Practical 101s: Getting Started With Twitter

Twitter logo If you’re into social media, you’ve probably heard of Twitter. Twitter is one of the fastest-growing social media tools around right now; in fact the Wall Street Journal just declared that “Twitter Goes Mainstream.”

As the WSJ article says in its lead paragraph, “One of the hottest technologies in Silicon Valley is also one of the simplest.” This 101 will walk you through a couple of simple steps to getting set-up on Twitter and suggest a few guidelines that will help put you on the path to getting the most out of it.

There’s a lot to take in, so I’m dividing this topic into two posts. In this post I’ll walk you through the basics and five “how-to” steps to get started on Twitter. In the next post we’ll take a look at some guidelines for getting the most out of this tool (or, at least, my take on them).

Honey, I shrunk the blog

Twitter’s concept is very simple – it lets you communicate short (140-character) bursts of information to the people that subscribe to your updates. These updates are known as “tweets.” It’s like blogging, only smaller – hence Twitter, and services like it, are known as “micro-blogging” services.

You can also subscribe, or “follow,” other Twitter users yourself. The tweets from people that you follow are aggregated into a stream of updates.

Part of what makes Twitter so accessible is the plethora of ways you can access the service. There are many, many websites and desktop applications you can use, and you can even post to Twitter using instant messaging services or SMS messages. In fact, the options available are so convenient that most users rarely use the main Twitter website.

Here’s a great video by the folks at CommonCraft, putting Twitter into plain english:

How do I get started?

Getting started on Twitter is really easy. There are five main steps:

  1. Set up an account
  2. Enter your profile information so people know who you are
  3. Find your friends
  4. Select a way to post messages
  5. Get posting!

Step 1: Set up an account

This part’s easy.

  • Go to and click the big green “Get Started – Join!” button.
  • On the resulting screen, enter the username you want, your desired password, your email address and complete the spam checker

Step 2: Enter your profile information

Twitter is, to a large extent, a social network. If you want people to want to connect to you, you’ll need to tell them a little bit about you. Nothing scary; nothing that will compromise yourself; just a little bit so people know who you are.

Log into Twitter, and click on the ‘Settings’ link at the top of your Twitter homepage.

Click the 'Settings' link in Twitter

Your profile on Twitter follows the same principles as the updates you post – short, sharp and to the point. The ‘Account’ tab of the ‘Settings’ section includes a text box that lets you input a 160-character blurb about yourself, along with a link to your website and the city where you live. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything horribly revealing. Here’s my information:

Dave Fleet's Twitter profile

You also have the option of ‘protecting’ your updates if you like. Protecting your updates lets you choose the people who can see what you post – every time someone tries to subscribe to your tweets, you receive a notification that you can approve or decline. There are pros and cons to this:

  • Protecting your updates can feel safer if you’re nervous about other people seeing what you post or if you’ve had problems with online privacy in the past
  • However, it will also limit the number of people who will try to follow you, which can limit the conversations you have – thus reducing Twitter’s potential to an extent.

Note: You can protect or unprotect your tweets at any point, so you can always change your mind later.

The ‘Picture’ tab lets you – you guessed it – upload a picture to your profile. Again, not everyone is comfortable with this and it is optional, but it will again make you more approachable and open up the potential of Twitter a little more if you do upload one.

The last tab to worry about right now is the ‘Devices’ tab. If you want to use your cellphone to post and receive messages, you can set that up here.

Step 3: Find your friends

There are a few simple ways to find people to follow on Twitter:

  1. Search for people you know who are already using Twitter Click the ‘Find People’ link at the top of the screen. You’ll see three tabs:

    Tabs on the 'Find People' screen on Twitter

    The first of these tabs lets you enter your email address(es) and searches your address book to see if anyone has associated any of those addresses with a Twitter account.

  2. Invite your friends to join The second tab lets you enter your friends’ email addresses to invite them to join Twitter.
  3. Search for new people to follow Unfortunately the ‘search’ tab is currently disabled. However, you can mimic this function to an extent by using Search for the city where you live to find other users who live close to you. Enter your career area to find business peers. Enter your hobbies to find people with shared interests. The list of potential things to search for goes on and on.

