Twitter has long been the province of the technorati. But if you're not yet a Twitterer or have only sent a few tweets, here are a few things to know about the microblog service, starting with the basics.
Just what the heck is Twitter?
It's a free online service you can access with a Web browser or smartphone or tablet application that allows users to post messages of 140 characters or fewer, called tweets, that generally anyone can see. It also allows users to view posts from others.
Although it's considered to be a social network and encourages users to connect with each other, Twitter works differently from Facebook or LinkedIn. Users can be anonymous, and they typically provide far less information about themselves than they would on those networks.
And while users can link up with their friends and business associates on Twitter, Twitter doesn't require users to mutually connect with one another. Instead, Twitter users "follow" others on the service. When others follow them, users can choose whether or not to follow them back.
Why would I want to use Twitter?
If you want to know the latest news, you'll often find it on Twitter first. Election results, sports scores, product announcements — even the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound — have been reported first on Twitter.
But it's also a great place to find the thoughts and musings of interesting or famous people. Writers such as Susan Orlean and Dan Savage are on Twitter, as are sports stars Colin Kaepernick and Stephen Curry, actors Justin Timberlake and Lea Michele, and a raft of politicians, academics and business leaders.
Twitter helps everyday people engage in conversations with others of similar interests, including folks who might be considered experts or thought leaders in a particular field.
How do I sign up?
You can register for Twitter through the service's website or through a Twitter mobile app. To sign up, you simply enter your name (or an alias), your email address and a password. Twitter will then prompt you to pick a username and will even suggest one based on your real name. The company will send an email to the address you provided and you simply have to click on a link within it to verify your account.
How do I use Twitter?
When you log on, the first thing you generally see is your news feed, which is a list, in reverse chronological order, of the most recent posts from the people you follow. As the people you follow post new messages, you can click a link to display them or simply refresh the news feed page.
If you follow a wide range of people who post about different topics, your news feed can look like a cacophony of conversations. To zero in on particular topics, you can search for them by keyword. To group specific topics, the convention in Twitter is to use # — the hashtag — to group specific topics. So, if you want to find what people are saying about Gov. Rick Scott, for example, you might search #RickScott or #FloridaPolitics. Twitter also provides a short list of trending topics on the left side of the screen.
Users can also sort through the people they are following by creating or subscribing to lists of particular Twitter users.
But Twitter is for more than just reading others' posts. You can post things yourself. Once you're logged into Twitter's website, you'll find a "compose" button in the upper-right-hand corner. In addition to your latest thoughts, you can share pictures, Web links and even short videos.
You can also respond to particular tweets wherever you find them. Under each tweet, you'll find buttons that allow you to "reply" or "retweet," which means to forward someone else's tweet to your own followers.
If you want your tweets to be seen by the widest audience possible, it's a good idea to include a hashtag. If you hope to have a particular Twitterer respond to you, you can include that person in your tweet by using the person's Twitter name. Such posts show up in users "connect" page on the Twitter website, which also shows lists of people who have recently followed them.