My father called me one night: "So, I'm trying to figure this thing out. How does it work exactly?" Some of my friends and colleagues have made similar inquiries: "I should probably get the hang of this. Can you show me?"
The thing, the 'this' in question, is Twitter.
Type "What is t—" into Google's search bar and its autocomplete feature suggests "What is twitter" right away. Type "How to use—" and "How to use twitter" pops up.
I am not, nor will I ever claim to be, a social media expert. But I'd like to share one way of thinking about Twitter that I have found helpful.
Twitter is like a 24-hour party. Everyone is invited. And you can come and go as you please.
More than 140 million people currently attend this party. Everyone wears a nametag, which usually includes a few descriptive sentences —a 'bio'—and may identify where someone lives.
Upon first joining the Twitter party, most people associate with those they already know. Perhaps more than any other party in history, however, Twitter offers the opportunity to make new friends—to meet people whom one might not have met otherwise. Unlike a typical party, occupying the same physical space is not a prerequisite to meaningful interaction on Twitter. Geography and time zones become less problematic than usual. And because there are so many people at this party, the chances of finding someone with whom you share common interests are pretty high.
If you want to hear what someone is saying at a typical party (without eavesdropping or being creepy), you have to introduce yourself. On Twitter, all you have to do is press the "Follow" button. In most cases, no one has to approve the request. You push the button and that's it—you are instantly privy to just about everything that person says out loud, everything they "Tweet." That's what tweeting is, really—it's just another way of talking.
You could leave it at that: just listen in on other people's conversations, never saying much yourself. But if you really want to meet people and make new friends, you've got to do what you would do at a typical party: introduce yourself to strangers. You'll have to risk awkwardness and rejection. At a standard party, you might sidle up to some people you don't know, asking to join their conversation with your body language and a brief greeting. On Twitter, you use the versatile @ symbol. Depending on how you use it, it's the equivalent of calling someone's name, tapping them on the shoulder, meeting their eyes, speaking directly to them or waving frantically from across the room like an ardent fan who just spotted the Biebs. Some people might not pay attention to you when you first reach out. That's to be expected. Most relationships—whether online or IRL—take time. And that's what Twitter is all about: relationships, conversations, community. Some people make a Twitter account, send a few tweets addressed to no one in particular and wonder why they do not have many followers. Well, that would be the equivalent of going to a party, standing in the middle of the room and spouting random one-liners now and then.
Critics and curmudgeons often dismiss Twitter as an incessant stream of the trivial falling off the edge of the Internet into a vacuum:
@sallyinyerface86 Just had pancakes YUMMY!!
@markaroniandcheese773 Dude. The sky. Is. So. Blue.
Yes, as with many parties, certain guests will have a penchant for the mundane, the ludicrous and the offensive. But that does not describe everyone. And, just like at a typical party, no one is obligated to pay attention to people they find boring or rude. In some ways, it's far easier to ignore people you do not particularly like on Twitter than at a typical party. You can 'Unfollow' someone with the click of a button, temporarily mute that person or even prevent him or her from ever contacting you again.
Twitter also makes it easier to find people who are talking about things you're interested in. At a standard party, you might catch a snippet of intriguing dialogue from afar. On Twitter you can search for conversations that might interest you by using hashtags—phrases prefixed with the # sign. If you want to talk to others about penguins, search for #penguins; if you see someone tweeting with an #election hashtag, click on it to find related tweets. If you want other people to find your tweets about gardening, label them #gardening. Hashtags have also become a tool for irony, sarcasm and humor. When talking with someone in person, you can change the tone, pitch and cadence of your speech—as well as your entire countenance—to convey your attitude about a subject; on Twitter, you have to get crafty with letters, punctuation and other symbols. A hashtag can be the virtual equivalent of arching your eyebrows or saying something in a funny voice: @LizLemonFan654 I'm so excited to stay in this weekend!! Lifetime movie marathon and microwavable dinners, here I come! #iwillprobablydiealone
If someone on Twitter says something you really like, you can 'Retweet' what that person said—it's kind of like getting your friend's attention in order to share a funny story or interesting fact you just learned. Twitter makes it all the easier to indulge the inclination to share: you can instantaneously broadcast what someone said, word for word, to all of your followers. You don't have to say everything aloud, though. At a typical party you might whisper something in someone's ear or find a quiet corner to talk alone; on Twitter you can send a 'Direct Message'—a private correspondence.
A bird's eye view of a typical party would reveal many circles smushed together—little pods of people conversing. Twitter is similar. Each person on Twitter is part of a unique circle comprised of people they follow and people who follow them. All these circles overlap, like ripples on the surface of a pond. At a standard party, you don't have to talk to the same people the whole time—you can move from one pod to another. On Twitter, you are even more mobile. Your tweets can zip around the orbits of many different social circles simultaneously. You can expand the circumference of your unique circle over time. You are constantly free to find and join new circles. And you have the power to bring rather dissimilar circles nearer one another.
Over time, these circles become genuine communities. You get to know the people who have chosen to follow you and the people you follow get to know you. You have real conversations with them. You come to depend on one another for news and advice, for sympathy and laughs, for gossip, commiseration and comradery. Perhaps you even meet some of these new friends in person, further strengthening your relationships.
At a typical party, even if you hit it off with someone—even if you exchange numbers—you will both have to make the effort to see each other again if there's any hope of a friendship. And, let's face it, making effort is hard. Twitter helps here too. As long as you continue to follow someone, and they continue to follow you, Twitter will make some of the effort on your behalf, ensuring that you "see" each other on a regular basis. A single typical party usually offers fleeting moments of intimacy. Because Twitter is a nonstop party, it gives you all the time you need to build something more substantial.
Oh, and it's BYOB.