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The tweet cheat sheet

What’s the big deal about Twitter? Let the gurus break it down for you.

By Scott Kirsner
November 1, 2009

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The popular social media service Twitter is a bit like golf or oysters: To understand the allure, you have to try it. And then you may need to try it again.

Twitter can be opaque at first, and the content can seem trivial. It’s easy to dismiss Twitter as a speedy new way for people to broadcast what they’re having for breakfast or how awful their latest airline experience was. But it can go deeper than that, serving as a source of breaking news (that US Airways plane touching down in the Hudson River), a connection to political movements (like the protests that took place after this year’s Iranian election), or a way to keep tabs on how friends and acquaintances are doing.

“There’s a woman I follow on Twitter who has pancreatic cancer, and she’s going through treatment,” says Laura Fitton, a local entrepreneur and author of the recent book Twitter for Dummies. “She may go a few weeks without posting anything, but then when she says, ‘I just had a sandwich,’ it’s like, ‘Oh my God, she’s still with us.’ ”

Here are five pieces of advice culled from Fitton and other area Twitter gurus about getting the most from the service.

The basics Signing up for Twitter at Twitter.com is free. Pick a username that’s short and distinctive. Twitter asks you to post updates on what you are doing, but don’t take that literally. Jokes, random thoughts, and links to interesting articles are all OK. These outgoing messages are called “tweets.” The people who sign up to receive your tweets are called followers. In addition to writing messages for public consumption, you can also send private messages to people who follow you (Twitter calls these “direct messages.”) Be careful, though -- it’s very easy to accidentally broadcast a message that you intended for a single recipient. Thankfully, you can delete a tweet. Just hover your mouse over it, and you’ll see a trash-can icon to the right.

Don’t use the website Oddly, Twitter’s website isn’t the best interface for using the service. Other companies have written software (much of it free) that simplifies writing and reading tweets, posting photos, or shortening URLs to include in your tweets. (Tweets are limited to 140 characters, which includes spaces.) Fitton recommends Twhirl for a desktop computer and UberTwitter for BlackBerry users ($4.99 per year). Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs and a Twitter user with more than 100,000 followers, says he uses Seesmic on his laptop and Tweetie ($2.99) on his iPhone.

What are all those @ signs? People use @ to refer to other Twitter users -- @jbchang, for instance, is Boston restaurateur Joanne Chang (727 followers). If you click on or insert @jbchang in a tweet, you link to Chang’s profile. And through her own Twitter home page, Chang can click on @jbchang to see all the tweets that are addressed to or mention her.

How do you decide who to follow? If you go to another Twitter user’s profile page, you can see a list of his or her followers; click through to read that person’s tweets and follow whoever seems interesting. You can also use a directory like Wefollow.com to find some of the most popular Twitter users (among them Ellen DeGeneres, John Mayer, Oprah, and Shaquille O’Neal.)

How to get followers Being funny, insightful, and linking to interesting stuff is a start. You might also opt to include your Twitter username in the signature of your outgoing e-mails. Brogan recommends helping others who are on Twitter by answering their questions, making suggestions, or promoting their work. “I promote other people’s stuff probably 12 times as much as I do my own,” says Brogan, whose new book, Trust Agents, is due out this fall. “It’s a great magic trick: If you talk about other people more than you do yourself, you’ll attract followers.”

Scott Kirsner (@scottkirsner on Twitter) writes the Innovation Economy column and blog for the Globe . Contact him at sk@scottkirsner.com.

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