March 24, 2009
What is Twitter?
Very short, mostly public messages about what people are doing and what is on their minds.
Messages are limited to 140 characters, the same as a text message. Twitter is what’s called a
“microblogging” service, which just means it’s a series of short updates that, like a blog, appear with
the most recent at the top. There are other microblogging services (Plurk is one), but they are not
seeing anywhere near the kind of growth Twitter has had.
This video is a good overview of Twitter. It focuses on personal use, but might help to simplify things if
you’re still not quite sure you get it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddO9idmax0o&
Who is on Twitter?
Only about 1% of online Canadians are on Twitter, according to recent ComScore stats, but the
service is growing incredibly quickly. According to Nielsen, Twitter grew an astonishing 1,382% year-
over-year from 475,000 users in February 2008 to over 7 million in February 2009. Keep in mind, this
is still a small niche service compared to the social networking gorilla that is Facebook, which had
65.7 million unique visitors in February. MySpace is also bigger, but is demonstrating signs of decline
at only 54.1 million uniques.
Because the user base is growing so quickly, it’s hard to define the demographic makeup with any
kind of precision. Last time I checked, the data showed the user base skewed older than many
assume, with most users between the ages of 25-45. Twitter still seems to attract a disproportionate
number of early adopters, thought leaders, businesses and content producers. Because of this, even
though the user base is small compared to Facebook, many people have seen huge success in using
Twitter to reach digital influencers, who then carry forward ideas and messages first experienced on
Twitter into other media – blogs, YouTube, social networks, and traditional media (reporters are
among the groups of professionals who are finding great value on Twitter).
What do people do on Twitter?
Most people use it in the following ways:
• Sharing what’s happening “right now” – simple tweets about waiting in line or going to a
movie or comments on the weather
• Sharing information on breaking news – when a major event happens, people around the
world share the bits and pieces they discover (first-person or through news media) to help
piece together what happened. This info is usually tracked through a keyword. For example,
many New Westminster-related tweets are tagged #NewWest
• Sharing interesting links
• Sharing thoughts about life in general or issues specific to their interests or professional
The constraints of the system help to inspire creativity. Some examples: Poets turn Tweets into art.
Storytellers craft their tales in 140-character increments. Journalists use Twitter to find story
leads and perform interviews. Companies and marketers are using it to respond to customer
complaints. A non-profit raised $10,000 in 48 hours to build a classroom in Tanzania via Twitter
through its “Tweetsgiving” campaign. Twitter was the best source of breaking news updates about the
recent civic elections in B.C. The Red Cross and emergency planning departments are using it
to keep people up to date on disaster response.
People also use the data on Twitter in interesting ways, through data visualization and other inventive
methods. One of the best-known is We Feel Fine.
First, create an account at http://twitter.com/
One rite of passage for new Twitterers is to learn the quirks of the system.
• @ = reply or attention (@duckbeaver indicates I’m either replying to something he said or
that I think something I am saying will interest him)
• # = keyword that indicates a tweet is part of a larger discussion
(#motrinmoms, #NewWest, #flight1549)
• RT or Retweet = forwarded message (convention is to include the original source, i.e. RT
@source then write the message)
• d = Direct Message (private between sender & recipient)
• More than one symbol can be used at a time. Example tweet: josiejose @breebop RT
@chronicbabe listening to “twitter for journalists” from columbia j school on blog talk
While Twitter itself is a fairly basic, stripped-down service, its application programming interface (API)
allows third-party developers build applications that riff off Twitter data or improve the Twitter
experience. Some useful tools in the latter category include:
• Twhirl – desktop client that allows you to tweet from more than one account, can select to
be notified with a pop-up every time someone you follow tweets or replies/direct messages
• Twitterfeed – Input your RSS feed to automatically tweet your blog posts
• Twitterbar – Firefox extension to post URLs to Twitter from your browser
• Twitterific & Twinkle – iPhone apps (there are others, these are just two examples)
• Twitterberry – For Blackberry
• Brightkite – Location-based social network that syncs with Twitter (has an iPhone app &
Finally, some pointers on Twitter etiquette:
• Use your real name and add a photo. Companies can tweet, but it’s better if they are
represented by an individual.
• To find followers, follow others. Reciprocation is not required, but it is encouraged.
• It is possible to tweet too much. Don’t flood your followers’ Twitter streams.
• If you retweet, identify the source with @sourcename in your message. It’s ok to truncate the
original message if you need to.
• Don’t try to “sell” via Twitter. Use it to show your personality, offer special Twitter-only deals,
reveal the inside scoop or respond to customer feedback.
Created by Briana Tomkinson