Not just another time-waster's tool, Twitter is a powerful way to network and share info. Here's our guide for rookies and old hats alike.
David Gilson has always revelled in tech and started writing about it in 2009. He covers the smartphone world and is rather partial to a spot of BASH scripting. David is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.
Twitter is a social network where you have 140 characters at a time to say something to the world. If you're not all that familiar with Twitter, you probably think people only use it to mention what they had for lunch. That is, utterly pointless.
Twitter is far more than that. Used correctly, it can be a powerful way of spreading news and making contacts.
This list of tips is designed to offer something for everyone, regardless of their experience. If you're just starting and don't understand the basic terms, we have it covered. Similarly, if you've been on Twitter for years and think you know everything, you might learn a few new tricks.
1. Set up a Twitter account Before you can do anything, you need an account. Click here. You'll find a form where you can enter your name, email address and password. Then you'll be asked to confirm those details. After that, you're good to go.
The username you choose will be used to identify you on Twitter. You're free to change username at any time, without losing your account or followers. People won't be able to find you via your previous username, however.
2. What's a tweet? A 'tweet', also known as a status update, is the name given to posting text on Twitter to share your thoughts, observations and activities with the world. The 140-character limit forces you to focus on what you want to say and choose your words carefully.
3. The Timeline This is the main view on Twitter's website. Tweets from the people you 'follow' are presented here, with the most recent at the top. As you scroll down, you can go further back in time through their tweets.
4. Following When you follow another Twitter user, their updates will appear in your timeline. It's easy to follow someone -- just visit their profile page (for example, ours is twitter.com/cnetuk) and you'll see the follow button to the top-left of their timeline.
If you follow too many people, it can become difficult to keep up with everything. If you never want to miss a tweet, try to follow a more manageable number of people.
5. Replies Sometimes referred to as '@replies' or 'mentions', replies are the way you answer or refer to other Twitter users. By adding the @ symbol before their username, you hyperlink to that person's Twitter profile. They will be notified via their replies page that you mentioned them, in the same way that you are notified when someone mentions you. Clicking the Reply link beneath their tweet will enter their username into Twitter's edit box for you.
This will also generate an 'in reply to' link below your tweet, which people can click on to see what you were answering. You can also just type in someone's name (prefixed with @) if you want to start up a conversation.
6. Viewing replies Replies don't always appear in your timeline. If someone replies to you but do not follow you, they only appear in your replies list. Similarly, if someone you follow replies to someone whom you don't follow, you won't see that either. The only exception is when someone you follow replies to you or another user that you follow. This can lead to some unwanted noise in your timeline if several people you follow have a conversation.
7. Direct messages These are Twitter's form of private messages. You cannot just DM anyone, though -- the rule is that you have to be following each other. This is a useful way of sending a note to someone.
8. Retweeting You can pass someone's tweet on to your followers by clicking the 'Retweet' button. This can be seen as endorsing the content of the tweet, so think carefully about what you pass along.
9. Old-style retweeting The original method of retweeting was done by typing "RT @Username [copy of tweet]". This way allows for you to add your own comment (if there are enough characters left over). Google Chrome users can install the Classic RT plugin to add a link to the Twitter website that creates an old-style retweet.
10. Favourites In the Twitter timeline, you can add a tweet to your Favourites list by clicking the star icon. There are no definite rules for how you should use this feature. You might use it for saving sentimental memories, keeping your own tweets you were particularly proud of, or for bookmarking tweets for reference.
11. Hashtags If you prefix a word with the hash symbol #, Twitter interprets it as a keyword. It's then added to a timeline of every tweet that also includes the same 'hashtag'. This has become a popular way to make tweets on a single subject easier to discover.
Many TV shows now have an official hashtag, for example. This enables viewers to engage in a conversation simply by searching for and using that tag. For instance, you can follow comments on the BBC's Question Time programme by searching for #bbcqt.
12. Trending topics This is an automatically generated list of currently popular topics, based on what people are tweeting about. They mostly relate to pop culture events and memes. They're not for everyone but you'll probably enjoy them if you decide to use Twitter purely for entertainment and you enjoy gossiping about X Factor.
