Twitter has long been the province of the technorati. But following its IPO this week, it's a good bet that a whole new cadre of folks are going to be interested in checking it out.
If you're one of the 53 million Americans who already use Twitter regularly, you probably already know the difference between a tweet and a retweet, and know when and why to use a hashtag rather than an @ sign. But if you're not yet a Twitterer or have only sent a few tweets, here are a few things to know about the San Francisco-based microblog service, starting with the basics.
Just what the heck is Twitter? Twitter is an online service you can access with a Web browser or smartphone or tablet application that allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less, called tweets, that generally anyone can see. It also allows users to view posts from others.
Although it's considered to be a social network and encourages users to connect with each other, Twitter works differently from Facebook or LinkedIn. Users can be anonymous, and they typically provide far less information about themselves than they would on those networks.
And while users can link up with their friends and business associates on Twitter, Twitter doesn't require users to mutually connect with one another. Instead, Twitter users "follow" others on the service. When others follow them, users can choose whether or not to follow them back.
Why would I want to use Twitter? If you want to know the latest news, you'll often find it on Twitter first. Election results, sports scores, product announcements -- even the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound -- have been reported on Twitter before showing up anywhere else.
However, it's also a great place to find the thoughts and musings of interesting or famous people. Writers such as Susan Orlean and Dan Savage are on Twitter, as are sports stars Colin Kaepernick and Stephen Curry, actors Justin Timberlake and Lea Michele, and a raft of politicians, academics and business leaders.
For many people, Twitter provides a platform to sound off on particular topics -- or to chat or argue with others. Twitter helps everyday people engage in conversations with others of similar interests, including folks who might be considered experts or thought leaders in a particular field.
What does it cost to use Twitter? Nothing. You can register for free on the Twitter website and download the Twitter app gratis. There are some Twitter apps that cost money but you don't have to use them; there are plenty of others that are free.
How do I sign up? You can register for Twitter through the service's website or through a Twitter mobile app. To sign up, you simply enter your name (or an alias), your email address and a password. Twitter will then prompt you to pick a user name and will even suggest one based on your real name. The company will send an email to the address you provided and you simply have to click on a link within it to verify your account.
How do I use Twitter? When you log into Twitter's website or launch the Twitter app, the first thing you generally see is your news feed, which is a list, in reverse chronological order, of the most recent posts from the people you follow. As the people you follow post new messages, you can click a link to display them or simply refresh the news feed page.
If you follow a wide range of people who post about different topics, your news feed can look like a cacophony of conversations. To zero in on particular topics, you can search for them by keyword. The convention in Twitter is to use a hashtag -- also known as the number or pound sign -- to group specific topics. So, if you want to find what people are saying about Apple (AAPL), for example, you might search for "#apple." Twitter also provides a short list of trending topics on the left side of the screen.
Users can also sort through the people they are following by creating or subscribing to lists of particular Twitter users. You can create them through a link off your profile page on Twitter. Or you can subscribe to lists created by others after finding them on their profile pages.
But Twitter is for more than just reading others' posts. You can post things yourself. Once you're logged into Twitter's website, you'll find a "compose" button in the upper-right-hand corner. In addition to your latest thoughts, you can share pictures, Web links and even short videos.
You can also respond to particular tweets wherever you find them. Under each tweet, you'll find buttons that allow you to "reply" or "retweet," which means to forward someone else's tweet to your own followers.
If you want your tweets to be seen by the widest audience possible, it's a good idea to include a hashtag. If you hope to have a particular Twitterer respond to you, you can include that person in your tweet by using the @ and the person's Twitter name. Such posts show up in users "connect" page on the Twitter website, which also shows lists of people who have recently followed them.
Note that both the Twitter app and the Twitter home page are pretty basic. Other apps and websites such as TweetDeck can offer more options for organizing the people you are following, searching through tweets or posting your musings.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or email@example.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
Never used Twitter before? Here are some quick tips for beginners:
--Find someone to follow. Lots of people use Twitter, from celebrity chefs to your next-door neighbors. You can tune in to their thoughts by following them.
--Know where they're @. You can connect with anyone on Twitter via the @ sign and the person's user name. Some famous Twitter users: @JoeMontana, @marissamayer and @BarackObama.
#hashtag. Hashtags are used to group conversations on particular topics. If you want to know what people are saying about the new health reform law, you can search for #Obamacare. If you want to see what people are writing about the best zombie show on television, you can search for #thewalkingdead.
--Keep it short. Twitter limits text posts to 140 characters. Users, though, have found numerous ways to work around that restriction. Abbreviations are common, as is the practice of continuing a train of thought over multiple tweets.
--There's an app for that. While you can access Twitter through its own website and mobile app, there are plenty of other websites or apps you can use to access the service. Many of those apps offer more sophisticated ways to post or comb through tweets.
Mercury News research.