For anyone online you've no doubt heard that social media is defined by sites like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. A lot of people talk about Twitter, but a vast majority of people don't know how to use Twitter. I must admit that I've had an account for years but wrote it off because it seemed so limited. The power of Twitter is not found in the brevity of the "tweets" (posts that users make on Twitter), but in the ability to monitor tweets of others.
Flow of news
In the traditional model of news aggregation, you would turn on the TV or radio, open a newspaper or seek a sole source of information. That organization would have already done the leg work of finding news, picking out what they thought the majority of their viewers/listeners/readers would find appealing and put that news out there. With the introduction of "social media", suddenly people can discern for themselves what is important. The early days of Digg brought this idea to reality and reddit took over where Digg left off. The users were now in control of the information, not the producer, publisher or editor.
I'm not saying that Twitter affords this ability, but it allows you to search for items that have been flagged with certain key terms. In Twitter parlance, this flag is known as a hashtag. Until I understood hashtags, I didn't "get" Twitter - now I do.
#Hashtags - The key to Twitter
Hashtags allow you to share information that you tweet with others within a community of individuals that are, themselves, looking for information relevant to a subject. The same way that you search for things with a search engine through key words, you can also hunt for tweets with a hashtag.
I deal a lot with Education Technology, so when I'm looking for news, links and information related to Education Technology, I'll look at the Twitter hashtag #edtech. If I want to look at tweets dealing with education in general, I'll look at #edu. If I want to find information about space, I would look for the #space hashtag. Robotics has #robotics All of the results for each of these tags will show content that individuals shared on Twitter and then tagged with the relevant hashtags (and you can use multiple hashtags on your tweets as you may see some users doing). Hashtags are denoted with the # sign (hence the name).
If, for example, I wanted to Tweet at or to a person in particular, I would use the @ symbol, followed by their Twitter username. This allows the user you are referencing to see the tweet made "at" them so they can respond or pass along the information. I don't use this feature very often, but as your use of Twitter grows, so will the number of times you'll find this feature handy. For example, if you wanted to tweet at me, you would post something like "@MrGoberTX Thanks for the Twitter intro on neodux.com".
Twitter for organizations
So what's the big deal with businesses and organizations using Twitter? Contrary to Facebook, Twitter is a "one way street". Facebook is like a two way street, it allows you to communicate back and forth. I can post something on Facebook that my organization is doing, and you can "Like" it or comment on it. Until I go to moderate those comments (they may not all be positive or socially acceptable), everyone will see these comments from people they don't know. Some users may be offended by the content of your Facebook comment, but it will appear on the page until I take the time to login and take it off. That two way street can be a liability that I must babysit vigilantly.
Twitter on the other hand is a one way flow of information - similar to a press release. This is what I'm doing, here's what you need to know, thank you, have a nice day. If someone were to want to leave an offensive remark, that remark won't show up on my page. This protects the people that view my page. The user with bad intention's best hope is to attach a relevant hashtag and hope some user is looking for information via that hashtag and not directly from my organization's page. This one way flow of information is a great way to share what you're doing with the public without opening yourself up to others' comments.
This difference in usage is what makes Twitter ideal for large, litigation prone entities like companies, school districts, etc. You don't have time to babysit your account to clean out all the nefarious comments, nor should you be expected to respond to each user - that one way flow of information is just what you need.
Panning for gold
Once people get on Twitter and start hunting for hashtags that are useful, they quickly realize the vast amount of information flowing through Twitter. How can they make sense of it all?! I liken Twitter to standing next to a roaring river, panning for gold. You can't possibly glean every little flake of gold from the river, you've got to accept that. Find what little nuggets you can and move on. Come back later when you need to hunt for more. Over time you'll develop a sense of what hashtags are worthwhile and which ones stay relatively dormant, just as the gold prospectors knew which parts of the river were worth working and staking a claim on.
As you get a better feel for Twitter, you'll begin to see which hashtags belong to your interests. Then, when you're ready to share something with the world at large, you'll know how to "tag" your tweets in order to garner the audience you seek. At that point you'll finally "get" Twitter.
It's worth pointing out that your Twitter username can serve as your sole identity to some Twitter users. You will find certain users on Twitter that you have no connection with other than a shared interest in a particular topic. When selecting a username it's good practice to make it something easy to relay to others (nothing too cryptic) and one that you think represents you well. Several users will attach a small picture of themselves to their Twitter profile so others can put a face with their name.
So where do I start?!
First things first, you don't have to have a Twitter account to use Twitter. You only need an account when you're ready to tweet something. The best place to start is to find a notable figure or brand in the subject you want to hunt for and "follow" them (just read their Twitter feed). You'll begin to notice the hashtags they are using for your interests and then you can begin to scour those hashtag feeds for others to follow or other, related hashtags.
To show you how many hashtags there are just for educators, I have a list of hashtags over at MrGober.com: http://www.mrgober.com/hashtags
If that's how many teachers have, you can imagine how many there are for news stories, events, pop culture, hobbies and brands. It's just a matter of finding them! My personal favorites are #edtech #hamradio #news #edu #arduino .
If you're looking for me on Twitter, my username is @MrGoberTX.