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Twitter Primer

Use these handy tips to create and use your own Twitter account.

Want to follow your favorite spellers throughout the Bee? Sign up for the Twitter handle "AARPSpellingBee." Here's some help:

Twitter has become a media darling lately, especially now that politicians and celebrities are joining its ranks. Unlike Facebook, which suggests connections among you and other members, Twitter does just one thing: It lets you blast short messages of 140 characters, maximum (about 14 words), to your "followers" (friends, colleagues, and strangers who've signed up to see what you're up to).

While many people remain dismissive of Twitter—why would anyone want to know that you just ate a great turkey sandwich?—the service has evolved into a powerful way to communicate. For one thing, its 140-character limit forces you to be concise and prevents you from boring your followers with endless harangues. Second, it lets you build a following of people interested in you, your company, or your affiliation, and you can also tap into that group and its members' followers. In other words, Twitter helps you create a self-perpetuating network of like-minded people. And third, you can search Twitter for all the posts people have written on a particular topic (say, hybrid cars). It's like taking an instant, worldwide poll on what people think about your topic of choice.

Your updates—called "tweets"—reflect your thoughts, your impressions, your daily life, your personality, and your interests. In turn, they can lead you to people who share your interests, political views, and hobbies. You can even use Twitter to make new business contacts and market your company or philanthropy. Twitter is also becoming a way to get breaking news: When US Air Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River in January 2009, for example, the story broke on Twitter and was complete with eyewitness accounts and cell-phone photos.

Step 1: Get Started. Getting started with Twitter is easy. Go to the site and enter your name and e-mail address, along with a user name. You can use any name you like, but if you want to be taken seriously or use Twitter for professional purposes, create a screen name that's close to your real name, company name, or area of interest. For example, you might choose the user name "imabeekeeper."

Step 2: Follow Other Members. Once you sign up, you can tap into the Twitter universe of millions of individual thoughts to find topics of interest. To get started, go to the Search box on the right side of your home page. Search for "apiary" or "honey bees," for example. Twitter displays a list of all the posts on that topic, along with the user name and picture of the poster. Click to go to the poster's home page and view all their tweets. If you like what you see, click the Follow link at the top of the page to become one of the poster's "followers"; Twitter then automatically displays their posts on your own home page.

Some of your friends may already use Twitter. You can search for them using the site's search feature by clicking on the Find People link at the top of the page. Or you can have Twitter do the searching for you: After you click on Find People, click "Find on other networks." Twitter then searches address lists of Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL, and a few other e-mail services. Twitter also maintains a list of interesting "suggested users" (Jimmy Fallon, George Stephanopoulos, Tony Robbins) to get you started.

You'll find Twitter updates for news, too, such as those for CNN (search for and follow "cnnbrk") and tweets from some stores, brands, and many celebrities, such as Martha Stewart (marthastewart) and Shaquille O'Neal (bigcactus32), not to mention President Obama (barackobama).

Step 3: Start Tweeting. To attract your own group of followers, you need to tweet. You can say anything you want, add a Web link, or include a photo. The only rule is that you stick to the 140-character limit (an on-screen counter keeps track for you). Just remember: Twitter is a public environment built on sharing. Unlike with Facebook, you don't control who chooses to "follow" you, so millions of people could see what you write. That is why you're encouraged to be interesting and compelling. Think of your exposure as a benefit, not a threat.

Write engaging tweets, comment clearly on subjects on which you're an expert or have something original to say, and use key words, so that people with similar interests can find your tweets by searching for those words.

Add links to interesting articles or photos you've seen. "Retweet" postings by forwarding a posting that you find interesting to your own followers. This way, you'll become a more engaged and active member of the community. And tell your friends you're tweeting, too.

Do all of the above, and you may even be able to position yourself on Twitter as a thought leader, as your expertise attracts attention. Don't use the site for spamming, though ("I sell vacuum cleaners in Orange County for low, low prices!!!").

Step 4: Make It Fun. The key to making Twitter enjoyable is to follow a collection of people whose updates you care about. You'll soon discover that some of your friends never tweet, while some tweet way too much. You can stop following anyone who overdoes it by clicking the Remove key beside his or her name.

By mixing feeds from your favorite posters and publications, you start to get a real-time take on subjects that interest you. And on the right side of your home page, you'll see a list of Trending Topics—a look at what the Twitter world is most concerned with at this very minute. Click an entry, and you'll see tweets from all over the world on that subject. Twitter can be your constantly refreshed op-ed page.

Step 5: Make It Useful. Another way to find members who share your interests is by exploiting one of Twitter's search features. If you type the "hash" or "pound" sign (#) at the beginning of a word, your tweet will show up when someone searches for that word. If you love tennis, for example, and you're watching a Roger Federer match at Wimbledon, include "#wimbledon" or "#federer" in your tweets, and you'll soon find yourself deeply engaged with other tennis fans from around the world. You can follow them, and they can follow you.

Step 6: Get Some Help. Twitter's interface is simple and sleek, but it hides some of the site's coolest features, like the ability to post photos and to repost your tweets to your Facebook page. To uncover Twitter's gems, try a free helper program, such as TweetDeck for PCs and Macs, Tweetie for iPhones, or TwitterBerry for BlackBerries. Each program acts as a sort of Twitter dashboard, giving you control over Twitter's shadow features.

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