Twitter is an online social networking tool in which users post 140 character updates of what is going on in their lives along with links to things they think are interesting, funny, or useful to their followers (“following” being essentially what “friending” is on other sites). People use twitter in many ways, some as a newsfeed by following prominent people or networks, some as a pseudo-chatroom by limiting their followers and whom they follow to close friends and family, and some as a microblog for updating people about the work they are doing and their personal lives.

twitter users

@me
follows @mymom, @mybrother, and @mycat

@mymom
follows @me and @mybrother

@mybrother
follows @me and @mymom

@mycat
follows @me

@fanperson
follows @me, but I do not follow him

@totalstranger
doesn’t follow any of us and we do not follow her

Twitter users choose who they do and do not follow. They have total control of what news they receive on their homepage. When I refer to your “homepage”, I’m referring to the feed that you see when signed into twitter containing your and your followers tweets. This is different from your personal twitter page (twitter.com/yourusername) which contains all of your tweets including your replies to other users. You can have an unlimited amount of followers, but only follow a select few people if you want, making it easy to stay in touch with the people you care to stay in touch with. (FYI these are fake twitter names, my (the author’s) actual twitter username is @jessicahische.)

who sees what

the person tweeting is pictured • their tweet is the large text
very important information is in red

•  anyone that follows @me will see this on their homepage

•  because I do not follow @fanperson, this does not show up on my homepage, instead this shows up in my @mentions feed

•  because @fanperson put my username at the beginning, it does not show up on @fanperson’s followers’ homepages

•  by putting another person’s username at the start of a statement, it limits who sees it

•  @me, @mymom, and @mybrother see this on our homepages because we all follow each other

•  people that follow both @me and @mybrother will see this on their homepages

•  people that only follow one of us will not see this on their homepage

•  @mybrother will see this in his @mentions feed as well as his homepage because we follow each other

•  anyone that follows @mybrother will see this on their homepage, whether they follow @me or do not follow @me

•  If a username is not at the start of a statement, everyone that follows @mybrother can see it

•  I will see this in my @mentions feed because my username is used within the tweet

•  This is generally the incorrect way to reply. There are times when you want to share a reply with your followers (e.g. if your reply contains something useful for your followers) but not in this circumstance or similar circumstances

•  if you DO want to share a reply with your followers, you can put any character before their username (typically a period) and this allows all of your followers to see it. It takes the person’s username and puts it “in the middle” of the tweet.

•  @me, @mymom, and @mybrother see this on our homepages because we all follow each other

•  people that follow @me and @mymom (both of us) will see this on their homepages

•  only the first user mentioned at the beginning and my username control who sees this tweet, any users mentioned after, even directly after, does not affect this

•  because I do not follow @totalstranger, this does not show up on my homepage

•  instead this shows up in my @mentions feed—as long as your username is somewhere in their post, it will be in your @mentions feed

•  because my username is in the middle of the statement, this does show up on @totalstranger’s followers’ homepages

•  @totalstranger does not follow me, but can still @mention me in a tweet and I will see it in my @mentions feed

•  @mymom @mybrother and @fanperson do not see this conversation on their homepages because they do not follow both of us

•  @mycat and @me will see each others tweets in our @mentions feed as well as our homepages because we follow each other

•  twitter.com added a “reply” feature recently which allows you to see a conversation string. There is a difference between “replying to” a tweet and simply beginning a tweet with a person’s username. The former will keep the conversation in tact, and the latter will not. The tweets look identical except that one shows that a tweet is “in reply to” another and one does not. On twitter.com, the signifier that a tweet is part of a conversation is the little speech bubble in the upper right corner.

•  if someone went to our personal twitter pages they could see everything we are writing back and forth, but very few people are likely to do this. In this way, any tweets that you write are not 100% private even if directed at another user. The only way to make sure a conversation is 100% private is to exchange direct messages

Direct Messaging

Direct Messages are private tweets (to other twitter users / the general public) that are exchanged between two users that follow each other. You cannot direct message someone that does not follow you and vice versa. Direct messages are the only private way to converse on twitter. “DM’s” are basically like emails that are limited to 140 characters per exchange. They are unsearchable on twitter.

Retweeting

Retweeting or “RT”ing is used when you want to forward along a tweet that someone else said to your followers. There are a few ways to do this. It is very easy on twitter.com as they built in a native retweet feature. Native retweet is a feature in many mobile and desktop apps as well and is generally the best way to go. The bottom tweet shows a native retweet, which has a little symbol in the upper left corner and states whom it was retweeted by at the top. One of the most common other ways to RT is to copy the full tweet including the person’s username and put “RT” before it. Your followers then know that whatever comes next was said by that user. Another way to retweet is to quote the user by writing “via @username” at the end of the copied tweet. Just be sure not to replace the original author of the tweet with the newest person to retweet it.

hashtags

Hashtags are a way to label tweets so that other users can see tweets on the same topic. Hashtags contain no spaces or punctuation and begin with a “#” symbol. Many times at events like conferences or concerts, the organizers will tell attendees to add a particular hash tag to their tweets to gather opinions about the event and unite people at the same event.
Twitter users create trending topics by using hash tags. For instance, a user might create a hashtag as a fun way to start a conversation.
Lastly, hashtags are used to punctuate statements or jokes on twitter. Some twitter users make sentence-long hashtags for comic effect.

Twitter Vs. Facebook

Twitter is different from Facebook because it has an opt-in take on friending vs. an opt-out like Facebook. If you accept a friend request on Facebook, you automatically “follow” each other (Facebook does not use “following” but has a newsfeed that is quite similar to twitter). This means that if you have 200 Facebook friends, you can potentially see 200 people’s news in your feed (they have algorithms which narrow it down to who you most likely want to see, but still. If there is someone annoying in your feed you have to opt-out of following them or “hide” them). On twitter, you can be followed by 2,000 people but only see 50 people in your feed—50 people you CHOSE to follow. The main difference between the two is that Twitter is much more simplified. There is a character limit to posts, there are no picture or video libraries, and no complicated profiles, relationship statuses, etc. Because of this, Twitter has become the top choice for professionals that want a social / semi-work-related network through which they can share work news (and not feel smarmy) alongside personal news. Many people (myself included) link their twitter account to their facebook account so that they can post to facebook from twitter.

In Conclusion

Twitter is awesome, but while it seems like a relatively simple service, it is quite nuanced. I hope this site helped you or someone you know get acquainted with twitter so that you can stop writing your tweets incorrectly, accidentally airing your dirty laundry to the internet at large. I am not an employee of twitter, just an avid (understatement) user of the service that wanted to lend a hand to twitter n00bs. This site is not a comprehensive guide as twitter is always adding new subtle features to make their service more useful and user-friendly, but this should demystify most of the basics. You can always visit support.twitter.com to find out more.
About: Jessica Hische is, for the most part, a letterer and illustrator living in San Francisco, CA (and sometimes Brooklyn). “Mom, this is how twitter works” is one of many silly internet projects she has created in recent history, the largest of which being Daily Drop Cap and the stupidest of which being The Internet Sends Me Cake. Please visit Jessica’s portfolio site to view what she ACTUALLY does for a living and to read about the latest zany internet projects she has created. It should also be added that Jessica’s mom is incredibly tech savvy, and this site was not made to be an anti-feminist statement about moms. Jessica was trying to pull her mom away from Facebook (which she wasn’t using much at the time) and toward Twitter.