So many people have asked me that question, so I have decided to write a short article about this...
What is Twitter?
You could say it’s just a weblog-service that does not allow posts to be longer than 140 characters, which is, from this point of view, a stupid limitation considering that on Wordpress.com or Blogger you can get a fully-functional weblog including image-uploading, etc. for free, of course.
However, Twitter is more, because it is less: The 140-character-limitation turns it into a whole different service than weblogging. You don’t write long articles on Twitter concerning a specific topic. It’s just about yourself and what is happening in your life at the moment - or - it could be something small you want to tell people about.
You might want to read Twitter's help page and FAQ to learn more.
Some of the words I’m gonna use in this post:
tweet - an entry to your twitter-account - or maybe a person who is on twitter
retweet - if you find a tweet interesting, you can quote it and retweet it on your own account, including a link to the original author. This is one of the things that makes twitter quite unique.
RSS - Real Simple Syndication - is a technology that enables you to subscribe to newsfeeds you are interested in. There are some good how-to’s on RSS on the web. My favorite RSS-reader for Mac is called Vienna.
@name - the at-sign followed by a word represents a twitter-user. For example if you would mention me in your tweet, you would refer to me as @rolandu (plus link the word to my twitter-page).
#topic - some topics will be written with a # in front to mark them and make them easier searchable. However only experienced users really do this so you cannot rely that every post on a topic will be marked this way.
follower - if you want to receive all the tweets from a certain person, you can follow him which puts all his messages onto your twitter-homepage. Of course, you could also follow him by just looking at his twitter-page every once in a while or using RSS...
Don't confuse this with the friendship-feature of services like Facebook. On Twitter you can follow anyone - even Paris Hilton or Gordon Brown. No authorization neccessary - you are just one of many followers. Following someone does not mean that the other person also follows you.
The "Twitter in Plain English"-Video says that Twitter is there to inform people about little things that happen in your life - things you wouldn’t want to email or call anyone about, but that are important to you.
On the other hand, the popular video "Twouble with Twitters" (watch it! it’s really funny!) by SuperNews basically says that Twitter has no use at all. However, there is a second video by them about celebrity-tweets telling us that Twitter is for fun and there are good reasons to like it.
Twitter is also great source of news. Just go to search.twitter.com and enter your topic of interest to see all the recent tweets on this. Just a few days ago Twitter seemed to be a better source of news than CNN. However, I will still continue to follow @cnnbrk. The 2009 Iran protesters used Twitter and other social networks to communicate and let others know what's happening in their country.
Nobody can really say what Twitter is (I guess that’s why there are so many articles trying to explain it). You can do so many different things with it. If you are interested, you might want to read about 17 ways you could use it (link broken) or just search google for "What is Twitter?", which only gives you some 300 million results (why am I writing this?).
There are many celebrities on Twitter and many people follow them. Some of those celebrities really have something to say and they share interesting tweets with their followers. If you are interested, there is a list of celebrities who are on twitter here. However, I still believe that you find the most interesting people by just searching for topics you are interested in.
How to get stuff into Twitter
At this point you might ask yourself what you could twitter about. When people ask me that question I usually tell them to share interesting things that happen in their lifes or articles they find very interesting. That's also what I am mainly doing on twitter.
You can find huge amounts of tools and plug-ins you can use to send and receive tweets on the twitter website, that's why I will keep this section short.
To get stuff into twitter (and other social networks) I mainly use the service Ping.FM. It allows you to post to Twitter, Facebook and many other websites simultaneously. A great Ping.FM-frontend (for Mac, Windows and many flavors of Linux) is MePing.
How to get stuff out of twitter
For reading the posts of the people I am following I was looking for something very plain and simple I could launch at the touch of a button. I found the Firefox-Plugin Twitkit very useful.
The Journalist's Guide to Twitter contains some interesting aspects on finding interesting tweets.
Apart from following someone, there are also other ways to finding the information you are looking for on twitter. search.twitter.com enables you to search for any term you are interested in. You can even subscribe to an RSS-feed of the search. For example, I receive updates on the topics #austria, tuwien (the abreviated name of my university), #apple and others directly in my RSS-reader. It's sometimes quite interesting to see what's happening at the moment in those topics. Of course, the more specific you can define a topic the more specific the results will be.
In my opinion the RSS-feature will give you more insight into some topics (that's not true for every topic, but some) than any other news source could. Of course on some topics there will be hundreds of posts every hour, however really good articles and important news on that topic will be posted and re-tweeted hundreds or thousands of times - you could hardly miss them.
One more thing: The point of twitter is not to read everything the people you are following write. It's more like jumping into the pool of information, enjoying it and getting out again after a while.
Who should I follow?
You choose! To get started, Twitter will tell you some popular twitter-users you are free to follow right after registration (or inside “Find People” > “Suggested Users”).
If you are interested, you could follow me. I also recommend following @zen_habits, @YouLookGreat, @wilw, @tinybuddha, @chrisguillebeau, @cnnbrk as I find their posts very interesting.
Edit 31 Oct 2012: Removed a broken link.