If a tweet by uber athlete, Lance Armstrong is anything go by, Twitter is "fast. It's direct. And most importantly, it empowers the people". With tens of millions of other people using twitter, including big name celebs such as Armstrong, there's no debating that Twitter has become a phenomenon attracting tens of millions of Twits worldwide.
So what is this Twitter thing?
Twitter is an online place where you can 'post' short messages (140 characters including spaces), otherwise known as 'tweets' which can be read by those who've decided to 'follow' you (that is subscribe to your tweets). You can also follow the tweets of anyone, from friends through to celebs. The tweets show up in a main feed right on Twitter's main page, in chronological order.
Getting Started With Twitter
The easiest way to access Twitter is to fire up your web browser and point it at Twitter.com, where you can set up a place to add updates and get a feed of all the tweets posted by you and your followers. You can also set up a profile, and even set up forwarding to your mobile phone so you can get tweets via text.
There's also a truck-load of other extras to make tweeting even more interesting. My personal fave is Tweetdeck, which although designed for photo uploading amongst other things, will also allow you to search by topic within Twitter. This becomes incredibly handy once you start following larger numbers of tweeters.
Tweetree is another goodie which lets you preview YouTube links and images inside tweets whilst mobile apps such as Twitterific will let you tweet on the go from your mobile phone.
First things first - sign up and get yourself a Twitter account. Choosing the right username makes all the difference. If possible, try to use your real name, it'll make it easier for friends and wannabe followers to track you down.
Once you've got your account sorted, add some followers using Twitter's contact importer, which will searches for Twitter users by sniffing through your contacts in Gmail, Yahoo! and other webmail services.
You can also search by name and follow other twitter users manually searching and then pressing the 'Follow' button on their Twitter page. If push comes to shove you can try typing ww.twitter.com/their name (e.g. www.twitter.com/patrickpilcher).
Now you've got an account and followers, create a profile. Where Facebook, MySpace and other social network services let you go nuts creating a profile, Twitter adopts a much more sensible approach.
In an age where many are time challenged, this minimalist approach makes a whole lot of sense compared to the usual nonsense on other social networking sites. One word of caution: your Twitter profile and Tweets are public and can get you fired, so watch what you write.
Last but by no means least, you can also respond directly to followers using one of two ways. Direct messages, (which are private), or with @replies, which are viewable by all your followers. Sending an '@reply' is as easy as adding a'@' followed by and Twitter user's name at the front of your message (e.g. @patrickpilcher: I great article on Twitter!). Direct messages can be sent by clicking 'Direct Messages' on the right-hand bar which are ideal for things you want to say to in private, rather than to all your followers.'
Ideally, tweets should be engaging. Make them informative and witty. Say too little (e.g. such as posting a link with no explanation like http://tinyurl.com/abc123) and chances are no-one will take any notice.
The website tinyurl.com allows you to scale down a URL to make it easier to fit within the 140 character allowance.
Making tweets more informative gives people a reason to check out what you've got to say (e.g. I just found this fantastic Windows widget: http://tinyurl.com/def345).
Adding in a little of your own personality also makes your tweets less generic. Avoid saying something that anyone could say such as "Powerbill went up" and aim for something a little more witty such as "Is it just me or do the power companies see me coming?".
Also remember that you can also tweet pictures using offerings such as Twitpic. Whilst Twitter isn't designed to handle images, Twitpic hosts images using your Twitter name and creates a link so that you can images. Apps, such as Tweetdeck , TwitterFon and Twhirl integrate with Twitpic so you can easily tweet photos without visiting Twitpic.
Like any conversation, there definite do's and don'ts when it comes to tweets. Tweeting every stray thought or day to day activity will simply bore people. If you wouldn't babble about a topic at a dinner party why tweet about it? Also think twice before you post a tweet - and self-edit. People can't hear what you're saying so things can easily be misconstrued. If you think your tweet might offend, perhaps it's not a good idea to click the update button.
Although starting a conversation with someone using @replies is a great way to stimulate debate and conversation, however conducting an entire conversation with @replies will only annoy the rest of your followers so after one or two @replies, move the conversation to email.
Getting more followers
Getting more people to read your Twitter updates isn't terribly difficult and can be done by following some simple commonsense rules. First things first, remember that your Twitter profile is just like any other website.
If you want to increase Twitter followers, start by driving web traffic to your Twitter profile. In other words potential followers can only follow you once they know you exist.
# Include links back to your twitter profile in email/forum signatures.
# Talk up your Twitter profile on your blog and in comments on other blogs. Once again, link back to your Twitter profile.
# If you're a Facebook, MySpace or even a Bebo user, link your profiles back to your Twitter page.
# Some high flying twits even set up reciprocal links to other Twitterers.
# Following fellow Twitterers is also likely to garner followers as they in turn check out who's following them.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.