I’ve been using Twitter for a little while and most people I speak to about it seem a bit overwhelmed by the whole concept. At my workshops and seminars, I inevitably get the question “what’s the point?”
I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so the best answer I’ve found to that question comes from this brief 2-minute video at Common Craft:
http://www.commoncraft.com/twitter (opens in new window)
But, even after getting an overview of what it does, how it works, and how it can help you stay in touch, I’ve found that there are 2 very basic parts of Twitter that are critical to understanding the service, yet are rarely ever explained to beginners. I’m talking about those seemingly ubiquitous # and @ symbols all over the place.
For those of you familiar with Twitter, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now, but you can’t imagine how frustrating it is for folks just getting started, so I wanted to take the time to explain what they do.
# (a.k.a. “hashmarks”)
Basically, the # symbol is called a “hashmark” and serves as a kind of bookmark for words. For example, if you post a status update to Twitter that says “Going to the #library”, then when someone does a global search for the word “library”, your status will appear in the results. It’s a simple way to emphasize parts of your posts and make them globally accessible.
@ (direct messages replies or “mentions”)
You can easily post a direct message reply to another Twitter user by simply entering @ followed by their username. For example, if I want to direct message Marce with the start time for a movie, I would just type “@marceonline Movie starts at 6pm. See you there!” Twitter will now notify Marce of the message.
Word of Caution: Direct Message is a somewhat deceptive name for these, since the message still posts to your profile page and is also searchable/viewable by anyone. In other words, if you want to contact someone privately, don’t use Twitter. Recently, Twitter has changed the name for these to “mentions”, which is a more accurate description of how it works.
Updated Nov 3, 2009: It turns out, Twitter does support direct messages (which are not public or searchable). To post a public reply, just use the @username method. That message will be added to your Twitter feed and visible to the world (and search engines). To post a private “direct message”, log into your account and click the “Direct Messages” link on the right-hand menu. Note: You can only send direct messages to people who are following you.
Want to learn more about Twitter?
Watch the following video from Howcast: