Tech Topic: Twitter Explained

By: Julian Ross

Just like Facebook did a few years ago, Twitter is becoming a part of our everyday lives. Every business, musician or person whose “with it” has and uses a Twitter account. (Follow @Status_Media on Twitter!) But why? Whats the point? I’ll give my best explanation, some ideal use-cases and address the topic I see the most people struggle with, privacy.

Twitter defines itself as

“…a real-time information network powered by people all around the world that lets you share and discover what’s happening now.”

Twitter asks its users “Whats happening?” (Until a few months ago, the prompt was “What are you doing?” but after seeing how people were using the service, they felt the current prompt was more fitting.) and essentially all of twitter is are answers to that question. In reality, it’s a giant public chat room, where anyone can talk about whatever they like. Anyone who was using the internet when AOL was the cool ISP to have probably remember what a complete and utter mess chat rooms were, especially ones that didn’t have a  very specific topic. Thankfully, Twitter has improved on that formula in a few important ways.

One of the main reasons for Twitter’s immense popularity is its simplicity. Each tweet is limited to 140 characters, which is usually enough to make a comment, ask a question, share a website or pretty much any other thing you’d want to tweet about. Notice that 140 characters is less than 160, which is the limit for a SMS or text message. That simple fact allows everyone with a cell phone to be able to tweet and receive their friend’s tweets from anywhere. (Twitter typically appends a few instructional characters at the end of every text they send, if you were wondering what happened to the other 20.) Twitter also provides a public API (application programing interface), which lets us computer programming gurus work our magic and create all the 3rd-party applications that are in use, such as UberTwitter and Tweetdeck. These applications make keeping up with Twitter much easier than sending texts and hanging out on There are applications for every major smartphone as well as every computer OS, meaning no matter what phone and computer you have you can jump right into Twitter and use it like a pro.

Another point that makes Twitter more interesting (and sometimes down right helpful) is that it is searchable and sortable. Remember that giant public chat room I mentioned before? That is called the public timeline. Every tweet from a public user (as in not protected) goes to the public timeline. As you can imagine, that is a pretty wild and crazy place, and would make Twitter too much to handle if it were the only way to view tweets.

Luckily each user has their own timeline, comprised of tweets only from other users that they follow. Definitely improves the signal-to-noise ratio. What is useful about the public timeline though is being able to search it. Say you want to hear what people are saying about an event or particular topic. Type the topic into the search-box and Twitter returns a list of public tweets that contain whatever word you searched for.

Often times you’ll see hashtags (#) used to explicitly link a tweet to a topic. (Hashtags were in use in IRC channels long before Twitter and made the jump when the geeks embraced it.) You can easily click on any hashtag and see all the public tweets about that topic. Twitter also tracks how often these tags are used, creating the popular “Trending Topics” which pretty much answer the question, “What is everyone talking about right now?”

On to privacy. Being the resident nerd for my family and friends, I get a lot of questions about Twitter,  the vast majority related to why they cant see someone’s tweets or why someone can’t see theirs. I’ll explain it.

Tweets will show up on your timeline if and only if they are from a user that you follow. If you follow someone, every tweet they… tweet will show up in your timeline, unless its an @reply.

@replies are used to mention another user on Twitter. When the first part of a tweet is @(username here), that tweet will only be visible to users that follow both the tweeter and the user that was replied to. If any character comes before the @, then the tweet will be visible to all followers of that user. There is also a separate list for @replies. All tweets that @reply mention your username will show up in this list. Its basically searching the public timeline for your username. So if you are mentioned by a public user who you are not following, it will still show up here.

Now lets add protected users into the mix.

Protected users do NOT add to the public timeline under ANY circumstance. Only their followers, who must be approved, can see their tweets. They are not tracked, and therefore do not contribute to how much a topic is trending. This holds true even in cases of @replies. If a protected user @replies a user who does not follow them, they will NOT see it. Its actually really simple, but people forget to apply the rule in all situations. Again, the only people who can see a protected user’s tweets, are those who follow that user.

Another privacy issue that people seem to get upset about is Google including Twitter in its search results. What happens is when someone googles something, such as “iPad“, it will include a section called “Real-time results” that searches the Twitter public timeline for mentions iPad.

Thats all.

This makes it much easier for “normal people” to use Twitter for the treasure trove of real-time information that it is. For instance, when the Hampton University campus shooting occurred last year, I was able to gather all the information about it hours before the news caught the story and it made it to the web or TV. I searched Twitter for “Hampton” and “HU”, and watched as fellow Hamptonians were sharing all they knew about what happened to each other. It’s VERY helpful in similar cases as Twitter allows anybody to share information with everyone. Any tweets you can find on Google, you can also simply go to Twitter and search to find them.

Personally, I am a public (unprotected) Twitter users for two reasons. First, in order for Twitter to remain relevant for reasons beyond stalking your crush or favorite celebrities, people HAVE TO contribute to the public timeline. I’ve searched it many times to find quick information, or to see what the general pulse about a topic is. I’ve found parties and open bars while traveling by searching tweets from a particular geographic area. If everyone goes private, Twitter really is back to being an accessible chat room for friends only and just as useless as all the pundits say. The other reason I prefer to be public has more to do with my general philosophy. If I don’t want something I say to be known, the last place I’m putting it is on the internet. ANYWHERE. Just like when people complained about Facebook “telling their business” when the Mini-feed first came out, if you don’t want your business on Facebook, don’t put it on Facebook. I do understand why some people would protect their accounts, and I do use privacy settings on Facebook (I’m not all the way out there. lol) but openness is what makes Twitter Twitter in my opinion. If you just want a private chat between friends, look into an IRC client, but I guess thats a little nerdy.


1 Comment

  1. Wow JR. This was brilliance. And I’m a floater when it comes to my privacy settings on Twitter. It’s not that I don’t like contributing to the public timeline. It’s just a matter of having the @drunkrobot and the @porngirl able to reply or even mention me. They’ve got all kinds of miscellaneous spammers out there tryna get me to “try a lifetime supply of exTenze” or some bogus crap like that. I don’t have the privelege of being a nerd though sometimes I want to be. I think I fall in the dork category of society. I get something that I like and enjoy it wholly regardless of whether the world knows about it or not. I think u might have been one of the first ppl to start following me on twitter. We’ve been on her going 2.5 yrs. It’s cool. I loved it from it’s conception and I’m glad they haven’t gone all facebook on us and tried to change the easy-to-use interface. I’m slowly trying to convince to get a twitter b/c fb is somewhat behind the curve now with regards to technological evolution and popularity in the public scope. I kept thinking was going to take off, but it remains in obscurity though it pretty much combined the formula of fb and youtube in a seamless format. Oh well. I guess that shall remain plunder for the nerds and nerd-enthusiasts like myself. Great review man.

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