Start from Nothing: Twitter for Beginners
A Comprehensive Guide to Starting Twitter for Who Cares
If you’ve been on the fence about getting a Twitter account, now would be a great time to jump into the network like it’s about to be Summer. Why, you might ask? Well, for me it was because I was so sick of Facebook I was ready to disappear. Maybe you’re in the same boat? Maybe you want to try your hand at being clever or interesting or well-known? Or maybe you’re just finally getting over the fear of vanity you had about selfies on Instagram and are finally ready to flip the broadcast switch on your whole bleak life? Whatever the case, more and more of my friends – who’ve kept Twitter at bay for years – are getting accounts. So I thought I’d put together this walkthrough of all the things I wish I’d found when I first started many years ago.
I should say in advance: I’m not a ‘guru’ or whatever the hell people get called when they manage to be followed by tens of thousands of bots. I’m just a run-of-the-mill self-loathing millennial who uses Twitter every day. I have hundreds (not thousands) of followers, I tweet five to ten times a day, and I don’t know what I’d do without all of my petty Twitter rituals.
When you first start, being on Twitter can feel like being the awkward person at a party that no one knows, and no one is talking to. At first, it’s not really clear why to tweet. It’s not easy to find people worth following constantly. And consequently, it’s hard to remember to even pay attention to Twitter. I assure you, all of these things are temporary. You’ve got to be shown the bathrooms. Introduced. Shuffle around until you wind up in a corner, discussing your strange habits with someone who shares an unsettling amount in common with you. Before you know it, you’ll be hashtagging sarcastically and subtweeting like you own the place.
I wish someone had said this to me from the beginning: Twitter can be a hard habit to build, but it rewards practice with confidence. Let’s get started.
1. Signing Up
I need a handle, man. I don’t have an identity until I have a handle.
— Joey, Hackers (1995)
If you don’t already have a Twitter handle, obviously this is the first step. Don’t overthink this, but please don’t think it’s inconsequential. If you’ve been on the internet for any length of time, chances are you already have a few usernames that you like and are known by. I think the most effective handles convey the persona you intend to embody on Twitter. Some people call this persona a ‘personal brand’, and that’s a little terrifying. But this is a messing-with-the-bull situation, and you can be sure defining and refining a so-called personal brand won’t be the first horn involved. Here are some things to consider:
Currently, Twitter enforces a 15 character limit on usernames. If you take full advantage of this, 15 chars plus the
@ symbol means your name will exhaust more than one-tenth of any tweet mentioning you. Which, let's be honest, is a little selfish. As with all things Twitter, brevity always wins.
Twitter will suspend your account for squatting. You might think it’s funny to be
@derrickjensen, but Twitter may (and often will) take your account for impersonation or trademark violations. That said, there are plenty of clever parody accounts and they usually get away with it by not trying to squat a name that seems official. Whatever you decide, don’t risk your account, followers, history, etc. because you think you’re the first person to troll.
If possible, avoid special characters. Like the hyphen, underscore, ampersand, numbers for letters, etc. Sometimes you’ll find it’s necessary, but think of it as a last resort. It makes finding you via search nearly impossible. (We had to use @mask_mag and it keeps me up at night).
Lastly on this first step, Twitter will probably make you follow a bunch of stupid celebrities when you register a handle. This is the fucking worst thing ever, mostly because most celebrities say inane things about their performance schedule. So many people I know that have walked away from Twitter did so because they were bored by the accounts they were forced to follow when they signed up. So: skip all those steps if possible, unfollow everyone you’re forced to follow as soon as you’re through with the initial setup.
After you get your username, try to postpone your eagerness to follow people, and head over to the Settings area. Right now, it can be found via the cog icon in the upper right corner of your Twitter home page. Click there, then on Settings. Here you’ll find all of the preferences and options associated with your account. In general, you should familiarize yourself with this entire area, but for now make sure you do the following:
Make sure your account isn’t "Private". Don’t believe the myth that what you say on Twitter could make it hard to get a job or whatever. Have some self-confidence, and don’t be an idiot and you’ll be fine. Even if you occasionally say something about being drunk.
Turn off all email notifications, these will just piss you off.
Upload an avatar; a good avatar is critical. Things to avoid: letters, art, images of things other than you.
Upload a header image. Don’t overthink this, and feel free to change it often. There is only one way to screw up this step: leave it blank.
Enter a Name: use whatever name you use on other social networks. Whatever name people know you by. If I know your name, search for you by name on Twitter, and I don’t find you ... what’s the point even?
Location, Location, Location — I follow people who live near me, or live in places I’m interested in knowing about. I think that’s a common thing people consider before following someone. If you choose to provide your location, be honest. The number of times I’ve followed someone located in “Antarctica”: zero.
