How to Use Twitter, for Beginners

December 2, 2010 •

Twitter logo with bird

Struggling with Twitter basics? Twitter can be confusing for new users, tech savvy or not. While strategy, etiquette, and building a follower base are important, a recent conversation I had with a new Twitter user revealed that the basics are the hardest part to grasp: what function does what? What’s the difference between a message and a mention? What are all those pound signs doing?

Of course, observing others before you participate (known as lurking) is a great way to learn. It’s also good to consider why you’re tweeting, and what you want to get out of Twitter before you start. But if you’re having trouble understanding Twitter basics, read on. I’ll do my best to break down some of the basic functions.

A note—my focus here is on how to use the website—every desktop application and mobile application is slightly different, but if you know the basics from the site, it will be easier to learn how to use Twitter on other applications.

What is the “What’s happening” box?

What's happening Twitter Box
That’s where you enter your tweets! This might sound simple, but especially on some mobile applications, it can be confusing.

Who can see my tweets?
Normal tweets will show up in all of your follower’s feeds (also known as timelines and home pages). You can send messages and replies to specific people—more about that later. Your tweets will also be visible to anyone who goes to your Twitter profile. Your Twitter profile is open for viewing by anyone online unless you set it to be protected, but that’s rare. Twitter is about sharing, not privacy. That said, earlier this fall in the UK, Paul Chambers was taken to court for tweeting a joke about bombing an airport. So be careful what you tweet.

What is a mention, and how do I do it?
“Mentions” are when someone uses your Twitter name (called a handle) with an @ before it in one of their tweets. This makes the tweet show up under your “@mentions” tab on Twitter. On many mobile apps, this tab is signaled with the “@” sign. You can mention someone, or reply to one of their tweets, by entering @theirhandle, or by pressing the reply button that shows up when you highlight a tweet.

Reply Button Twitter

Here’s where this gets confusing—if you start a message with an @joestwitterhandle, that message will only show up on the feeds of people who are following both you and Joe. So, if you want your tweet to show up on the feeds of everyone who is following you, make sure you write something before their twitter handle.

For example, @blazindw’s tweet, below, would only go to people who are following both @tracycgold (me) and @blazindw, because it starts with a mention. On the other hand @vincebuscemi‘s tweet would go to everyone who is following him, because it starts with normal text.

Mentions Twitter

Why would I @ someone?
If you @ someone to mention or reply to them, it shows up in their “@mentions.” This means, even if they’re not following you, they’ll be able to see that you’re tweeting about them. Mentioning someone on Twitter can be a great way to get their attention, quickly.

How can I send a message to one specific person?
If you want to tweet someone a message that only they will be able to see, you can send them a “direct message,” or DM. This message will not show up in your profile, and will not show up in their feed—it will show up under their message page (pointed out below). Most people also have Twitter set to send them a text and/or an email when they get a Direct Message.

An important thing to know about DMs is that you can only DM someone who is following you. That way, people like Lance Armstrong don’t get DMs from all of the total strangers who follow him.

There are a few different ways to send a direct message:
1. My favorite way is to just enter “DM” before the person’s handle. You can do this from your home page, as shown below:

Direct Message on Twitter

2. You can also navigate to the message function on Twitter (hard to find on the site, pointed out below).

How do I see my messages on Twitter?
Click on the “New Message” button to get the pop-up below. Enter the handle of the person you want to message in the top box, and your message below. Press send and you’re good to go!

How to send a Direct message on Twitter

Each app for Twitter has slightly different ways to do this, but these are the basics.

What are all those pound signs for?
Pound signs in tweet-speak are called hashtags. They make it easy to search by subject, and can be used ironically. If you click on a hashtag, you’ll be able to see the conversation on Twitter surrounding that hashtag, whether you’re following someone or not. You can use hashtags to join in on these conversations, or to add some humor to your post.

What are trends?
Trends are the topics that are showing up the most throughout Twitter. You can see trends worldwide, or locally. So, say everyone on Twitter was buzzing about Duke Basketball. Duke, or #Duke, would probably show up as a trend.

How can I link to my twitter profile?
It’s easy, just http://www.twitter.com/yourhandle. For example, the link to my twitter profile is http://twitter.com/tracycgold.

Useful Twitter resources:

If you still need more guidance, comment here with questions, or ask me on Twitter @tracycgold. Happy tweeting!

About the Author

The Marketing Trenches blog provides thought leadership from actual marketing practitioners, not from professional thought leaders. Designed to help business leaders make more educated marketing decisions, our insights come directly from our experience in the trenches. You can find more from Right Source on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

  • mark

    I think the best tool for mass following is Twidium http://twidium.com/en

  • Mass following might help you get more followers…but it’s also extremely spammy and won’t get you qualified followers.

  • Pat Horrocks

    you ‘how to twitter’ is only one I’ve seen so far that actually does explain the basics reasonably clearly. Several others I looked at make the very common mistake of assuming knowledge on the part of the learner; ie, their ‘explanation’ mentions concepts or uses terminology which you will only understand if you already know the subject! In which case you wouldn’t need their guidance in the first place.
    Test of a good teacher: start from assumption of zero knowledge

    • Thanks so much Pat! I was inspired to write this post by working with a few zero knowledge people–a friend, and my father. So I had some practice teaching before I sat down and began to write. Also, before I sat down to write, I searched through a few “Twitter for beginners” posts and went through the same problem you’re facing. The advice was focused on intermediate users, rather than utter beginners. And there are a lot of aspects to Twitter that are not intuitive at all for beginners! Glad I was able to solve a problem, and help out.

  • AmigaDragon

    One of those non-intuitive aspects is when a radio show says “tweet us” but the twitter noob (speaking from weeks of experience) tries to DM the show and fails because it isn’t following them.

    • Absolutely–the difference between direct messages and mentions is tricky. It’s interesting to see the evolution of new language like “tweet us.” Will it one day be as ubiquitous as “call us”?

      Thanks for reading!

  • Tracy, thank you! I got talked into Twitter, and even as a writer, have struggled with what to tweet and how to do it with all the #’s and DM’s and @’s. This helps!

    • Scott, you’re very welcome! It can be overwhelming. Good luck!

  • Stephanie Spano

    Very well written, Tracy. I wish I had read this when I first joined Twitter!

    • Thanks Stephanie! I basically wrote this to help out my clueless father who wanted to get on Twitter, glad it’s been helpful to others.

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