Step 4: Select a way to post messages

As I mentioned earlier, one of the great things about Twitter is the variety of ways you can interact with it. You can use the website, you can use another website (I just tried, for example), you can use mobile or desktop applications, or you can use SMS.

What to choose?

There are way too many choices for me to outline in this post. Check out Brian Solis’ list of Twitter tools for a comprehensive resource. I’ll just quickly outline three of my favourites here – Twhirl and Tweetdeck.



One of the most popular ways of using Twitter is through an application called Twhirl. Twhirl is a desktop application that runs on the Adobe AIR platform, and provides a simple graphical interface that automatically updates with your friends’ latest tweets. If you also have accounts for services like, Friendfeed or seesmic, you can keep tabs on them using Twhirl, too.

The benefit of running a desktop application is that it can sit, minimized, in your system tray and just notify you when someone sends you a message. You can do everything that the website lets you do, all in a re-sizeable, convenient application that notifies you when you receive a message directed to you.

Installing Twhirl is very easy – from the homepage just click the ‘Install Now’ button on the right-hand side of the Twhirl homepage (you will also need to install Adobe AIR if you haven’t done so already). Once the install process is done, just give it your Twitter login credentials and you’re good to go.



I’m a big fan of Tweetdeck. Like Twhirl, Tweetdeck is an Adobe AIR application that runs on your desktop.

Tweetdeck’s unique selling point is that it lets you group the people you follow by creating different columns which display each group’s updates. If you interact with a large community on Twitter, this can be very useful.

You can also set up persistent Twitter searches to run within Tweetdeck, which is extremely useful. For example, I have a search set up for every client for whom I work and another one for PodCamp Toronto, which I co-organise.

Installing Tweetdeck is, again, very easy. Just scroll down the Tweetdeck homepage and click the black installation button. Once it’s installed, getting started is as simple as logging-in using your Twitter username.


Twitterific works only on Macs, not Windows-based PCs. However, despite not having a Mac, I do use Twitterific on my iPod Touch. Twitterific is the best way I’ve found so far of interacting with Twitter on the Touch.

There are two versions – a free ad-supported version and a paid ad-free version.

You can download Twitterific from iTunes.

5. Get posting!

You’re all set! There are just a few more things to know before you can get tweeting.

First – how to interact with others.

(The second part of this post will go over some suggested guidelines for doing this – this is simply the how-to)

  1. To post a regular message to all of your subscribers (aka. followers), just type it into the website/application and hit ‘post’/’send.’
  2. To send a message to someone publically, type “@” followed by their username, then the message. So, if I wanted to say hi to me (I’m lonely), I’d type “@davefleet hi there!” These are known as “replies.”
  3. To send a private message to someone (aka. a direct message), type “d” then a space and then their username. So, to send me a direct message you would type “d davefleet That’s a really long blog post on Twitter!” Note: you can only send direct messages to people who you follow, and who follow you. That means you won’t get them out-of-the-blue.

Note: Tweetdeck and Twhirl both have this functionality built-in to them. If you mouse-over someone’s profile picture (next to each tweet) in these applications, you’ll see either two or four icons:

  • Re-tweet (re-post the message that person posted)
  • Reply to that person (publicly)
  • Add this message to your favourites
  • Direct-message that person

Clicking the reply or direct-message buttons won’t send a message immediately; they’ll just populate the input box with the necessary text to send that message, saving you a few seconds.

That’s all for now

There you have it – you’re now ready to start using Twitter.

If you’re nervous about getting started in social media, Twitter is a great place to look. It’s quick to start, easy and flexible to use, helps you get to know other people and doesn’t require the concentrated investment of time that blogging can require. It’s still emerging and still developing, but use it well and you can get a lot of value from it.

More on that in the next post.

This post is part of an ongoing series of ‘practical 101’ posts on public relations and social media topics. For other, similar advice, check out the ‘practical 101’ series. What else would you like to see a practical 101 for? Let me know in the comments!

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.