Twitter can be confusing for the uninitiated, and the fact that there are effectively four different ways of viewing it certainly contributes. Although the main Twitter stream seems like a unified set of short messages, the client applications used by end users present it in very different ways.
The stream of tweets is subdivided by privacy controls, and most clients separate out directed “@replies” and searchable “#hashtags”. There are also private direct messages to consider. No wonder new users are confused!
The main, public twitter stream can be viewed by anyone, but nearly everyone only sees a very small portion of it. Users only see the tweets from people they “follow” when they are logged in to the Twitter website or using a third-party client. If you don’t follow enough people, Twitter can seem like a wasteland, with no action at all. Follow too many, however, and it can quickly overwhelm your attention.
Probably the most confusing aspect of the Twitter stream is the situation around “@replies”. There are basically 2 types of tweets:
- A Tweet beginning with the “@ sign” will only be visible in the main stream for people following the sender and recipient. This is important, because many people wonder why their message to @someone does not get any attention. The reason is likely that many people are not following that person.
- If you want to make sure that a certain tweet is seen by your followers, as well as the intended recipient, put their @TwitterID somewhere other than the beginning. This is the second type of “@message”, one that will call the attention of people mentioned in it but not be hidden from everyone else.
Hashtags can also be confusing, and can quickly overwhelm the content of a tweet. Essentially, any single word beginning with the “#” symbol becomes a clickable, searchable term in most Twitter clients. Many events and topics have an agreed-upon hashtag, and these form special universal streams that many people follow. New users should not worry too much about hashtags, but should consider using them as a way to gain a little bit more visibility.
Direct Messages (DM’s) transform Twitter entirely, making it function more like a private instant message service than a public conversation. I personally use Twitter DM’s far more frequently than Google Talk, Skype, or any other instant message service. And many people have DM’s sent as SMS text messages or e-mails. The best way to contact heavy Twitter users is through a DM, but you can only DM users who follow you.
As you can see, Twitter is not a simple, universal, open conversation. The stream is divided based on who you follow, hashtags, @replies, and DM’s. Depending on how one uses it, Twitter can be an intimate conversation or a global podium.