Put some thought into a good bio. Here are some simple components of a good bio: the usernames of any projects you work on, what you spend most of your time doing, and at least one element of personal characterization. I think people probably act on bios most often when they’re browsing people being followed by or following someone they’re stalking, so you want to catch them there, in that moment of crush-y wanting.
Designing your profile. For the love of all that is holy, don’t pick a pre-made theme. Ack, in my best Cathy voice. Do anything besides.
3. Devices and Clients
And now, I’m sure I’ll piss a bunch of people off with my petty opinions about how you should use Twitter, but whatevs. That’s what I do. A “client” is just what nerds call the software that accesses the Twitter network, presents information it gets, and provides an interface for posting new information back up to Twitter. An app, or whatever. Not all are created equal. So, let's find the appropriate clients for you and your devices. Before I start, I’ll say this: you might have to pay a few bucks. I’ll avoid a long nerdy tangent about why, and just say this: Twitter only allows a certain number of users to connect to third-party apps, so most of the good ones charge money to prevent all the slots from filling up. So, yeah. You’ll just have to trust those of us who’ve been on Twitter for a long time: it’s worth it. If you’re putting yourself on the market, it costs money to make money. Gross. Here are my suggestions, in order.
- Twitter.com. Twitter’s web app is probably the second most-common way to use Twitter. It’s changed a lot recently, and actually I’m surprised at how much more I use it now.
- Tweetbot. If you want a standalone app for the Mac, this is my preference.
- Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck is a tool for advanced users, but it’s more important to me than my bicycle, so I put it on the list.
Honestly, I’ve got no idea what to suggest to Android users. I wouldn’t listen to an Android users’ advice about iPhone apps, so why should you listen to mine about Android? You just have to use a mobile operating system every day to know what works and doesn’t. That said, here are some clients I’ve heard good things about:
If you’re following this guide like I hope you are, you still haven’t followed anyone. Good. The next phase of getting set up is building a base of people to follow. Building a timeline that you can’t wait to read should be your priority over the next few weeks. Don’t worry about getting a million followers, or any at all for that matter. You need to pace yourself. Get into it. If you’ve done any Googling for Twitter tips, you’ve surely come across the following advice: don’t follow more people than are following you. This is fucking bullshit. That kind of thinking is so robotic and dry (two things I’m normally pretty into, tbh) that you’ll probably lose interest in the platform altogether. Instead, think about it this way: your first priority on Twitter should be valuing your own timeline, on your own terms. If you don’t like reading your timeline, you won’t experience what most of us really enjoy about the social network, and you probably won’t find the time to engage with it. So, in short, follow however many accounts you want to. The goal should be to keep up with it, to read what is said on a regular basis.
Twitter has a way of reducing your self-image to a kind of bare constituency. You might think you’re into social justice, avant-garde film, digital security, OFWGKTA, or whatever ... but your Twitter timeline won’t lie. If you’re bored by tweets on those subjects, be real with yourself about it. Walk away. Find something that actually interests you. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to perform interests in other aspects of Twitter, this is your personal space: don’t waste your own time.
Finding your friends. Before following anyone else, track down your friends. This does two things: 1., it lets people know that you’re on Twitter and 2., it helps you migrate away from other, more irritating networks – * dead stares at Facebook *. Here are my tips:
Use Twitter’s Find Friends tool on your email. If you have any self-respect slash compassion for others, you will avoid their "Invite friends via email" like it was a cop selling drugs.
Announce your handle on other social networks. Just send out a Facebook or Tumblr post that you’ve gotten a Twitter account, and provide your username. You’ll probably find that at least a dozen of your friends follow you — who knew your friends had these secret Twitter lives? Follow them back. Welcome to the club, here’s your robe.
Send a screenshot of your Twitter profile out on Instagram. If you do the Instagram thing (please tell me you do) take a snapshot of your Twitter profile (hold down the Home and Power button at the same time on an iPhone), and send it out there with an announcement in the caption. Once again, baller.
So, how many people should you follow? It’s a good question. There are lots of different theories out there. Some people find that following back every single person who follows you is a good approach. I think they’re maniacs. Some of my friends are obsessed with Dunbar’s number, which essentially argues that humans cannot effectively maintain more than 100-250 social relationships. I think this approach epitomizes all of the problems with the scientific method in anthropology, but hey, you’re not here for a rant. So maybe following fewer than 200 or so people is your Dunbar g spot. Personally, I float around 500, and I don’t have any trouble reading them all. But that’s because I’ve been ruthless about who I follow and because I’m a loser who sits in front of my computer for 14 hours a day.
