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What Exactly Is 'Twitter'? What Is 'Tweeting'?


Twitter CEO Evan Williams is seen silhouetted against a screen as he shows off the newly revamped Twitter website on September 14, 2010
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Question: What Exactly Is 'Twitter'? What Is 'Tweeting'?
July, 2012
Answer: Twitter is microblogging. Twitter, and 'tweeting', is about broadcasting daily short burst messages to the world, with the hope that your messages are useful and interesting to someone. Conversely, Twitter is about discovering interesting people online, and following their burst messages for as long as they are interesting.

What Does Twitter Look Like?

Here is a screenshot of a Twitter account, with sample tweets.

OK, So Why Is Twitter So Popular? Why Do Millions of People Follow Other Tweeters?

In addition to its relative novelty, Twitter's big appeal is how rapid and scan-friendly it is: you can track hundreds of interesting tweeters, and read their content with a glance. This is is ideal for our modern attention-deficit world.

Twitter employs a purposeful message size restriction to keep things scan-friendly: every microblog 'tweet' entry is limited to 140 characters or less. This size cap promotes focused and clever use of language, which makes tweets very easy to scan, and also very challenging to write well. This size restriction has really made Twitter a popular social tool.

How Does Twitter Work?

Twitter is very simple to use as broadcaster or receiver. You join with a free account and Twitter name. Then you send broadcasts daily, or even hourly. Go to the 'What's Happening' box, type 140 characters or less, and click 'Tweet'. You will most likely include some kind of hyperlink.

To receive Twitter feeds, you simply find someone interesting (celebrities included), and 'follow' them to subscribe to their tweet microblogs. Once a person becomes uninteresting to you, you simply 'unfollow' them.

You then choose to read your daily Twitter feeds through any of various Twitter readers.

Twitter is that simple.

Why Do People Send Burst Messages Through Twitter?

People send Twitter 'tweets' for all sorts of reasons: vanity, attention, shameless self-promotion of their web pages, boredom. The great majority of tweeters do this microblogging as a recreational thing, a chance to shout out to the world and revel in how many people choose to read your stuff.

But there is a growing minority of tweeters who send out some really useful content. And that's the real value of Twitter: it provides a stream of quick updates from friends, family, scholars, news journalists, and experts. It empowers people to become amateur journalists of life, describing and sharing something that they found interesting about their day.

Yes, that means there is a lot of drivel on Twitter. But at the same time, there is a growing base of really useful news and knowledge content on Twitter. You'll need to decide for yourself which content is worth following there.

So Twitter Is a Form of Amateur News Reporting?

Yes, that is one aspect of Twitter. Among other things, Twitter is a way to learn about the world through another person's eyes. Tweets from people in Thailand as their cities become flooded, tweets from your soldier cousin in Afghanistan who describes his war experiences, tweets from your traveling sister in Europe who shares her daily discoveries online, tweets from a rugby friend at the Rugby World Cup... these microbloggers are all mini-journalists in their own way. And Twitter lets them send you a constant stream of updates right from their laptops and smartphones.

People Use Twitter as a Marketing Tool?

Yes, absolutely. Thousands of people advertise their recruiting services, their consulting businesses, their retail stores by using Twitter. And it does work. The modern internet-savvy user is tired of television advertisement. People today prefer advertising that is faster, less intrusive, and can be turned on or off at will... and Twitter is exactly that. If you learn how the nuances of tweeting work, you can get good advertising results by using Twitter.

But Isn't Twitter a Social Messaging Tool?

Yes, Twitter is social media, absolutely. But it's more than just instant messaging. Twitter is about discovering interesting people around the world. It can also be about building a following of people who are interested in you and your work/hobbies, and then providing those followers with some kind of knowledge value every day. Whether you are a hardcore scuba diver who wants to share your Caribbean adventures with other divers, or whether you are Ashton Kutcher entertaining your personal fans: Twitter is a way to maintain a low-maintenance social connection with others, and maybe influence other people in a small way.

Why Do Celebrities Like Using Twitter?

Because Twitter is both personal and rapid, celebrities use Twitter to build a more-personal connection with their fans. Ashton Kutcher, Ellen DeGeneres, even President Obama are some famous tweeters. Their daily updates foster a sense of connectedness with their followers, which is powerful for advertising purposes, and also quite compelling and motivating for the people following the celebs.

So Twitter Is Many Different Things, Then?

Yes, Twitter is a blend of instant messaging, blogging, and texting, but with brief content and a very very broad audience. If you fancy yourself a bit of a writer with something to say, then Twitter is definitely a channel worth exploring as a writer. If you don't like to write, but are curious about a celebrity, a particular hobby topic, or even a long-lost cousin, then Twitter is one way to connect with that person or topic. Try Twitter for a couple weeks, and decide for yourself if you like it.

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