A Twitter Primer for Facebook Users

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging social medium where updates are limited to 140 characters. Users can post status messages, photos, links and can also publicly converse with other Twitter users. Hidden in the back corner of Twitter is also the functionality that allows you to send private messages to another user, for when you need to pass sensitive information like email addresses that you don't want everyone to have access to.

What are the basics?

Using Twitter.com, an application on your phone, or an application on your computer you can post messages to Twitter. In general these messages will take a few different forms:

  • Informational status updates, very similar to Facebook: "Headed to the gym then off to pick up the kids and get dinner sorted"
  • Photos, videos or weblinks: "Here's an adorably cute video I found: http://is.gd/ebboT
  • Reply messages: "@jnwhiteh, have you seen the latest World of Warcraft release?"
  • Messages that mention another user: "Either of you guys been to the store lately? @jnwhiteh @tom_harper"
  • Re-tweets, where you want to share something someone has already tweeted.

The first is pretty self explanatory. You don't want to or need to post the 'is' at the start of your message, people just read that automatically on Twitter so no need to waste three characters typing it. The second is a bit trickier since you can't always be sure that the URL you're linking is going to be small enough to fit in 140 character, so many people use URL-shorteners to fix this. I personally use http://is.gd and then copy the URL into the box and shorten it. For longer links this can make a HUGE difference.

The last few are a bit more complicated, so I'll cover them in their own sections below.


When you are conversing with another Twitter user, you can use what is called an "At reply" to do this. This is where at the START of your message, you type the at symbol and someone's twitter username. This message will then appear to any of your followers that are also following the person you are replying to, and to the person you are replying to. Let's take an example:

  1. @tom_harper follows @jnwhiteh
  2. @mhastings1229 follows @jnwhiteh
  3. @mhastings1229 follows @tom_harper
  4. @jnwhiteh follows @tom_harper
  5. @jnwhiteh follows @mhastings1229

In other words, we follow each other and then Tom follows me. So:

  • If jnwhiteh sends "@mhastings1229 When is the Undy 5000 this year?", I will see it in my timeline, since I'm the one who sent it. You will see it since you are following me. Tom will not be able to see it because he does not follow you. If he browses to my profile (http://twitter.com/jnwhiteh) he will see the message, it just won't appear in his default timeline.
  • If you send "@tom_harper I hope you had an amazing time in Iceland" and he is NOT following you, then it will NOT appear in his default timeline on Twitter.com. It appears underneath the @replies section of the website, but not on that main page. Since most people don't check that page often, it can be easy to miss messages from people you don't follow, so it's good to check it every once in a while. It gets easier when using an application on phone/computer since they will notify you when someone @replies you.

A little trick you can use when you want to reply to someone but want everyone who follows you to see it is to add a period at the beginning of the message. For example:

".@jnwhiteh @tom_harper Hope you had a great time in Iceland"

This message will now appear to everyone who follows you. In reality you can put anything at the start other than an @ and it will accomplish the same thing.

Mentioning another user

If you use an at symbol followed by a username anywhere other than the start, then it counts as a 'mention' and will appear under their @replies section on the website, and will also appear to all of your followers regardless of whether they follow the person you are mentioning. This is almost like 'tagging' people in an update message.


Let's say that someone has sent an awesome message that you want to re-broadcast to your followers. This is good for like when the Undy5000AZ says something that you want your followers to hear about. You can just click the 're-tweet' button to do this, or you can do it manually. The automatic method is handled by Twitter itself and won't let you comment on the message that's being sent. It's just a straight re-broadcast.

Let's say @jnwhiteh says "Marriage is a religious term and they want to keep it that way. Fine. Just don't let the word be anywhere in the government." and you want to re-tweet it. You can click the re-tweet button, or you can copy the tweet and re-tweet it manually:

"RT @jnwhiteh marriage is a religious term and they want to keep it that way. Fine. Just don't let the word be anywhere in the government."

EIther one works. If you want to comment on it, you can type before the RT, so:

"Amen! RT @jnwhiteh marriage is a religious term and they want to keep it that way. Fine. Just don't let the word be anywhere in the government."

Hash tags/keywords

You will see lots of #tags #like #this in people's messages. You've even probably used some of them yourself, and they're just what they seem.. general tags that can be used to find information on the same topic. When we attend conferences (for example, CPA2009 was the last conference I went to), I used the #cpa2009 tag so people could ignore those messages if they didn't want to see them, but it also enables people who don't follow me to get my updates, by searching for that tag on twitter during or after the conference. You'd probably want to tag any Undy 5000 messages with #undy5000 so that people even outside your AZ group can see them. It's be good to get that to be a trending topic during the events to raise awareness.

There are some hash tags that people use regularly. The only ones I'm aware of are #mm and #ff. The first is for 'Music Mondays', and is a good time to share music you are listening to, or music you think people would like. So #mm followed by a link to a youtube video works for that. As for #ff, it means 'Follow Fridays' and is where you give your followers a list of other people that you think they might like to follow. For example:

"#ff cancer survivors in the AZ area: @mhastings1229, @someoneelse, @anotherperson, @blahblah"

Facebook integration

Sometimes I want to post things to Facebook. Mom and Dad read facebook, and I've got colleagues on there as well. So new blog posts, talking about my allotment or other random personal things are best for there. I don't want to share blog posts on twitter, but I'm happy to share random updates about what I'm eating and why and when.

I also have things I want to share on Twitter that I don't want to share on Facebook. If I talk about technology too much on there, I get Mom responding to every message with 'what lol?' and that's not always necessary. So I use a facebook application called 'Selective Tweets' to integrate Twitter with Facebook.


Once that's set up, I use the following rules:

  • To post something on Facebook alone, I use the Facebook application on my phone, or the web interface to Facebook.
  • To post something on Twitter alone, I just post the message as I normally would
  • To post something on both Twitter and Facebook, I simply add #fb to the end of the message.

When using the last option, the selective twitter application strips the #fb from the message and it shows up in my Facebook timeline. It's only four characters, and it allows me to update the two simultaneously and I find that it works out really well. Even if you use it infrequently, there's no overhead by having it set up, and then you can use #fb whenever you want to post messages to Facebook.




James N. Whitehead II is an author, computer scientist who is currently studying for his DPhil/PhD at the Oxford University Computing Laboratory. This blog is a collection of his thoughts, projects, snippets, photos and any other bits that come along.