How do I find interesting people? My biggest piece of advice for this is to follow the people who say things that interest you very closely. Read through their tweet history, and check out people they have back-and-forth conversations with. If someone you’re into retweets something that catches you by pleasant surprise, follow them. In general, I don’t follow people who post less than once a day unless I know them personally. Next time you read an article you like, follow the author. Ahem:
As you prune and refine the list of people you follow, you should find that your interest in reading your timeline intensifies. People spend years cultivating this list, and when done well becomes something like what a newspaper must have been like for your grandparents. Daily. Essential.
5. Getting Followers
It’s like the new American dream or something. Getting thousands of followers on Twitter. People who avoid Twitter often do so because they’re afraid they won’t be famous or something. We’re all like starving for attention, and what better way to sate the inner beast than quantifying exactly your importance with some silly number of followers? Or more likely, what better way to feel meaningless and loser-y when no one follows you? Well, I have news for you: how many followers you have doesn’t really matter. You knew that. But it does kind of matter. Why? Because tweeting is a huge part of the fun slash utility of Twitter, and, well, someone’s gotta read those tweets, right?
So here is the get rich quick scheme for building a base of Twitter followers:
Set goals. If you want 500 followers, it will probably take you a few months to a year. So break it up into reasonable chunks. Ultimately, you won’t be able to follow more than 2,000 people until you have 2,000 followers yourself. Make a note of this, in case you were planning on following thousands of people for no good reason.
Push for at least 50 so we know it’s real. Like I said before, the supposed importance of your follower/followee ratio is mostly bullshit. But you want at least 50-100 followers so people know you’re actually using your account and tweeting and shit.
Pay attention to who follows you back. When you follow someone and they follow you back, make a mental note of why that might be. What strange combination of your tweet history, bio, avatar, and list of followers inspired this person to return the favor? Build a hypothesis and follow more people like them to test it out.
Participate in hashtag trends. Yeah, it might seem stupid and trite if you’re just joining us. But just give it a chance. *blushes*.
Have conversations with active Twitter users. People who have a lot of followers, are prolific tweeters, or are well-known in their niche fields, often love the opportunity to have little bits of dialogue with their followers. Give it a try. The more conversations you have on Twitter, the more visible you will be to people who don’t already follow you. Your Twitter game will be made or broken by how much you engage with people you don’t know, but no pressure.
Also, don’t be a piece of shit and heckle/snark at people all the time. Think about all of the irritating people in your life that are always taking up space and attention. Imagine you had a button to make them inaudible. Yep, Twitter. Where people have and use that button.
What should you tweet? Ah, here is where we get into the really good stuff. The existential dread and source of anxiety most non-twitterers have hoped to avoid for so long. Well, you’ve gotten this far, so let's roll up our sleeves and get metaphysical. Also, let’s assume we’ve made our peace with the cold-to-the-core social sellout sleazy shame quantifying our social value through Twitter entails, so I don’t have to address it again. We good? Good. Now: the way I see it, there are two primary reasons to tweet:
The First Develops Our Persona
For committed Twitter users, following someone isn’t just adding them to a list. It really is a decision to follow. Not in the hierarchical sense of marching behind some leader, but to pay attention. The same way we follow a television show, or a story in the news. Tweeting is a decision to be followed in this manner. That is, perform the character we’ve chosen to play in the theatre of the public. As in any entertaining narrative, the principle ingredient in character development is growth. How are you changing? As you are subjected to the environment of the real, what effect is it having on you? Is it miserable? Is it glorious? Is it sublime? Is it full of ennui? Whatever it is, your followers want to know how you’re coping. What lessons you’ve learned. Maybe they relate, maybe you’re just a spectacle. However this goes down, consistency is important.
You might be thinking, “is this a stupid thing to say?” If you’re just getting started with tweeting, you should know that the answer is most likely always no. Which seems counter intuitive. But, like in some sort of disgusting interface with the globalized economy, quality matters in volume. Which is to say, most people follow more than 100 people. I follow more than 500. I see stupid tweets every day. Thousands of them. I don’t really care if a tweet it isn’t super interesting or on point. If it is a miss, I just keep reading without a second thought. I’ve never unfollowed someone for posting a meh tweet. Never. I have unfollowed hundreds of people for being inactive. No pressure, but fucking say something right now. I am your middle school P.E. teacher, screaming: “Look alive. Look alive!”
The Second Elicits Engagement
If tweets of the first sort are the protein, vegetables, and starch of a good meal, tweets of this second source are that good sauce. The garnish. The plating. The stupid shit we have to talk ourselves out of instagramming. Tweets written for engagement mean tweets that are intended to be favorited or retweeted. That’s like all there is to it. Gross I know, but them’s the rules. So how do you know which is which? And how do you get better at it?
