Twitter masterclass: Learning the basics

Twitter is making headlines in the mainstream media, so, for anyone new to the social-messaging site, we present a guide to how to be awesome in 140 characters. Part two follows tomorrow

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
7 min read

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll probably have noticed Twitter has been popping up in the mainstream media lately. Mainly driven by an influx of celebrities, sparked by Stephen Fry and including Jonathan Ross and even Phillip Schofield, the site appears to have finally outgrown the geek community and attained mainstream appeal in the UK. If you're wondering what the fuss is about, and even if you're a bit dubious about the whole concept, our advice is to just dive in -- and we're going to show you how with this handy two-part guide.

Twitter began as a microblogging platform, on which users answer the question 'what are you doing?' in 140-character mini-blog posts called 'tweets'. But since its inception, the site has evolved into what it now describes as 'real-time social messaging', with its own language, conventions and etiquette. Twitter can be mystifying to non-tweeters, but getting involved quickly reveals how fun, addictive and, yes, even how useful it can be. No wonder celebrities, businesses and politicians are all jumping aboard. You can follow the CNET UK Twitter feed here: @cnetuk.

In the first of our two-part guide, we'll look at the basics, and explain how Twitter works -- and how there's much more to it than the celebrities grabbing the headlines. Tomorrow we'll suggest different ways to get the most out of the service, look at the clever and innovative ways others are using the site, and consider the future of the tweet.

If you're entirely new to Twitter, read on, and click Continue to learn how to get started. If you've already signed up and are tweeting merrily away, go straight to page 7 for more on following, or try page 8, where we look at Twitter applications.

Here we'll cover the very basics; if you're already tweeting, head for page 7 to read about following other users.

Getting started

To get going, head to twitter.com and click 'Join the conversation'. It's interesting that Twitter now sees itself as a conversation between users, moving away from the one-way communication of the original concept.

Picking a name

You'll need to create a user name, which can be anything you like. If you want, you can set Twitter to display your user name and your real name in search listings, or just your user name if you want to maintain an air of mystery. You might want the user name to be easy for people to guess, especially if you're starting a Twitter profile for a company or service.

Your user name will generate the URL for your Twitter feed: ours is CNETUK, so our URL is twitter.com/cnetuk. You can change your user name at any time, but this will change the URL and will cause problems if someone has bookmarked you in their browser. It won't affect your existing followers, who will still see your tweets in their feed.

Find your friends

If you have email acounts with Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail or MSN, you can enter your password and Twitter will tell you if any of your contacts are already tweeting away. You'll also be offered a list of famous tweeters. Tick any you're interested in and they'll appear in your feed. You can remove them later if you want.

Your first tweet

Now the important bit: tweeting! You'll be presented with this box, in which you type your tweets. As you type, the counter in the top right counts down how many characters you have left. While it asks 'What are you doing?' you don't have to answer that question; it's more of a starting point to get you going. We'll look at some of the different ways to tweet in part two.

Don't worry too much about a devastatingly witty first tweet: most people's are along the lines of 'So what's this twitter thing all about?'.

Hit update, and bang! Your tweet appears. Hover your mouse anywhere over the tweet, and you'll see a star and a trashcan icon appear on the right. These allow you to save that tweet as a favourite, or delete it.

Pimp your profile

At the top right, click on 'settings'. Here you can enter a 160-character note about yourself, change the colour of your profile, add a link and a picture of yourself, and even change the background picture.

It's worth adding a picture of yourself, known as an avatar, because many tweeters won't even look at a profile that has the default brown and blue image. Profile pictures don't have to be of your face, but something arresting will grab people's attention. Sometimes memes grow around profile pics, such as cartoon pictures or photos of the tweeter as a child.

If you're tweeting as a company or service, don't forget to add your logo and perhaps make your profile's colours match your branding -- ours is yellow. You can also link to your Web site.

Ready to go

Let's take a look at the standard profile page. At the top right you'll see 'home', which takes you to a feed showing tweets from all the people you follow, in simple list order. You can favourite these by clicking on the star to the right of each tweet, or click on the arrow underneath to reply to a tweet. We'll consider replies in part two.

Next to that is 'profile', which takes you to your feed. Under that you'll see the information you entered about yourself.

Beneath that you can see how many people you follow, and how many follow you, along with the number of times you've tweeted. Then there's links to see replies people have sent you, and the tweets you've starred as favourites.

The Followship

Twitter revolves around following people, and having people follow you. When you follow someone, their tweets get added to your home feed. When they follow you, they see your tweets in their feed. To follow a user whose tweets you want to continue to read, simply click the 'follow' button beneath their avatar.

On your profile, the grid of avatar pictures on the right-hand side shows the people you follow. When you look at someone else's profiles, you'll see who they follow. Hover over a picture to see who it is, and click to see their tweets.

Looking at who other people follow is a good way of finding interesting and like-minded tweeters. If there is one, click on the 'view all' link beneath the pictures, as this shows everyone in a handy list -- pictured above -- complete with their real names.

I'll follow you if you follow me

It's important to remember that, unlike befriending someone on Facebook or MySpace, following is not reciprocal. When someone follows you, take a look at their feed and follow them back if you like what you see. If not, you don't have to follow them. Some tweeters think it's polite to always follow people back, but remember it's your feed and you don't want to wade through tweets you're not interested in. Feel free to say hello to new followers with a reply if you want.

You can follow as many people as you like. This really depends on how you want to use Twitter. You can follow a small number of people and read every word. Or you can follow lots of people and dip in and out, like a stream of consciousness. The more people you follow the harder it gets to keep track, because Twitter doesn't offer any way of filtering feeds.

Fortunately, this is where applications such as Tweetdeck come in. Tweetdeck allows you to group tweeters by subject -- friends, colleagues, celebrities, people who tweet about specific subjects -- and clear tweets you've read. This makes it way easier to follow lots of tweeters without getting swamped. Click 'Continue' to find out more about applications.

The simplicity of the Twitter core concept is its greatest virtue. But as you get deeper into the Twitter community, it quickly becomes clear that the simplicity of the site itself is rather limiting. We've already seen how Tweetdeck helps you organise large numbers of tweeters. There are countless apps that you can download to your computer to give you a souped-up interface for tweeting, such as Twhirl, pictured left, or Tweet3 for tying together multiple accounts.

But the thing that made Twitter really take off is the fact that you can tweet wherever you are, which is way more interesting than if all of your tweets came from your desk. You can send tweets by text by adding your phone -- look under 'devices' in the 'settings', or you can download a mobile app such as Snaptu.

iPhone users are particularly well served, with apps including TwitterFon and Twitterific, or Twinkle, which allows you to see who is tweeting from close to your location thanks to GPS.

You can do something similar online with Twittervision, a mash-up that combines Twitter with Google Maps. There are countless other mash-ups and services that do all sorts of things with your tweets, such as Twitterfeed, which automatically zaps your blog posts, Flickr photos or Facebook status updates into your Twitter feed.

Right, that's enough from us. Don't forget to follow our CNET UK feed, and come back tomorrow when we'll be helping you take your tweets to the next level. Time to get tweeting!