What is Twitter and How Does It Work?

Last updated: January 15, 2017 - 12:46pm EST

Most modern people tend to lead very busy lives. That can sometimes make it difficult to keep track of current events or let the people we care about know what we're up to. What's needed is a platform where people can read or broadcast short, rich pieces of information quickly and frequently. What was created for that purpose was Twitter.com, a service that's part short-form online journal, part social network.

So what exactly is Twitter?

Twitter is a short-form online journal ("blog") service. What makes Twitter unique is that each entry in your blog can only contain up to 140 characters. This makes Twitter ideal for short, frequent updates. Despite these limitations, though, you can include pictures, hyperlinks, or even videos in your posts.

Twitter allows people to post updates of where they are, what they're doing, or what they're interested in. Because each post can only contain 140 characters, most people post frequently and get right to the point. This allows you to post need-to-know information quickly so your friends and family can get an idea of what's going on in your life at this moment. A lot of other users on Twitter (including celebrities, corporations, and other organizations) do so, too, so you can be in the know when their next big development happens.

How Twitter works

Sign up for a Twitter account, create a profile, and then just start “tweeting.” You only have 140 characters with which to make a message on Twitter, so be brief! Not to worry, though: 140 characters is enough to accommodate pictures, hyperlinks, or even videos (if you're using Twitter's mobile app)!

Twitter tweet

Twitter uses a system called "hashtags" (words, abbreviations, or phrases preceded by the "#" symbol) that let people organize their posts. You can use this system to see what the popular topics on Twitter are. It might even lead you to important news updates!

Twitter hashtags

If you want to make one of your posts about someone in particular, you can "mention" them by adding an "@" symbol before their user name (e.g. "@barackobama"). This will make the post show up on your blog, and on their blog as well. You can also send a "direct message" to another Twitter user if you want to discuss something with them, but don't want to share it with people who may be following your activities.

Those are the basic functions of Twitter. We’ve got plenty of step-by-step tutorials on how to use these features, so consider checking out some other useful articles such as how to tweet, how to re-tweet, and how to tweet a video.

8 Reasons to start using Twitter:

1. Keep up with the activities of friends and family.

Have a conversation with your friends via Twitter. Set up your next lunch date, or comment on how much fun you had together the night before.

2. Ask a question to the world.

Have a question that you just can’t find the answer to? Send it out as a tweet into the Twitter universe and wait for a response. The more followers you have, the more responses you’ll get.

3. Keep up with the buzz.

Use the search function to type in a movie title, band name, sports team, or anything else you're interested in to see what people are saying about it.

4. Follow your interests.

Twitter has achieved widespread use among celebrities and brands, so following those that you like allows you to see what they're up to next or what they have to say.

5. Share your opinion.

Got something on your mind? Go ahead and share it on Twitter! Lots of people use Twitter for just that purpose.

6. Stay up-to-date on current events.

Can’t get access to a TV for the six o’clock news? How about the hockey game you’ll be missing? No problem. By following news stations and sports teams on Twitter, you’ll get a play-by-play of current events, so you’ll never miss a minute. You can even follow an airline to see if your flight may be cancelled due to inclement weather.

7. Get better customer support from companies with Twitter accounts.

If you have an issue with a company's service, but don’t feel like waiting on hold forever to speak to someone, post a tweet on their Twitter account. Many companies now have a Twitter account, and will respond quickly to a problem if you post it there. As an added bonus, since Twitter is by-and-large public, the company will likely want to resolve your problem quickly in order to uphold its reputation.

8. See what is currently trending.

Find out what the world is talking about. With a "trending" section on Twitter, you’ll see the most popular topics that thousands of people are talking about.

Is Twitter safe?

Twitter is as safe to use as any social networking website, and most Twitter users have great experiences with no safety issues. However, some things to watch out for on Twitter include profiles that are fraudulent or that impersonate others (e.g. celebrities), scams run through users direct messaging you on Twitter, and users accessing others' Twitter accounts without permission.

So long as protect your Twitter account with a secure password, and are wary of profiles that may not actually be who they say they are (especially those appearing as celebrities or public figures), you should be able to use Twitter with no safety issues. Just be sure to report any user who posts inappropriate content. If you want to learn more about how to stay safe while using Twitter, be sure to check out our article on Twitter safety and security.

How much does Twitter cost?

Twitter is free to sign up for and use.  You are never required to provide your financial information to Twitter, or make a payment to any Twitter employee or user on Twitter. Twitter makes its money through advertising and data licensing (selling user information), which you give it permission to do when joining.

The history of Twitter, and why it’s so popular

Twitter was founded in California in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams.  It has quickly become one of the most visited websites in the world, ranking as one of the top 20 most popular websites on the Internet. Twitter currently has more than 310 million active users each month, with hundreds of millions of tweets being published each day.

Twitter is so popular because of its unique character limit on posts, which forces users to be brief and clever with their writing. This limitation often results in people posting "tweets" more often, which allows people to keep in touch with friends and family, follow the actions of celebrities and public figures, and stay informed on global trends and events -- all on a more immediate basis than ever.

Twitter terminology: what is a “tweet?”


Term

Definition
Tweet The act
of submitting a post to Twitter.
RT or
Retweet
Forwarding
someone else’s tweets to all of your followers.
@
(Mention)
Called a
mention, the @ symbol allows you to send a public message to a user by
following with their username (eg. @johnsmith). If you @mention, they will be
notified that someone has mentioned them.
#
(Hashtag)
Called a
hashtag, the # symbol marks keywords or topics in a tweet. If a search is
done on a keyword you’ve used, your tweet will be a part of the results.
Follow The act
of following someone’s tweets. When you follow someone, they will be notified
and their tweets will show up in your Home Timeline.
Trends Twitter
uses an algorithm to find the most popular topics on Twitter right now; these
are known as "trends".
Notifi-cations When
someone starts following you or mentions you in a tweet, you’ll get a
notification letting you know.
TL or Timeline Your
Timeline shows real-time tweets from the Twitterverse. Your Home Timeline
shows real-time tweets from those you follow.
Direct
Message
Privately
message someone who follows you on Twitter.
Twitter-verse The world
of Twitter. Twitter + Universe = Twitterverse
OH or
RLRT
Overheard
or Real Life Retweet is an indication that someone is tweeting about what
they’ve overheard someone say in real life.
#FF #FF, or
Follow Fridays, is a way for users to recommend people to follow on Twitter.
TIL Today I
Learned; used to say a fact you learned that day. For example, “TIL that the
average pasta size is 480% larger than what’s recommended.”

Twitter competitors

Though no website compares to Twitter’s user base, there are a few alternatives to Twitter out there that can give you a similar experience. One of the most popular is Tumblr.com, a simple but widely popular website for creating online journals (i.e. web logs or "blogs"). There’s also Plurk.com, a Taiwan-based site very similar to Twitter. Soup.io is another popular blogging website that makes posting images, links, and files easy.  Finally, there's App.net Alpha, which puts you in control of the information you post -- it doesn't license your data or show you any advertisements… targeted or otherwise!

If you want to learn more about any of these alternatives to Twitter, check out our detailed article on the best sites like Twitter.

 

 

That's what Twitter is and how it works in a nutshell, but there's a lot more that we can tell you about Twitter in the rest of our TechBoomers course on Twitter. Consider checking some of our step-by-step tutorials out, including how to create a Twitter account, how to Tweet on Twitter, or who to follow on Twitter. If you’re interested in using Twitter, start out by reading our article on how to stay safe while using Twitter, as well as our Twitter review!

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