Twitter 101: how to follow people and discover topics

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You held out until now, but you’ve finally decided you need to get active on Twitter. You created an account using either the web or via the iOS or Android apps. Now what do you do with it?

You can do a lot. You can keep up with the news, market yourself or your product, promote a political cause, learn about different subjects, connect with hobbies, and meet people in online communities.

All of those depend on the subjects and people you follow. You probably want to find interesting people, read what they have to say (in text, images, and video), reply when you have something to say back, and share interesting content of your own. Whatever else you want to do on Twitter, conversations and content are the foundation.

Here’s how to join the party.

Dress up your Twitter profile

Twitter is best experienced as a conversation. The first thing you do in a conversation with strangers is introduce yourself. Your profile does that for you on Twitter. Put up an interesting photo for a profile picture and fill out your bio.

To customize your profile on the web:

  • Click on your profile icon in the lower-left corner. If you haven’t yet added a profile photo, it will probably have your initials on it. That will take you to your profile page.
  • Click on the “Edit Profile button” to the right of your photo

To customize your profile on a mobile app:

Tap your current profile picture in the top left (again, if you haven’t added a photo, it will probably have your initials)

  • Select “Profile”
  • Tap the “Edit Profile” button on the top right

From there, you can upload a photo of yourself from your photo gallery, input your name and a bio, fill out your location field, provide the URL for a website, and / or enter your date of birth. Most of these fields are optional; in particular, if you don’t want to tell Twitter your date of birth, you don’t need to.

Size matters here: your Twitter profile photo should be square, at least 400 x 400 pixels. A selfie from your phone will do fine. The banner — which is the big, rectangular image at the top of your profile page — is bigger at about 1500 x 500 pixels. And the bio can be up to 160 characters.

Have some fun. Fill in whatever you want for your name and bio — within the bounds of nonabusive behavior and the law — and change them regularly if you want. On Facebook, you’re required to use your real name, but on Twitter, you can use a pseudonym to protect your privacy. It’s not perfect protection — people can hunt you down if they’re determined and have the resources — but it’s good enough for everyday purposes.

Find people to follow

Now that your profile is set up, your next step is to find people to follow and conversations to join. When you signed up, Twitter asked you about your interests and suggested people to follow. They were likely all celebrities and politicians, who, of course, are very active on Twitter.

In my opinion, that’s not the best way to find people to follow. Celebrities and politicians use Twitter as a broadcast platform; they don’t tend to get in conversations except with each other (there are, naturally, exceptions). For me at least, the best way to find good people to follow is to search for them yourself.

When you signed up for your Twitter account, the service asks you for access to your phone contacts. Depending on how you feel about privacy and big internet companies, you may have given it permission. If you did, Twitter suggests people you already know who are already on Twitter, and you can follow them easily. The service let your friends who were already on the service know that you’re there.

Another good way to find people to follow is to just ask. Ask your friends, family, and work colleagues if they are already on Twitter, and if they are, ask them for their Twitter name and follow them. Google their name followed by the word “twitter.” Or you can search on Twitter itself:

  • On the web, put your friend’s name in the search field at the top right of the page
  • On a mobile app, tap the search (magnifying glass) icon at the bottom of the application main screen, and type in the name of the person you want to find

Your favorite news outlets, magazines, and bloggers probably have Twitter accounts. Following them is another good way to keep up with the news.

Follow topics

Another way to find content on Twitter is by following topics. On the right side of the web app, you’ll see a list of topics and headlines; for the mobile app, hit the search button in the mobile app to see the list. These are the trending topics, which are a good way to find popular conversations on Twitter.

A popular way to discover topics is by searching for hashtags (as in #hashtags). Hashtags mark conversation topics and allow people who are not following each other to find and participate in conversations. Sometimes, hashtags are about serious topics, such as #COVID19 or #idleg for tweets having to do with the Idaho legislature. Other times, they’re playful: #NationalNappingDay, #CartoonsThatShouldReturn, or #birdtwitter. If you find a hashtag you’re interested in, click on it to see the entire conversation.

Join the Twitter conversation

Maybe you’re fine just reading through Twitter and not participating. Many people use Twitter that way, and that’s okay. But Twitter is better if you join the conversation.

You can start by responding to tweets that other people send.

  • On the web, respond by clicking on the voice bubble icon in the bottom left corner of the tweet

  • On a mobile device, just tap the tweet you want to reply to. The tweet slides over to occupy the top of the screen. Below the original tweet, you’ll see any replies that have already been posted and a space at the bottom to leave your own reply.
  • In both the web and the mobile versions, a small circle at the bottom right will have a blue outline that will advance as you type; if you go past your 280-character maximum, the circle will turn red (as will your extra characters).

To address a tweet to another person when you’re not replying directly to one of their tweets, include their @username — for example, @mitchwagner — anywhere in your tweet.

To post an original tweet on the web, simply start typing in the “What’s happening?” field on top. Use the icons on the bottom of that field to add a photo, GIF, poll, or emoji. On a mobile device, tap the button on the bottom right that looks like a quill with a plus sign, and have at it.

If you go over the character maximum while composing a tweet, press the plus button at the bottom of the screen to continue your thought in a follow-up tweet, a series of which is called a thread.

About abuse

Twitter is pretty free and easy about what you’re allowed to post. The Twitter Rules are short and common-sensical. They boil down to: don’t be a jerk. Adult content is allowed, but it has to be consensual.

If you have a problem with a single tweet, tap the offending tweet to open it on a new screen, then tap the down-facing arrow on the top right. You can unfollow the offending person, mute them, mute the conversation, block them, or report them.

We’re all aware that Twitter has had some severe problems with offensive users over the past few years. The company has introduced measures to try to ameliorate the problems, such as becoming more aggressive about removing abusive tweets, and limiting the number of people who can follow specific tweets. You can find more information from Twitter on how to deal with online abuse on this page, including instructions for law enforcement officials on how to deal with cases of online abuse.

In fact, muting is a handy feature — and not just for abusive people. Say somebody is going on and on about a sports game you’re not interested in or is talking about the end of a TV series you haven’t finished yet. You can mute them for a bit and then come back when they’ve moved on. They’ll never know unless you tell them.

Now go forth and enjoy being connected to the Twitter-verse!

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