What is Twitter and Why Would I Use It?

Twitter. “I’m Twittering that!” “Let me add you on Twitter.” At-replies. Direct Messages. Tweets!

Most likely, you have heard of Twitter in some way or another by now. You might even have signed up but been otherwise unable to really make sense of it. So what is Twitter, and why would you care to use it?

This is the first of seven articles in a series about Twitter, tailored towards people who are not yet avid Twitterers or who may simply not have heard of it before. If you already know all about Twitter, this first article is designed to be a reference for you to point to when people ask you about Twitter and you don’t feel like explaining it (again and again and again). If you don’t know much or anything at all about Twitter, read on.

While the first article is an introduction to what Twitter itself is, the other six articles are meant to be of interest to both new and old Twitterers. As time goes by and things change in the world of Twitter, these articles will be updated and revised. Similarly, if you have comments or ideas to contribute to these articles, please let me know.

  1. What is Twitter and Why Would I Use It?
  2. Using Twitter: From Web To Phone To Application And More
  3. Common Twitter Idioms and Important Security Practices
  4. Interesting Uses and Applications for Twitter
  5. What Kind of Twitter User Are You?
  6. Twitter for Celebrities and Celebrity-fans
  7. Twitter Is Not A Competition (And Here’s Why)

1. What is Twitter and why would I use it?

Twitter is a communication platform, first and foremost. This sounds vague and generic so allow me to elaborate for a bit. It is a free service that, more than anything ele, has made it incredibly easy for large numbers of people to communicate unobtrusively with each other. I’ll talk more later about why the unobtrusive part is crucial, but first let’s look at what Twitter is on a surface level.

The origin story of Twitter tells that it was initially conceived as a means to inform friends of interesting happenings in the simplest possible way: a single text message, 140 characters in length, was all you’d need to send. It was also all you could send, forcing you to keep your verbosity low and your message to the point.

Since its conception, Twitter has evolved dramatically. By the time it went public, Twitter had become the service that asks you just one simple question:

What are you doing?

Using Twitter thus became a matter of simply answering that question each and every time you were doing something of interest. This obviously left it very open to every individual’s own interpretation: some people twitter about what they are eating for lunch, others only twitter about things they suspect their followers to find interesting.

When describing Twitter to someone else, the lunch example always raises an eyebrow here and there. “Why would anyone care what I’m eating for lunch?!” is the response I’ve received most often. The answer is indeterminate. Suppose you’re eating a really fantastic sandwich for lunch today: if you twitter about howamazingly good that sandwich is, it would be of interest to people who follow you and live in the same area. They now might want to go and see for themselves just how good that sandwich really is. What’ll happen then is that they may respond back to you, starting a message with an @ and your username (“@KuraFire where are you eating that sandwich??” would be an example @-reply to me) and thus opening up a conversation.

This is where one of Twitter’s core competencies shines through: it enables conversation very easily and quickly between two or more people.

Our example was simply that of a lunch delight, but Twitter is used to communicate and converse about anything and everything. What’s even better is that since you can see the responses of people you follow to people you don’t follow[1], you can see conversations happening with strangers and join in if it’s something you’re interested in or have a strong opinion about. This happens very often on Twitter and it’s a great way to see people discuss sometimes important subjects.

UPDATE May 31st, 2009: Twitter currently changed this behavior and now you can’t see those conversations. They’ve announced plans for more control over this behavior, but as yet have not implemented anything new. (end update)

An important side note: if you think this “listening in” on other people’s conversations is voyeuristic, remember that they were public discussions from the get-go: if those people wanted to have a privatediscussion, they could have chosen to send Direct Messages to each other instead or exchange email / IM information to take the talk off of Twitter.

So why exactly would I use it?

The reasons for using Twitter are as bountiful and varied as the possible uses of Twitter itself. First and foremost, it is a great way to simply stay in touch and keep up to date with friends and family, providing of course they, too, are on Twitter. The more of your friends and family you get onto Twitter, the more valuable it becomes to you and them.

Small announcements about your personal life are the core of what goes on in Twitter, but sometimes even big announcements are made either solely or first on Twitter: anything from wedding engagements, pregnancies, job landings or losses and more.

If you’re still really wondering why anyone would care to read what you’re doing, what you’re eating or where you’re heading to, you’re asking the wrong question. Twitter isn’t about why, it’s about what. Additionally, asking yourself the question “why would anyone be interested in what I’m about to post to Twitter?” is the wrong way to go about it: instead, you should ask yourself “will anyone be interested in what I’m about to Twitter?” — or, and this is equally valid: don’t bother asking yourself anything at all, and Just Twit It. Ahem.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can be as free as you want to be with it, and people and companies have taken full advantage of this, in many fantastic, positive ways. For instance, Amazon has a Twitter account whereto they publish Daily Deals; various metropoles’ public transport systems have Twitter accounts to update status for its lines: San Francisco BART, New York City’s MTA, London Underground and I’m sure many more like it. And this is just a tiny sliver of a sample of all the useful things found on Twitter; more about them in the fourth article in this series, “Interesting Uses and Applications for Twitter.”

Chosen Ones Only

Another beautiful thing is the aforementioned unobtrusiveness of Twitter: everything on Twitter is opt-in and opt-in only. You choose who or what you follow, and what you see is only that and nothing else.

In other words, your Twitter stream—the amalgamation of updates from the people, companies and/or services that you follow—is completely and entirely under your control and no-one else’s. There is no real “spam” on Twitter because why would you bother to follow an account that only spams generic updates? You wouldn’t, and as a result, spam has no meaningful success on Twitter. Spammers can only reach the people who choose on their own accord to listen to them, which isn’t a very compelling tactic for the spammers.

As a user, you can keep in touch with all your friends but unlike with e-mail or instant messaging, you only have to do this when you feel like it. When you have time, you can choose to spend a couple of minutes seeing what’s new on Twitter, and get up to date that way. An important aspect to remember is that Twitter isn’t e-mail: you don’t have to read everything people post to it.

If you come from an IM and e-mail heavy environment, it may take some time to get used to this, but you’ll probably be following a fair amount of people soon and discover that trying to “keep up” with Twitter is impossible. That’s perfectly fine; you’re not supposed to. Twitter is great precisely because of that; after all, nobody really wants to know everything that you’re doing, but it’s nice to be able to check in from time to time to see what you’re up to.

Next in the series

In the second article of the Twitter series, I’ll go in-depth on all the various methods you can use for Twitter, as there are many. Meanwhile, make sure to Sign Up for Twitter and start twittering! And if you’d like, you can find me at twitter.com/kurafire and start chatting away at me—perhaps to let me know what you think of this article. I’m always happy to hear suggestions.

Coming up next: Using Twitter: From Web To Phone To Application And More

  1. You can disable this if it bothers you or if you find your followers to be too chatty to people you don’t know or care about. Twitter has changed their rules and as of right now, May 31st, any @replies to people you don’t follow yourself are not shown in your main stream. You can see them on the individual’s profile pages, still.

If you liked this, you should follow me on Twitter!