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Tweets, retweets, followers and hashmarks—Twitter is all the rage these days. Technology expert Alexandra Samuel wants to help you get started and create the Twitter account that's right for you. 
Twitter is a social network that lets you post short messages to share with just your friends or the world. A Twitter message—a "tweet"—is the equivalent of a Facebook status update. But you only have 140 characters to get your point across!

Even if you hate the idea of sharing your own ideas or news online, you can still enjoy Twitter as a voyeur. Lots of people check Twitter every day without posting a single update themselves. So, let's get started!

Sign Up for an Account
My advice would be to choose the shortest username you can: Most people like to use a version of their real name. For example, my Twitter handle is "awsamuel."

Find and Follow Twitter Users
An easy way to get started is to click Find People and then use the Find Friends option to scan for anyone in your Gmail, AOL or Yahoo address book who is already on Twitter. Just click Follow next to anyone who is already on Twitter, but don't click Send Request for those who aren't—you'll just end up spamming your friends. You can also find people to follow by browsing Twitter's suggestions or by following lists of Twitter users (more on that below). It's fine to follow a few celebrities, but be sure to follow at least some regular people so that you'll see how other people use Twitter.

Log In
Log in to to see what your friends are tweeting about anytime. Try looking at Twitter while you're watching your favorite sports event or TV show (your friends might be watching too), if you've just heard about a breaking news story (people will be sharing their reactions) or just want to find something interesting to look at (people tend to share lots of links to interesting websites, videos and news stories).

Is it time to start tweeting?
Post a Tweet
Once you've been reading other people's tweets for a few days or weeks, maybe it will be time to try posting a tweet yourself. There's no right or wrong way to tweet, though some people do get obsessed with how many followers they have and post tweets that they hope will attract more followers. I recommend focusing on using Twitter to connect with the people you care about. Think about your tweets as a way of sharing whatever you want your friends to know about you. Just remember that because Twitter moves so fast, your friends may miss your tweets (people who follow hundreds of people typically see only a tiny fraction of what all those people are posting) and whatever you post will be permanently visible unless you delete it.

Twitter has its own lingo. Here's a guide to help you make the most of it!

Become a Follower
These are the people you follow on Twitter—your friends, colleagues, favorite companies and organizations. You'll see their latest status updates whenever you log in to or check your Twitter client. There will also be people who sign up to read your Twitter updates. You will be notified when someone is following you. If you don't like the idea of strangers reading your updates, you can check the option to "Protect my tweets" on the account settings page.

Use a Twitter Client
A software program or website that you can use to view, organize or post tweets. Most people find Twitter much more useful and enjoyable if they use a client program like Tweetdeck, which is free for download to PC, Mac or iPhone.

Search Twitter
One way to discover what's happening on Twitter and find exactly what interests you is to use Twitter's built-in search engine. Just type in "Red Sox" to see who is tweeting about the big game or "prayer" to see what others have to say.

Make a Mention
A mention is a tweet that references a specific Twitter user or user's comment by referring to their username, beginning with the @ sign. For example, you'd mention Oprah on Twitter by typing "I am so excited to check out the new @Oprah network." Or you could send me a public message my mentioning me in your tweet: "Hi @awsamuel, I am trying out Twitter using your tips!"

Send Direct Messages
You can also send messages privately to another Twitter user, though you can't send a direct message until that person is following you. Just begin your tweet with "D username" (no @ sign). For example, if I follow you, you can send me a direct message by typing "D awsamuel This is a private hello!"

Three more things to know about Twitter
Use Hashtags
Twitter users use hashtags (descriptive keywords that begin with the "#" sign) to categorize tweets and to follow or contribute to conversations on particular topics. You'll see the hashtag #knit included in tweets about knitting, #oscar used by Oscar® fans exchanging observations during the Academy Awards®. The hashtags #FF and #FollowFriday are used on Fridays, when many people tweet a list of their favorite people to follow. Some conferences and public events even create a special hashtag so you can keep up with news updates and your fellow attendees.

Follow Lists
If you want to know more about a specific topic—say, organic gardening, minor league baseball or photography—Twitter lists are a great way to start. A list of Twitter users is compiled by a Twitter user, usually related to a particular topic. Some of my favorites are gastrobuzz (food), molfamily/green (green living) and anndouglas (I love her parent and parenting list). You can also follow (and unfollow) an entire Twitter list with a single click. Be sure to check out the directory of Twitter lists at

Avoid Annoying Twitter Spam
Just like email, Twitter now has its share of spammers, so never click on a link from someone you don't know. Twitter spammers use mentions to lure people in and hack their Twitter accounts. If you get a tweet that seems like spam, just ignore it; client programs like Tweetdeck may also offer you a button to trash or report it as spam.
Overall, Twitter is a fun way to keep up with friends, stay on top of current events and add a little zest to your day. How you use it and how much you use it is up to you. You can follow and stop following anyone at any time—so get out there and make Twitter what you want it to be.

Share your thoughts: What's the best thing about online networking sites like Twitter?

Alexandra Samuel, PhD, is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University and the principal of Social Signal, a social media agency that has launched more than 30 online communities. The mother of two young kids, Samuel blogs about how to make technology a meaningful part of your life, work and world. Follow her on Twitter.


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