Finding your way around the Twitter website
13. Twitter's layout The current design of Twitter's website has two columns. The column on the left has the What's Happening? box and the main timeline. Between them are five tab-like links that switch the content of the timeline. They are: Timeline, @Username (the replies list), Activity, Searches and Lists.
The right-hand column offers suggestions of who to follow and trending topics. When you click on a tweet, a summary panel slides out to the right, showing conversations and images.
14. The replies list After recent changes to Twitter's design, the replies list can also notify you when someone follows you. You can switch this function off by ticking the box labelled 'Show mentions only'. It's wise to keep an eye on this list, as it's the only way to see replies from people you don't follow.
15. The activity stream This is a new addition to the Twitter website. This list lets you see what your followers are retweeting, marking as favourites or who they recently followed. The latter is particularly useful since the people you follow will probably follow others who are tweeting about things that interest you.
16. Searches You can search Twitter for any word or phrase by using the search box in the black bar at the top of the page or by visiting search.twitter.com. It provides a drop-down list of previous searches you've saved, which is a good shortcut for your regular searches. On the search results page, you can click the 'Save this search' button. The query will then be added to the drop-down list.
17. Lists These are a way for users to organise people, based on any criteria. It's a way of keeping track of updates from certain groups of people without having to follow them. The drop-down menu shows the lists you have created, the lists of other people you follow and the option to create a new list.
To add someone to a list, just visit their Twitter profile, click the button on the top-right of the timeline for a drop-down menu and click the 'Add to list' option.
18. Choosing a profile picture If a public portrait is not for you, you could choose something meaningful either to you or to the things you will be tweeting about. To add a picture, click your username in the top-right corner of the Twitter website and click Settings from the drop-down menu. Click the Profile tab, then click the 'Choose file' button on the picture line.
19. Customising your Twitter page If you find yourself bored with the default appearance of your Twitter page, you can personalise it. Click your username in the top-right corner of the Twitter website, select Settings from the drop-down menu, then click the Design tab.
You'll find a selection of backgrounds plus the option to adjust the colour palette of your page. It's possible to upload your own backgrounds too -- plenty of designs can be found on sites such as Twitter Backgrounds and Themeleon.
20. Private tweeting You can choose whether to make your tweets private from the Account tab of your Settings page. When you do this, other users have to request your permission to follow you. Then only they can see your tweets. This can give you a false sense of security, however.
There's nothing stopping your followers reposting, or otherwise recording, anything you say. So even when your profile is set as private, you should think carefully before you tweet. Ask yourself if you're posting information that you would not want to be in the public domain. If so, it's best not to post it at all.
21. Why are you using Twitter? For many people, Twitter is a source of entertainment and a way to communicate with friends. Other people use Twitter as a tool for making professional connections and keeping up with the news.
If you're using Twitter for fun, and the size of your following is no great concern, then you have more freedom to post what you want. However, if you'll be using Twitter in relation to a specific topic, you'll need to think about how you balance your on-topic and off-topic tweets.
22. Establish your voice Those who are interested in what you have to say don't just want to see links to your blog -- they want to know more about you too. It's important that you express your personality as well as your expertise.
23. Crowd-source replies If you have enough followers, Twitter can be a great way of crowd-sourcing information. There's a good chance that one of your followers has the information to a question or request you pose, or they might retweet to their followers who could help.
Apps and mobiles
24. SMS text messaging Twitter's text messaging service is the easiest way to tweet with your phone. It's enabled by going to the Mobile tab in your Settings page and following the instructions. Most mobile carriers have deals with Twitter so your texts are not deducted from your message limit.
In the UK you should save 86444 to your address book as the destination for your tweets. You can do a lot with Twitter SMS, including sending Direct Messages. Just text: d Username [Message]. Remember the leading d, lest your private messages go public!
25. Twitter's mobile website and official apps Twitter provides an official application for Android, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Windows Phone, all of which are free of charge via the appropriate app store.
If your device is not supported, however, Twitter also has a mobile version of its website at m.twitter.com. You can perform the same actions on tweets that you can on the desktop website, like Reply, Retweet and Favourite.
26. Dabr for mobile devices Another option on phones is using Dabr -- a web-based Twitter app that can be accessed from the phone's browser. It's a mobile Twitter interface with which you can choose the layout that best suits your phone. Dabr costs nothing to use, but it is ad-supported.
27. Twitter on Nokia Symbian devices Twitter doesn't make an official app for Symbian. However, all Nokia phones released since last year, such as the N8, feature Nokia Social, which supports Twitter and Facebook. It's a good app to get started with, but it doesn't offer the best user experience.
Fortunately, there are many third-party apps, among which is Gravity. This is one of the most feature-packed Twitter clients on any mobile platform, but it will set you back £8.
28. Windows Phone's Mango People Hub The People Hub, a core application of Windows Phone, did not support Twitter until the recent Mango update. Now users can get their Twitter timeline listed in the What's New section, along with status updates from Facebook and LinkedIn.
You're currently limited to retweeting or replying; you can't follow users or mark tweets as favourites. Again, this built-in app is a good way for new users to get started.
29. TweetDeck TweetDeck is one of the best-known Twitter applications and is a popular tool among bloggers. It also supports Facebook and Foursquare. TweetDeck is known for its multiple column view. In addition to the main timeline and replies, columns can be added for lists and search queries.
30. Seesmic Seesmic is another multiple-platform application supporting Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Klout (see below), and more. Seesmic has two desktop clients. One runs in Microsoft's Silverlight, while the other is a web-based client that runs in any browser. Seesmic also has mobile clients available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, which can all be found in your device's app store. Seesmic is free too.
Dealing with pests and avoiding becoming one
31. Watch your language There are some general guidelines that everyone should stick to. Unless you have a private account, you could have anyone of any age following you, so keep your language clean and your content PG-rated. Don't use the relative anonymity of the Internet as an excuse to treat others with less respect than you would in person.
Also, avoid posting the trivia of your life. Sharing thoughts, experiences and special events is interesting. The contents of your dinner plate or laundry basket are not.
32. Over-doing hashtags While hashtags can be very useful, people tend to use them for whimsical effect too. That is, #TheyCreateEntireSetencesOutOfTags! This does no harm, but as with any meme, it has a shelf life. There's little point in creating a hashtag that will only ever be used once.
33. Writing long tweets Services like TwitLonger were designed to bypass the 140-character limit by posting the first hundred or so characters of your long tweet, followed by a hyperlink to a page containing your full tweet.
While this was a clever idea, it's quite a nuisance to load up another website for a single tweet, especially for mobile users. Keep your message to the 140-character limit. If you need more characters, use multiple tweets instead.
34. Unfollowing someone If you want to stop receiving tweets from someone, you can visit their
profile page and click the unfollow button. It can be found above the
top-left corner of their timeline. This will prevent them from sending
direct messages to you. If someone's tweets offend you, it's probably best to unfollow them rather than getting into a flame war.
35. Blocking unwanted followers You can block someone by clicking the drop-down menu at the top-right of the timeline on their profile page. Blocking automatically unfollows and prevents them from seeing your tweets. However, they can log out of Twitter and just view your public page, so continue to think before you tweet!
36. Spam and phishing attacks Automated accounts generate unsolicited tweets mentioning real users, with links to websites with malicious code. In the past, there have been phishing attacks that sent people to a page that looked identical to the Twitter login page; this tricked people into giving up their username and password.
If you see any tweets like this, never click the links. Instead, go to the offender's Twitter page and click the drop-down menu on the top-right of their timeline to find the Report for Spam link.
37. Bulk unfollowing with ManageFlitter ManageFlitter is a tool to help you clean up the list of people you follow. This cuts down the background noise of your timeline. It allows you to select multiple accounts that you're no longer interested in.
ManageFlitter lets you break down the list of people who you follow by how much they tweet, whether they follow you back and if they have a profile picture. You can select as many people as you want; you only need to click Unfollow once. The ManageFlitter service will then do all the laborious work for you by unfollowing each account.
