06/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Primer on Twitter

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Let me set the scene for you, It will probably not be a familiar setting.

I am at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. The room is overflowing. This is a successful tech conference in a down economy. Most of the attendees are young, about 90% of them have their laptops out, and about 75% of those laptops are Macs.

I am at 140|The Twitter Conference , one of the first conferences devoted to the use of Twitter as a business tool. Twitter, originally an internal communications tool for a trio of developers, launched in 2006 and took off at SXSW, a creative conference held every year in Austin, TX.. Since then, its explosive growth has transformed it from a silly tech tool into part of the brand marketing tool kit. Representatives of many major brands are here trying to learn how best to use Twitter in their arsenal.

How does something like this happen? For the life of me, I don't know. I think it's the simplicity; it's not all that difficult to sign up for Twitter and answer the first question, "what are you doing?"

The answer to this question used to be characteristically something like "going to the In-and-Out Burger in Mountain View for lunch. Who else wants to?" Now, it can often be "6.9 magnitude earthquake in the southern provinces of China." or "Just got diagnosed with cancer, does anyone know a good surgeon in D.C.?" Or "I'm in Mumbai, and they are shooting across the street from my house."

Twitter thinks of itself as a data communications network, or a distribution network -- not unlike a newspaper or a TV channel -- taking data in from its users and providing a platform to re-distribute it back out to other audiences. It is becoming focused on providing tools for the media community, which is pretty interesting when you realize that print media and broadcast media are both dying, but the appetite for news is not.

More is happening on Twitter than anyone realizes when they dismiss the service. For one thing, it is a 24/7 service. It dips a little in the mid-week, mid-day, but otherwise it is pretty consistent, worldwide. And it now has users with big "social graphs" (Oprah, Ashton Kutcher) who need special developer services. New users use the web first, and then move quickly to a Twitter "client" that sits on the phone or the desktop (Seesmic Desktop, Tweetdeck, Tweetie) so they don't have to go to the site itself.

While newbies feel alone and struggle for followers, power users are past the point of counting their followers; they are more involved with they relationships have built over time with those followers.

Tara Hunt, one of the panelists and author of "The Whuffie Factor" just showed a slide show of 40 random tweets from people she follows, and the results were 1) hilarious, 2) useful, 3) informative, 4) touching, 5) intelligent. That sums up Twitter in a nutshell.

@iJustine, another speaker, built an entire career on Twitter, allowing us all to live vicariously by following her Twitter stream. You truly get a sense of who she is in 140 characters, including her moods, her failures, her highs and her preferences. Some celebrities like @therealshaq use Twitter to build a brand, while others build a brand unconsciously or unceremoniously by putting themselves "out there" talking about their ordinary thoughts and lives.

If you are thinking of getting on Twitter, or are on it and feeling lost, here are a few Twitter Tips:

The best time of day to get a response on Twitter and get followers: Saturday morning and Sunday night.

Tools that make Twitter easier:

  • Tweetdeck: Desktop Twitter client that lets you see all your activity on one screen
  • Seesmic Desktop: Get your tweets, Facebook, and Seesmic posts on your desktop on one screen
  • Tweetie, Twitterific: two good iPhone applications for Twitter
  • Hootsuite: manage multiple Twitter accounts
  • Backtweets: how many times has a link been tweeted
  • Cotweet: how do you manage multiple twitters on one account
  • Twitalayzer:how does your Twitter performance stack up compared to your friends
  • who are you talking to most
  • Twitvid: make and post videos to Twitter
  • Twitpic: post photos

Don't become a bot. That means no automated tweets, and no automated direct messages to people who follow you. On Twitter, as in life, it's cooler to be answered by a human being than by a robot. And automating your tweets lets opportunity escape.

It's best to join conversations and build relationships. Start by listening. Then take part in the conversation, sharing your thoughts, your expertise, your life.

I promise. You will love Twitter after a while.

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