Getting started with Twitter

By Jodi Mullen

Tonight the News Room bar on Leith Street will play host to Edinburgh’s first ‘Tweetup‘, an informal gathering for local users of social networking phenomenon Twitter. The meet follows the success of last month’s Edinburgh Twestival, a charity event which saw Twitter users raise thousands of pounds for good causes.

Twitter courtesy of searchengineland
Twitter courtesy of searchengineland

Over the last few months Twitter has become something of a media darling, with news organisations, including the BBC, and a host of major and minor celebrities jumping aboard the bandwagon. But the service, heralded as ‘the next Facebook‘ by some, has alienated many internet users who have questioned whether it’s anything more than a new way to waste time.

So what is Twitter exactly? In a nutshell, it’s a way to exchange short messages, also known as ‘tweets’, each no more than 140 characters long, over the internet. Subscribing to another user’s tweets is as simple as choosing to ‘follow’ them. The updates will then show on your own Twitter page, along with those of anyone else you follow.

Naturally, Twitter is reciprocal in nature. Just as you’re free to follow other users, they’re also free to follow you and view your tweets. Messages can be sent to other users by adding ‘@’ and their username at the beginning of a tweet – so, for example, replying to me on Twitter would just involve beginning the message with ‘@jodimullen‘.

Unlike Facebook and other popular social networking services, follower lists on Twitter are rarely confined to real-life friends and colleagues. With millions of users around the world, it’s easy to follow anyone who grabs your interest and build up a network of hundreds, or even thousands, of people you’ve never met but with whom you share interests.

The nature of individual tweets and their actual worth has been hotly debated by social media experts. Critics point out that at their worst, tweets can be little more than constant updates from boring people with nothing better to do, made all the more obnoxious by the fact that they can be shared with such a vast audience.

However, others have pointed to the many positive uses of Twitter. The service has become almost omnipresent amongst technology and IT professionals and has proved an important means of communication at various conferences and networking events. Many companies now issue announcements about software updates and new features over Twitter as it’s often the fastest way to disseminate information online. It’s an excellent way to share links and to make contacts online and has already become an indispensable networking tool for thousands of users.

And when Twitter has broken into mainstream news, it has usually done so in spectacular fashion. The service underpinned much of the Barack Obama’s online campaign in the run-up to last year’s presidential election and his team were praised for engaging with voters via the latest technology. More recently a group of mountain climbers in the Swiss alps were rescued after one of the team posted to Twitter that conditions had become dangerous and that members of the party were missing. His followers were able to alert the authorities and the climbers were airlifted to safety, though one man died on the mountain.

The service has also attracted a number of celebrity users, with Stephen Fry being one famous early adapter. Fry holds the record for the highest number of Twitter followers for a single user – well over 300,000 at last count. He has used Twitter to keep in touch with his fans as well as promoting his latest work. Jonathon Ross, Russell Brand and Alan Davies also have strong online presences, with ever-increasing numbers of followers.

Getting started with Twitter is easy – simply create an account at the service’s website, find some likely people to follow and start tweeting! For those interested in meeting Edinburgh’s Twitterati in the flesh, there’s still room for a few more at tonight’s Tweetup but the last few places are expected to go quickly.