Quick access to colleagues and ideas: Get started with Twitter

Ted O’Neill, J. F. Oberlin University

What is Twitter?

According to Biz Stone, Twitter cofounder, Twitter is “the network you never knew you needed until you had it” (Forum, 2009). Some readers might be understandably skeptical, but this service is a powerful tool for communicating ideas, sharing experiences, and coordinating groups. Twitter is easy to use and powerful. Most important, Twitter is an open system and may be accessed for useful information even without joining.

Twitter can be variously described as a website, a blog platform, a social networking service (SNS), or a messaging network. It is actually all of these, but at its most basic, Twitter allows users to post very short text messages called tweets. Tweets are up to 140 characters long and appear in three places: on a user’s profile page, in the timelines of subscribed Twitter users (known as followers), and within the stream of all messages at <twitter.com/public_timeline>.

What makes Twitter useful? It is lightweight

The simple interface and 140 character limit makes writing and maintaining a blog manageable, even for instructors who have limited time. Also, writers must be brief and to the point, so messages tend to be quick and easy to read. Twitter does not carry extensive advertising or any games.

Some forms of online communication incorporate very high expectations for activity by recipients. For example, email users send messages to specific recipients and expect responses. Failure to respond for long, or sometimes even short, periods of time violates the ground rules of email. Most Twitter messages are broadcast and may or may not be read by an individual follower or group of users, creating a lower burden of response than in some other systems where expected responses require time and effort from users.

Finally, Twitter’s social model is different from other SNS such as Facebook or Mixi where the term friend can be more meaningful than intended. When the act of unfriending is broadcast on an SNS, the personal consequences can be unpredictable. Twitter users simply choose to follow or unfollow other users as a way of curating a flow of subscribed messages. Changes in relationships are not broadcast.

Accessing Twitter as a news and information resource

One advantage of Twitter over other SNS such as LinkedIn is that Twitter content is openly searchable, even to non-members. This low barrier to entry allows anyone looking for specific information to begin reading Twitter content without commitment. There are, however, a few syntactical terms which will help readers fully understand tweets. These are very short and simple to master.

Table 1.Twitter syntax for useful system functions




Placing @ immediately before a userid at the start of a tweet creates a reply to that user. Replies are also public.


Although tweets are publicly broadcast, forwarding or retweeting messages to a user’s followers is common. Retweets begin with “RT” followed by the Reply syntax and a copy of the original tweet. Retweeting recognizes useful information, propagates it more widely, and directs it to the attention of followers.

Hash tags

Precede any keyword with the pound mark # to create a tag. Tags are often shared by users to link many tweets from a single event.


URL shortening services such as <tinyurl.com> and <bit.ly> create abbreviated links from long Internet addresses. What these lack in readability or durability, they make up for in brevity.


Any media type can be linked to from Twitter, but one of the most common is images. Twitpic <twitpic.com> is a service built on top of Twitter that attaches images to tweets. Use this to take a snapshot of a great presentation slide and add a comment.

Finding users to follow

A simple way to find fellow teaching professionals is to visit <http://jalt.org/main/twitter> for a feed of all Tweets mentioning JALT. Find active JALT members here and see all of their tweets by clicking on their usernames.

Click the “Find people” link on the Twitter site to search for individuals or email a few friends to see if they are using the service. If they are not, consider joining Twitter together as a group.

Finally, expand your network of interesting people by taking others’ implicit recommendations. Look at who a person follows or who follows them. Again, click on any username to find their most recent posts which will tell you if that user interests you. This follow/follower system quickly creates networks of users with related interests.

Becoming a more active user

After reading Twitter to get news announcements, annotated links to useful new resources, or just to see what friends and colleagues are doing, the next step is to become an engaged user.

On the web: Get started

The simplest way to begin is to visit <twitter.com> and complete a short registration process which requires no personal information.

On the go: Twitter as a mobile application

Twitter was originally developed for use with mobile phones and really shines on smartphones such the iPhone, Blackberry, or Windows Mobile devices. Download a Twitter client application specific to your device from <http://twitter.com/downloads> or the appropriate application store. The short messages are legible on small screens and can be read quickly.

Freeing users from their desks, mobile phones allow use during otherwise unproductive time and encourage very quick entries or tweets from events as they are happening. This just in time information is especially useful at conferences or for live narration of a long project. For example, in March I joined a one-week internship in Osaka and Twittered activities step by step. Interested people who were unable to attend in person followed from Tokyo, Austin, and New York from where they could reply or discuss in real time or follow up later.

Try it and see

The investment of time and effort to begin reading Twitter is just a few clicks of the mouse and a few moments to scan some messages from fellow JALT members. The payoff can come in the form of closer connections with colleagues, finding new resources, and keeping well informed.


Shafer, S. (Host). (2009, March 25). Twitter’s Biz Stone. Forum with Michael Krasny. Podcast retrieved from <www.kqed.org/radio/programs/forum/>.

Ted O’Neill works in the English Language Program at J. F. Oberlin University where he coordinates the Foundation English Program and teaches a course in Online Communication. He may be reached by email at <oneill@obirin.ac.jp>. His tweets may be found at <twitter.com/gotanda>.