what they're saying. You can do this with '@replies' . They're called @replies because an @ symbol followed by a username notifies that person that your tweet, which everyone can see in your feed, is a reply to their tweet.

Although you can simply type out '@username', the quickest way is to click the arrow on the right-hand side of a tweet. Click the arrow of the specific tweet you're replying to, because when your tweet is posted it will link back to that tweet. If you don't link to the right tweet it could confuse people trying to follow your conversation.

You can place @username anywhere in your tweet -- it doesn't have to be at the start. You can also add multiple @usernames, but they will eat up your 140 characters.

If someone sends you an @reply, you can see it by clicking on '@replies' in the sidebar. For some reason, you can only see this on your homepage, and not on your profile. It can also be easy to miss @replies, because Twitter doesn't show you how many you have. Unlike DMs...

Be direct

DM stands for 'direct messaging', which sends a private tweet when you want to respond to someone but don't want it to show up in your feed. You need to be following each other to send and receive DMs. Careful with this one -- the potential for broadcasting something incriminating or embarassing to your entire list of followers is quite high. A blog called dmfail.com was around for a while at the end of last year, broadcasting said accidental tweets, but it's since been shut down.

To send a direct message, simply type 'd username' at the start of a normal tweet. An easy way to do this is to hit the reply arrow on someone's tweet so their username appears in the tweet box, then replace the '@' with a 'd'.

If someone sends you a DM, you can see it by clicking on 'messages' in the sidebar. Twitter handily shows you how many DMs you have, but, again, this is only on your homepage. Unlike @replies, DMs can be deleted. You can reply to DMs here, or send a new one by choosing from a drop-down menu listing your followers.

Re-tweet speak

Re-tweeting is a fairly new concept, and a slightly controversial one. The idea is that, if you see a tweet that you think is funny or interesting enough to appeal to your followers, you broadcast it again. Think of it as like forwarding an email.

To re-tweet, simply hit the reply arrow by the original tweet, then add 'RT' before the username. This will show up in your feed as one of your tweets, but with a link to the original tweeter. Remember that the 'RT' and the original tweeter's username will use up some of your precious 140 characters.

Some argue that re-tweeting adds nothing to the conversation. A re-tweet may introduce your followers to someone they haven't encountered before, but this is less likely if you're re-tweeting someone popular, or if you and your followers all have a similar network. On the other hand, it's people commenting on or repeating what they have seen elsewhere that makes things go viral.

Tag -- you're it

When lots of people are tweeting about a particular subject, hashtags make it easier to follow the conversation. You tag your tweets with a hashtag by typing '#' followed by the subject, without spaces, for example: #digitalbritain. You use this when you want to tweet about a particular subject. Doing so will allow other users to find tweets related to that subject, regardless of whether they're following you or not. For example, tweeting #uksnow will add your tweet to all the other tweets written about our recent winter wonderland.

Because Twitter is so organic, there isn't usually a hard and fast 'right' hashtag, but, with bigger events, they tend to spread so quickly that people will adopt the most popular tag. Some subjects become memes, with users inventing witty hashtags.

You can search Twitter, but, as with most things on the site, the best way to get the most out of hashtags is to look elsewhere. Hashtags.org shows you hashtagged tweets, with a graph of usage.

To reply or not to reply?

RTs, @replies and DMs all expand Twitter's basic function and give you more options when it comes to interacting with other Twitter users. The question is: how much interaction is the right amount? Of course, the answer is: however much suits you. Maybe you prefer sharing your thoughts like in a blog, or maybe you only like conversing with other users, or maybe it's a combination of the two.

Some users aren't keen on feeds that are all @replies, because it can seem like a one-sided conversation. Twitter isn't a patch on instant messaging for communicating between individuals, but where it does score over other forms of communication is the instantaneous communication with large numbers of people. One of the wonderful things about the site is the informality of the community -- there's no need to introduce yourself before trading jokes with other users.

Some users think it is good form to introduce yourself to everyone you follow, or who follows you. That's probably best done with a DM, though, because lots of similar @replies aren't very interesting to your other followers.

Similarly, sending a message to a celebrity user may overwhelm them, and perhaps even stop them making the best of the site...

Celebrity skin

While many of your humble Cravers have been tweeting away for a while, and the site has been massive among the geekerati since long before we caught the bug, there's no denying that Twitter has exploded this year. That's mainly down to an influx of celebrity tweeters and the mainstream attention they have garnered.

Renowned gadget lover Stephen Fry was, as always, an early adopter, as was MC Hammer. Second only to Barack Obama in follower numbers, Fry's popularity laid the groundwork for the likes of Chris Moyles and Phillip Schofield. As of today, the man who sang along to the Ulysses 31 theme tune with Gordon the Gopher has more followers than the man who invented the Internet -- which is as it should be.

For us, what really put Twitter into the big leagues of mainstream media was the arrival of Jonathan Ross. We'll be justifying that statement and looking more closely at the phenomenon of celebrity tweeting later in the week.

Twitter and you

We've seen how Twitter is at the heart of a web of applications and Web sites that enhance your experience of the site. This is possible because Twitter has opened it's API to developers, which means the code that runs the service is available for anyone to make apps and services. It's this, probably more than anything, that makes a service as simple as Twitter such a rich and flexible platform for communicating.

You don't need to know anything about Web sites to combine Twitter with your other sites. National treasure Stephen Fry has a section of his site dedicated to the floods of messages he receives. And you can use the RSS feed of your Twitter feed to do something similar with most blogs, so your latest tweets appear next to your latest blog posts.

The CNET UK Twitter feed uses a service called Twitterfeed to send an RSS feed the other way, so that our latest Craves, reviews and videos show up on Twitter. Anything with an RSS feed can be fed into your Twitter feed, such as your Facebook status.

If you've created a Twitter feed for your company, there are various ways to make it work for you. We'll be looking at that later in the week.

What's next?

You'll hear a lot of dreadful words like 'social media' and 'monetisation' being bandied about when discussing the future of Twitter. We'll be discussing that subject this week too.

The short answer, however, is that the future of Twitter is you. So go forth and tweet, for you are now a Twitter expert!

Tags:
Software
About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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