Getting faved is how other people let you know “they like where this story is going”. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s how we establish distance and difference. We favorite because we want the author of a tweet to know we’ve read it, and it’s a good example of why we want to continue following. It’s how we say “I wouldn’t have said this myself, but I’m glad you did.” It’s how we say: “see, this is why I follow you. Shit like this.” So, when you’re trying to draft a tweet to get favorites, you want to take a few things in consideration: what is the consistency of your persona? Are you heartbreakingly cool? Snarky? Oblivious? Arms folded like some hipster snob? Snuggly like a favorite t-shirt? Whatever the case, tweets that get favorited usually capture this persona in an unusually acute and succinct way.
As a tall black man that never has any fun, I can stand outside of any bar in the city and get someone to hand me their ID.— Tyler Reinhard (@abolishme) April 12, 2014
So, in the tweet above, it’s not like a ton of people who follow me identify exactly with my position or experience. But that’s not the point. They weren’t favoriting it because they “approved”, either. Nope, it’s just a good example of the sort of grouchy grandpa slash amateur social critic that doesn’t take things too seriously that I’ve spent (too much) time developing. The point is: I gave people a little reason to say “ha” to themselves while they scrolled through their timeline. That’s it. That’s all there is. Favorites are encouragements. It’s like the warm-warmer-hot game kids play. When your tweet gets favorited, someone’s letting you know you’re on the right track.
Those retweets tho, are the opposite. Retweets tend to be ventriloquisms, but are at least always a way of pointing at a thing and saying “Hey everyone, look!”. In the case of approving retweets, it’s pure affinity. “I’m retweeting this because it’s exactly how I feel”. Favorites are personal asides from one person to the other, but retweets are amplifications. A kind of transparent gossip: “Did you hear what so-and-so said?” We retweet things we wish more people understood. To draft a tweet destined to be retweeted, consider how likely it is that others will relate. Consider the following tweet:
If you’ve ever been in love with an immigrant, maybe you feel me on this: fuck borders to fucking hell.— Tyler Reinhard (@abolishme) January 4, 2014
Even if someone doesn’t directly identify with the situation we were in, it’s likely to get retweeted by my followers because they empathize with the sentiment. They have affinity for the perspective. Retweeting is a way of saying “this is how I would feel if I were also in your position”.
7. The Finer Things
We’ve covered the basics of Twitter, but there are lots of little aspects of the platform that you could easily miss if you’re new to the service. First of all, you can direct message. For whatever reason, Twitter buries this deep in their UI. Perhaps because they can’t reconcile the fact that there is also a character limit on the length of an instant message. I don’t know, but it’s pretty useful for contacting people you don’t know IRL.
@ replies are when the first characters in the tweet are a persons username, and it’s intended to be a public response to another person. If you use the reply feature on any client, it will build an @reply tweet for you, and thread it into the conversation, but you can make your own, too. By default, Twitter hides @replies from your timeline unless you follow both people involved: the person tweeting, and the person being mentioned. You might see people putting a single point
.@abolishme, your Twitter essay was stupid long! for example. This is how people work around Twitter’s @reply hiding. Because that period is there, all of the tweeters followers can see that I’ve been mentioned. I think this technique is hella tacky, so I always try to be creative:
hey @abolishme ... or
"@abolishme please stahp" – @greggawatt or something.
@ mentions are simply when you use another username in a tweet. Sometimes this is to get the attention of the owner of the account (they’ll likely get a notification), and sometimes it is to popularize a person you think others should follow.
Hashtags. Even if you’ve never used Twitter before, you probably already know what they are. They’ve spread out across the internet. But guess why? Twitter users rocked that shit. Hashtags are words or spaceless phrases prepended with a
# pound sign (I’m a typographer, so I like to call that an octothorp). They are used to associate tweets across the entire network with one topic or trend. You can search for all the tweets mentioning a certain hashtag by selecting it whenever you see it in a tweet, or searching for it directly. Try #blessed for an example, lol. Also, you can just make up your own hashtags for literary effect. Like, check out this #fullminimalism thing I did last week.
Lists are, in my opinion, the most underrated feature of Twitter. Essentially, they allow you to save public or private lists of usernames that you can read a la the timeline. They allow you to build smaller timelines for focused reading. Like, I have a list of people I want to stay in touch with over Twitter, I have a list of online magazines I like to read, I have a list of all of the developers who work on the apps I use. Sometimes you just want to read a more focused timeline, and for those times lists are the tool to use.
So, in closing, I’ll leave you with a list of people I think you should follow:
See you on Twitter!