Social Media: The 411 On Twitter

By Hilary Darrah, Communications Officer, Edmonton

You've likely heard about Twitter, but do you actually understand how it works?

Twitter is one of many social media tools currently gaining popularity. Without knowing a lot about it, you could easily assume it's just an online opportunity for self-absorbed people to share what they ate for dinner. But there is much more to it than that.

My experience comes from my personal use of Twitter, but Cybera is also using Twitter. We're sharing Cybera news and blog posts, letting people know about our newsletter, and promoting events. Twitter has also been great for connecting with our partners in a new medium, as well as connecting with those who are using or may be interested in using services we offer. You can follow Cybera on Twitter, @Cybera. Our partner, Canada's Advanced Research and Innovation Network (@CANARIE_inc), recently joined Twitter, and several of our projects are also using the tool: Cloud-Enabled Space Weather Modelling and Data Assimilation (@CESWPnews), GeoChronos (@GeoChronos), Geospatial Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental Sensing (@Geocens), and the Water and Environmental Hub (@LetTheDataFlow).

There is a lot of Twitter jargon, so for your information, here is a list of the main Twitter terms:

  • Tweets/tweeting: whatever message you post from your Twitter account
  • Direct message/DM: a private tweet to another Twitter user, still restricted to 140 characters
  • At replies/@replies: when someone publicly replies to something you've tweeted
  • Retweets/RTs: when someone reposts what you tweeted
  • Hashtags/#: tweet topics, identified by the pound sign in front of a word. These hashtags, when searched, will group all tweets using that hashtag into a specifc stream.
  • Trending topics: tracked hashtags. The most commonly used hashtags become known as trending topics, and can be tracked on the Twitter website according to country, or on other websites, such as Trendsmap, even per city.
  • Followers/Following: the users who have chosen to have your tweets appear in their newsfeeds; the accounts you want to see in your newsfeed.

Twitter has only been around for about five years, so it's still fairly new. Twitter users are limited to 140 character messages or "tweets", also known as microblogging. In 2010, there were 106 million total users (compared to only 18 million users in 2009). Other important stats are:

  • 27 per cent of users log in everyday, and 37% are logging in from mobile devices
  • 52 per cent of users update their statuses daily
  • 60 per cent of users are located outside of the United States
  • Users are 52 per cent women, 48 per cent men
  • 76 per cent of users are either in college or college grads

Many different people use Twitter for many different reasons. In my two years using the site, I've noticed about eight main types: businesses, mainstream media and journalists, government, celebrities, athletes/sports figures, TV shows/TV characters, bloggers/citizen journalists, and regular people, like me in my spare time.

There are five main uses of Twitter:

1. Marketing and Communication: Businesses are flocking to use Twitter to interact with their clients and stakeholders. As Twitter challenges old forms of advertising, they are becoming less relevant and effective. It has been really interesting watching the change unfold, with some companies who are great at using Twitter to their advantage, and some that fail miserably.

2. Microblogging: Twitter will never replace blogging, but it offers an alternative to labouring over a long post. You can quickly say your piece and move on. Questions can be asked and answered in mere minutes, using the right hashtags, and information is delivered in succinct messages.

3. Networking: Through conversations, hashtags, and tweetups (face-to-face meetings organized through Twitter), people are able to make networking connections that they never would have been able to before, in a setting that is much less formal than a traditional networking mixer.

4. Breaking News: Twitter is completely changing mainstream media (MSM). A quote by an unknown Twitter user aptly sums that up: "Twitter tells me now, what my TV news will tell me tonight, what my newspaper will tell me tomorrow." Stories are breaking faster than MSM journalists can report on them. For example, when an airplane went down in the Hudson River, the first information about the crash came from someone on a ferry being taken to the downed plane to rescue its passengers.

5. Personal Conversations: This would be the section where people talk about what they've had for breakfast, what they're wearing, complaints about the weather (and yes, there's a hashtag for that: #yegwx), etc.

At a minimum, Twitter is an extension of each one of us. We're connecting to one another through shared experiences. This list of trends reflects what's happening in our world, demonstrates the power of turning any event or story into a shared experience, and underscores Twitter's value as a real-time information network. Twitter has officially established itself as a formidable and incredibly valuable community online.

Do you use Twitter for your business or personal life? What has been the most important thing you've learned while using social media?