What Is Twitter Really?

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Andy Crestodina

Imagine you’re sitting at a desk, staring at a new piece of technology. It’s a type of tool that allows you to communicate in new ways. It connects people instantly. It’s supposed to be better than the older tools. Everybody’s talking about it. They say you should use it but you’re not sure how or why…

…the year is 1910 and the device is a telephone.

There’s the phone on your desk. Should you use it? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? You don’t use a phone unless you actually have a good reason. Twitter is the same thing. Just like that phone, without a reason to use it, what’s the point?

To understand why you may want to use Twitter, you need to know what it is and what you can do with it. Then you might find you have a reason to try it.

So what is Twitter?

Twitter is a “platform-independent-social-networking-microblogging service”…sounds fancy. But when you break it down into its functions, it’s actually very familiar. When you look at the uses of Twitter you see the ways in which it’s really just like old technology. Twitter is:

  • A giant phone book
  • A tiny radio station
  • A party line

Twitter is a giant phone book

For finding people it may even be more powerful than Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn, because you can find people who are thinking about specific things, people with specific, real-time intentions, and people with very specific interests. Let’s try playing with Twitter’s advanced search to find some people…

  • Who is asking about wine within five miles of my ZIP code? (10 people)
  • Who is unhappy about snowmobiles? (5 people)
  • Who is talking about tango dancing in Russian? (11 people)

Not bad! But wait, there’s more. Just like the Yellow Pages, it’s also a tool to be found. By adding keywords to your bio, and adding hashtags to topics in your tweets (that’s the “#” before certain words), you make yourself more findable. In other words, just like a phone book, Twitter is a research and networking tool.

If you want to find people in a giant, up-to-the-second phone book, use Twitter.

Twitter is a tiny radio station

Some radio stations are entertaining, others are informational. Some stations produce their own shows, some just play the shows of others. In this same way, Twitter is a tool to broadcast information, be it personal or professional, yours or someone else’s, mundane or profound.

Many tweets are simply tiny announcements, either original or shared (using RT or “Retweet”). The sum of all these announcements is the character of each person’s little radio station. If people like you and your station, they’ll tune in and subscribe (follow). Want to invite people to a public event?  Want to give some general advice? Want to share something interesting you found? These are all reasons to send a broadcast tweet.

If you’ve got something to broadcast, or if you want to listen to the broadcasts of others, use Twitter.

Twitter is a party line

Most Twitter users have probably never used a party line. But back in the day, before one household had five phone lines, five or more households had one phone line! Anyone who picked up could join in the conversation. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Not really. It’s happening on Twitter right now.

Many say the true usefulness of Twitter, like all good things online, is this kind of two-way communication. The dialog. Yes, Twitter can be one-to-one communication by using DM or “Direct Message” in your tweets. This is a lot like a regular phone call.

But most conversation on Twitter is many-to-many communication. By using @ or “Mentions” in your tweets, they can be directed at certain people, but viewed by anyone. This lets you have a conversation that others listen to and join. So it’s actually just like those old party line phones from decades ago. Just open your browser, listen in and join the call.

In other words, Twitter isn’t just a place for one-way broadcasts. It’s useful for all sorts of broad-reaching conversation. You can ask and answer questions, give and get advice, chat, gossip and discuss pretty much anything.

If you want to talk on a huge party line, use Twitter.

Should you use Twitter?

Twitter is powerful, capable of sparking revolutions, overthrowing governments and announcing what kind of sandwich you’re eating. Should you use it? Maybe! Maybe not.

The true nature of Twitter is that it is a connector of people. But just like that phone, don’t use it unless you have a good reason – you want to find specific people, create a tiny radio station or talk on a party line.

If you’re not using it yet, don’t feel bad. Don’t start using it just because you’re afraid you’re getting left out. First, think about what you’re trying do to. Pick your purpose, and then consider what tools will help you achieve it. If you want to find people, broadcast something, or have public conversations, Twitter might be perfect.

Find me, subscribe to my tiny radio station or start a conversation with us at @orbiteers.

Thanks to @manamica from Lightspan Digital for her digital marketing and social media insights.

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Comments (12)
  • Very helpful tips for the beginer’s thanks.

  • I find Twitter the most useful for driving traffic.

  • The advanced search tips are helpful. I think this is a good approach to connect with thought leaders or hard to find niche experts based on items of immediate common interest.

  • Great take on Twitter, Andy!

    I remember that when I first heard about it, I wasn’t thrilled (and the name…). But now I view it as a fantastic news source, sort of what RSS was supposed to be, but with more capabilities.

    I use it in conjunction with my travel blog – to tweet and re-tweet travel-related news to my followers, but also to have a one-stop shop for travel news I’m interested in.

    You also make a great point i.e. that you should use Twitter if you have a reason to, not because seemingly everyone else is doing it.

  • Great read Andy. Twitter is the one social media tool I struggle to find solid use for…so I’m always interested in others take on it and how they perceive its usefulness. Like your comparisons…

  • I like to think of Twitter like the fax machine. It is quickly on its way to becoming a universally accepted tool for businesses and consumers to connect and share information. However, like the fax, it is only a useful tool if the people you are trying to reach also use it. The biggest question that people should be asking is “how do I connect with them?”

    You also have to consider your marketing objectives when approaching Twitter; will brand awareness, search engine visibility, and fostering a community of like-minded individuals compliment your marketing objectives? If so, then look at it from the perspective of the artist. Does Picasso paint with only one paint brush?

    Twitter isn’t the end-all solution to generating new leads, building online relationships, or establishing yourself as an expert in your field: but it helps!

  • Gracias Andy! Your analogies were very helpful. The possibility of getting into twittering was on my “list” to figure out how, why, and if I should use it. You gave me a good start.

  • I think twitter is an effective news filter. Instead of going out to find “news sources” and reading articles I care about along with those I don’t; Twitter brings me a constant stream of news that’s highly customized to MY interests. If I need to know about something, it’s likely in my twitter stream.

    • I agree this is a great use for Twitter. It’s a very fast source for news and you choose your editorial filter – your friends! But it takes some time to build up your account and activity level before you’d see this benefit.

      This article is intended to give people a quick overview and get started. But once you’re up and running, yes, you’ll find it’s a great source for real-time information…

  • Well done. Would like to hear more about optimizing your tweets to make you more findable.

    • Jef, You can make tweets more findable by adding hashtags. To help you choose hashtags that are popular or trending up, you can check them on http://trendistic.com/. Also, when you send a tweet, go ahead and “mention” someone you think would be interested at the beginning or end of the tweet. That way, they’re more likely to see it and retweet it. This could make it much more findable.

  • Greetings Andy & Team!
    Very nicely presented. Great content!
    I haven’t used Titter much at all.
    I’m taking another look.

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