What is Twitter? What seems like a simple question is actually a mystery that's difficult to solve.
Even the founders of Twitter didn’t agree on exactly what it should be. According to Hatching Twitter: A Story of Love, Power, and Betrayal, cofounder Jack Dorsey envisioned a way for people to share their status, while Noah Glass wanted to connect people who felt alone, and Ev Williams decided to make Twitter about “what’s happening.”
It seems they were all correct.
People use Twitter differently. Users who aren’t fully invested in the environment struggle to use the service to its full potential. Casual users passively read a deluge of tweets from time to time, especially during breaking events like the Boston Marathon bombing, but don’t participate in conversations themselves. And hardcore Twitter users tweet daily about whatever sparks an interest.
But as Twitter becomes one of the most popular social media platforms for mobile users, especially early adopters of technology, it still faces a challenge: evangelizing its services to the masses.
How People Use Twitter
Twitter’s signature features, using @-replies to publicly communicate with other people, and hashtags, or links to words or topics created with a # symbol before the word, are some of the tools that can be used to improve the Twitter experience.
But just how, exactly, people use these tools varies, and what started off as a 140-character platform to broadcast your status updates has blossomed into a way of consuming news, following trends, and becoming part of a growing community both online and off.
Breaking News And Information
As a real-time platform for news and information, Twitter can’t be matched. In fact, the company even demonstrated its power as a breaking news service when it announced it’s initial plans for an IPO by tweeting.
After winning the U.S. presidential election, President Obama’s “Four more years,” tweet became the most popular tweet ever. During the Arab Spring, citizen journalists and activists live-tweeted the uprisings in the Middle East that began in December 2010, and for a time, Egyptian politics were discussed more frequently than American politics on Twitter.
Four more years. pic.twitter.com/bAJE6Vom— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) November 7, 2012
A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that half of U.S. adult Twitter users consume news on the platform, or about eight percent of the U.S. adult population. For many users, my mother included, it has replaced traditional media as a means of news consumption.
And with Twitter’s new customized timelines feature, it’s now easier than ever to follow breaking news and events in real-time.
For journalists, it’s an invaluable resource. As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post pointed out, Twitter is more useful than any other social network for breaking news and information, so journalists rely on it to surface valuable tweets from sources they might not otherwise be in contact with. And users who aren’t in the media are able to follow and interact with journalists and get their news direct from the source.
To prompt more people to use Twitter as a breaking news platform, Twitter is experimenting with @EventParrot, an account that sends direct messages to followers containing links to breaking news. However, it’s still a work in progress; the only two times I’ve received a message, it was hours after my followers had shared it.
Staying Connected To Celebrities And Thought Leaders
Following celebrities, brands, and interesting people is what many people enjoy most about Twitter.
The platform allows users to follow anyone with a public Twitter feed, and that includes celebrities like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian.
Verified accounts, or accounts with a little blue checkmark next to the username, demonstrate the authenticity of the user. Twitter works with celebrities, brands, personalities, and business and thought leaders to verify accounts, so users can know the person tweeting is who they say they are.
By following people society puts on a celebratory pedestal, we are given a glimpse into their personal life in a way we never could before. And sometimes, they tweet back.
“@missmircea: I traded in my ex cause he was a lemon.” But... lemonade!— Nathan Fillion (@NathanFillion) November 12, 2013
Being Part Of A Larger Community
From Beliebers to job hunters, there are communities on Twitter that only interact with each other online.
By using hashtags, or following certain conversations, users can become part of a community that grows and gets personal on Twitter. For instance, The Voice, a popular reality television show, encourages viewers to tweet while they’re watching TV. By commenting on favorite performances, or debating with others as to whose team is going to win, fans created a sub-community that gets together online every Monday and Tuesday to talk about #TheVoice.
However, the community on Twitter can often drive action offline. So-called “Tweetups,” or informal events that invite Twitter users to meet up in person, have blossomed out of Twitter chats. Buzzcation, a Phoenix-based meetup for Twitter connections, has grown to over 120 people that became friends on the social network. The unofficial Buzzcation organization hosts a monthly get together so people can connect in-person with people they only know online.
And it can also help build your interpersonal relationships. When I first moved to San Francisco, Twitter was the best resource for me to get to know people in my community. By reaching out via an @-reply on Twitter, I met a variety of Bay Area locals with similar interests who eventually became friends.
Tracking Trends And Conversation
Much like using the platform to curate news, it’s easy to track trends and conversations on Twitter.
Simply by following active users who often interact with one another, you can read conversations between them without actually participating yourself. While it might seem awkward to remain on the periphery, it’s such a normal use case for Twitter that the company implemented a feature that strings conversations together – a thin blue line now connects the avatars of conversation participants in your timeline.
The “# Discover” feature on Twitter shows what’s trending. Described as, “What's happening now, tailored for you,” the “# Discover” timeline surfaces tweets, news articles, and pictures that are popular among the people you follow.
For users that want to get a little more technical, services like Topsy and Poptip can determine the exact number of tweets containing specific words or phrases. For instance, you can find out how many tweets contained the phrase “Breaking Bad” this week, simply by searching it on Topsy.
The platform is also quite helpful in getting recommendations. While it’s tough to get feedback personally if you tweet out something like, “What’s the best movie to watch this summer?”, searching a specific movie will reveal the conversation happening from public profiles worldwide. Your followers might not be talking about the latest Avengers flick, but there are certain to be movie buffs around the web that tweet out their own reviews that can help you make a decision.
A New Creative Outlet
As many writers know, saying something clever in 140 characters can be tricky. But that doesn’t keep them from trying.
While the short character count may be reminiscent of a text message – and let’s be honest, who ever said anything relevant in a text – it’s almost a challenge to be witty and engaging on the platform.
Dubbed “twihaiku” or “micropoetry,” poetry on Twitter is becoming increasingly popular.
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah told The Independent, “I like to send out little treats of poetry every now and then to make people think a little bit. It’s a great way to connect daily with your audience. It is a better way of saying, ‘I’m in the shop.’”
But poets aren’t the only ones harnessing the power of Twitter. Others have also adopted online personas that are different from their own, most commonly as a form of comedy. Parody accounts generally take pop culture icons or topics and post funny tweets, and often garner a slew of followers.
@Sh*tMyDadSays, an account that documented one man’s father’s hilarious quotes, became so popular, the author turned it into a book.
Vine, Twitter’s six-second video application has created an entirely new way to create and share videos. Because of the truncated time allowed, people have made some really clever videos. Just like it’s hard to contain your thoughts in 140 characters or less, it’s similarly challenging to be funny in six seconds. But somehow people find a way to do it.
When disaster strikes, it can be challenging to contact friends or family to let them know your safe. It can also be hard to find out information about what’s happening in your neighborhood such as where to reconnect with loved ones, or whether or not police action as been taken.
That’s where Twitter becomes more than just a breaking news platform.
After the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and during the terrorist manhunt that ensued, first responders and the news media relied on Twitter to relay information to the community, including the order to stay safe inside while police and federal services searched for the terrorist.
Seth Mnookin, one reporter who chronicled the manhunt for bombing suspects in Boston, told Twitter data editor Simon Rogers, “for those three or four hours when a gunman was on the loose and a neighborhood was under siege, Twitter was the most efficient way to get information out to the public.”
To further help in emergency situations, the company created Twitter Alerts, a feature that updates users via notifications in times of crisis. People can sign up to receive an account’s Twitter Alerts and will receive push and SMS notifications whenever the account marks the tweet as an alert. Organizations like FEMA participate in the Twitter Alerts program.
But Wait, There's More
Of course, these aren’t the only ways people use Twitter. From broadcasting what you’re eating for breakfast to tweeting out pictures from your last vacation, there are unlimited ways to use the service.
For newbies, it’s nice to get started by figuring out exactly what you want to get from Twitter. Whether it’s tweeting at celebrities or following your favorite sports team, find out what works best for you.
Then, like the rest of us, take it one tweet at a time.