Getting information from Twitter has been likened to drinking from a fire hydrant, an analogy I find very apt. Despite its potentially overwhelming nature, there are ways through the Twitter deluge.
There are several excellent guides to using Twitter, some particularly aimed at academics and researchers. A particularly comprehensive one is available as a downloadable PDF from the London School of Economics Social Sciences blog page
Anatomy of a tweet
Name of person tweeting (red circle) – this will always be on the top line of a tweet with the tweeter’s name and Twitter identification (also known as their handle) as a clickable link.
Tweets specifically directed at another user (green circle), such as the one above, will have @ and the user’s name (also clickable)
The main body of the tweet (blue circle) can be a statement, question or an introduction to a link. This will be in plain text.
If the tweet contains a link (orange circle) this will be a clickable link.
The need for brevity means the links are frequently shortened (purple circle), often using sites such as bit.ly or ow.ly as in the tweet above. The link you click on will redirect you to the original page. To shorten a link simply go to link shortening sites, such as bit.ly.com or ow.ly, paste in the URL of the page you wish to link to, and paste the shortened link generated into your tweet.
Hashtags # (pink circle) are an extremely useful way of following a topic or group. Many tweets have a hashtag at the end of the tweet which makes those interested in the discussion aware that new information has been posted.
Retweets of another user’s tweet (brown circle) may have RT in front of the name of the original tweeter as in the first example or have the retweet note in the bottom line. A retweet is used to distribute someone else’s message to your followers.
Organising the information flow
Hashtags, easily found using the search box on the top panel of the Twitter page, are one of the major tools for discovering information of interest to you. They are connected to an event or topic rather than a person. For example, many conferences will have a designated hashtag, which allows those interested in the conference to either tweet using that hashtag or to read tweets with that tag regardless of whether they follow the tweeter. A tag I commonly add to my tweets is #veted as a topic guide. When you want information about a particular topic or to follow a conversation, search for the tag.
It is not possible to follow a hashtag using the ‘Follow’ button on the Twitter page – you can only follow people, which I found initially very frustrating. You can search for a tag easily and save the search but it’s an indirect method. I’ve found it much easier to use a tool such as TweetDeck (http://www.tweetdeck.com/). TweetDeck is organised into columns and allows you to create columns for tweets to and from individuals eg rgesthuizen (middle column below), handles representing organisations such as @croakyblog (below left) and hashtags like #OCL4Ed, a tag associated with an online course (below right). There are other tools which similarly help organise Twitter – I would be interested to hear what others use.
The Tweetdeck app for iPhone I found didn’t work that well so I now use Tweetbot on my phone. It works in a similar manner in that the searches you save can then be accessed.
Using tools such as these you can find your way through the Twitter jungle and the rewards are amazing.