A guide to Twitter that even your dad will understand

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My dad just asked me to explain to him how Twitter works. He wanted a short intro explaining what all of the # and @ symbols mean, and how to get "those short URL's". His opinion of Twitter is like many peoples: "I'm not interested in what people are eating for lunch or when they are going to the bathroom". I used to think the same, but that's because I didn't understand it and how to make it a useful tool. Twitter has become useful for me to keep up to date with technology, other software developers, for me to share info, help others and get help from others. It is useful for sharing interesting links with other people. I use it (almost) exclusively for programming and technology. I don't use it for personal stuff. I use Facebook for that. If someone uses Twitter to tell the world pointless drivel about what clothes they are wearing, then I don't follow those people and hence can't see their tweets.

The first thing I recommend is using a Twitter client for Mac/Windows. I use TweetDeck. Without a proper Twitter client, you can never get the most of Twitter. The website is limited, and so are some of the mobile clients, but the desktop clients bring Twitter to life.

You can see from the screenshot above that there are four columns visible, and they all show me different things. In order from left to right, here is what each column shows me:

  1. All tweets from all of the people I am following.
  2. All tweets where people have mentioned me.
  3. All direct messages to me (private messages).
  4. Finally, the last column shows all tweets where people have mentioned a specific keyword I am interested in: the "MonoTouch" keyword.


When you find a friend, celebrity or just an interesting person, and want to hear more of what they say, you should "follow" them. When you follow a person, they are now on the list of people you follow, and their tweets will show up when you go to Twitter or, for me, in the first column of my TweetDeck. But just because you follow a person and can see all of their tweets, that doesn't mean they follow you and can see yours. If it's a friend of yours, they will probably check which people are following them, see your username and follow you back. If it's a famous celebrity or just some stranger, they might not follow you back.

An @ mention

The second column in my TweetDeck are my "mentions". My Twitter username is alex_york, but if someone who I don't follow said "hello, alex_york" I would never know about it. If they said "hello, @alex_york" then regardless of who they are, where they are, or if I am following them or not, their tweet would show up in that second column. That's how strangers can talk to each other, and that's the whole beauty of Twitter. I could say "hello, @JohnCleese, have you seen Manuel lately?" and he would see my message. He might not reply to it though! In short, it's how you get someone's attention.

A #hashtag

The last column in my TweetDeck is where I follow a keyword that I am interested in: the "MonoTouch" keyword. On Twitter, these keywords are known as "hashtags" because the tag/keyword is preceded by the # symbol. If I were to tweet "I love writing iPhone apps using MonoTouch" then only my followers could see it, but if I said "I love writing iPhone apps using #MonoTouch" then many people around the world might be watching the #MonoTouch hashtag and suddenly my tweet would have a much wider audience. Use a hashtag in your tweet when you want to reach a wider audience than just your followers, and keep a track of hashtags that you are interested in. There are no definitive list of hashtags, they can be anything you like, such as #ClimateChange or #iPad.

Hashtags are really interesting when it comes to timely information. The moment that Apple announced the iPad, on Twitter it was fun to watch what everyone was saying about it by following the #iPad hashtag. When Tottenham Hotspur play, I noticed that a lot of people were talking about the game using the #COYS hashtag (come on you spurs!).

Short URL's

Finally, because you can only have 140 characters in a tweet, when you want to share a link with someone, you will want to shorten it down. Some popular URL shortening services are TinyURL and bit.ly. You can go to their websites and do it manually. But that's no fun! Luckily, TweetDeck will shorten URL's for you automatically. There is a button that you can click to enable the auto-shortening of URLs.

Once enabled, you just paste a long URL in there and a few seconds later it will replace it with a short one. Easy! Your link is now ready to be shared on twitter leaving you lots of space to tell people what the link is.

Happy tweeting ;-)


Thanks, Al (I think!) Idiot Dad now gets it ;-) I've downloaded TweetDeck and, if I can pluck up the courage, I'll give Twitter a go. I remain unconvinced, but I'll suspend judgment until I've tried it for a while.

Nigel York