Who to follow and how to be followed
38. WeFollow and Twellow As a new user, you may be unsure who to follow. Twitter directories are a great resource to find users based on subject matter, location and popularity. Two of the most well-known directories are WeFollow and Twellow. You should register yourself on these directories so that others can find you too.
39. Klout If you want to consult a service that takes a more socio-scientfic approach to Twitter, then take a look at Klout. This is a service that analyses and scores online influence using a variety of metrics. You can use Klout to browse for accounts that are influential about the topics that interest you, and others could find you in the same way. Just don't get too precious about your score -- it's only an algorhithm after all.
40. TwitterCounter This allows you to track the changes in the number of people following you and who you follow. The statistics on offer are simpler than Klout's processed data. There's no direct way to gain followers unless you pay for a Pro account, however. If you do so, your account is featured on TwitterCounter's home page, which it claims will drive up your follower numbers.
Adding photos, videos or location to tweets
41. Geotagging Twitter allows you to add your location to tweets. A geotagged tweet has a faint grey icon in its top-right corner. Clicking on that icon will bring up a map showing the area in which the tweet was posted. If you want to geotag your tweets, look for the crosshair icon to the lower-left of the What's Happening? box on the Twitter website. Mobile applications support geotagging tweets too.
42. Hosting photos on Twitter If you want to add photos to your tweets, just click the camera icon beneath the What's Happening? box and select your image file. Once you've entered your tweet, the image will be uploaded. Most Twitter applications still use third-party photo hosting sites that existed long before Twitter began hosting images.
43. Photos via third-party websites There are many websites that host photos specifically for posting to Twitter. Each of these sites allow you to use Twitter for authentication, rather than creating an account with them. When you post photos, either by uploading to the website or using a secret email address, the site will post a tweet with a caption you supply and a URL to the photo's page.
The top three of these websites are Twitpic, yFrog and Twitrpix. Tweeting via the popular photo-sharing site Flickr is possible too -- you can read how to set that up here.
44. Hosting videos for Twitter There are various video-hosting sites you can configure to tweet a link whenever you post a new upload. One solution directly aimed at Twitter is TwitVid, which works in the same way as the photo-hosting sites mentioned above. Other popular video upload sites also support automatic tweeting. YouTube users can find the relevant settings here, and likewise for Vimeo.
Automating your account
45. TwitterFeed There are various online services that can automatically tweet for you. One such example is TwitterFeed, which sends the output of RSS feeds into your Twitter account.
Automation can save you time by sharing links you want to promote while you're away from your desk. If you're completely hands-off, however, you risk losing followers, as your account will lack the human touch.
46. Scheduling tweets This is an approach to automation that retains the human touch missing from fully-automated methods. Through scheduling, tweets will be delayed according to a timeline you set out. This has the advantage of having your account tweet while you're busy with other things, but it still maintains your voice rather than reproducing the contents of an RSS feed.
47. URL shortening The 140-character limit used to be problematic when sharing URLs that exceeded the limit. Various services were created to solve this problem. Using a short domain name, links were processed down to an alpha-numeric suffix, greatly reducing URL length.
The most popular shortening service is bit.ly, which offers analytics, enabling you to see the popularity of your links. Other popular services are tinyurl.com and is.gd. There are hundreds more.
48. Sending favourite tweets to Google Reader Using the Favourite tweet feature as a method of bookmarking can be taken a step further. Favourite tweets have their own RSS feed, which can be added to RSS readers such as Google Reader. This trick provides a quick way of saving tweets with interesting links. Here is a more detailed explanation of this, including how to find the URL of your favourite tweet's RSS feed.
49. Developing Twitter apps If you're interested in developing a Twitter application, you'll need to understand technologies like JSON and OAuth, which are the languages used by Twitter's application programming interface (API). Twitter provides all the necessary documentation to help you get started -- to find out more, click here.
50. Tweeting from the command line For old-school hackers, tweeting via the command line terminal used to be a simple affair, thanks to Twitter's basic authentication method. Twitter did away with that, however, and replaced it with the more complicated OAuth method.
For those familiar with the Python programming language, a library is available called Tweepy. With the tools it provides, you can still get your geek on and tweet from the terminal.