What Twitter Users Know That You Don’t

Becky Worley
Special Contributor, Yahoo! Tech
Upgrade Your Life

Twitter’s much-heralded IPO has frothed the waters around this social media tool yet again. You may have avoided joining, but now that almost 50 million Americans use it, and three times that number use the microblog internationally, you may be wondering if there’s actually something valuable about Twitter that you’re missing.

So what does it do well, and how do power users maximize its strengths?

Current, Hyper-Local, First-Person Information

218 million people use Twitter. 22% are in the US, and a whopping 78% are international users. And this global reach highlights some of Twitter’s greatest strengths. If you follow users who are in your area, Twitter offers a hyper-local news source that many parts of the world (and the United States) don’t have. Unlike newspapers, the information on Twitter comes through in real time. During an emergency or a live event, Twitter can be one of the most comprehensive sources of first-person information. On the down-side, this is not journalism; it isn’t vetted or put in context, but it’s distributed information-sharing that has never existed in the world up until now.

Zeitgeist, Trending Now, What’s Hot

When something is happening, be it a democratic uprising, a great sporting event, or a royal wedding, Twitter has a list of the most talked about subjects. They are listed down the left column of your feed. The trending section is a powerful tool to take the pulse of all users. This is also where Twitter makes its money. You’ll often see “promoted” trends about movies or products. These are paid advertisements from campaigns or companies trying to get users’ attention. There are also promoted accounts alongside your newsfeed: people who have paid money to get more Twitter followers.

[Related: Where Teens Go Instead of Facebook (and Why You Should Too)]

Super-User Trick #1: Lists

You already know that you “follow” people you’re interested in: journalists, politicians, thought leaders, athletes, and friends. But did you know that you can put them into lists? Lists are one of the tricks of Twitter super-users. Instead of a mish-mash of all the people you follow, you can create categories: I have lists of tech journalists, Hawaii people (I’m from the great 50th state), consumer advocates, and local education and political people. You can open a list and just see tweets from the people you’ve placed in it when you want to catch up on a particular subject. 

Super-User Trick #2: Hashtags

Another hidden power is the hashtag. Yes, it’s over-used - and ridiculous when people actually say the word “hashtag” - but it’s a useful way to categorize your tweet with others on the same topic. That way, anyone else interested can search for the term and all the tweets with the same hashtag will appear in the search results. This is really powerful for fans of TV shows, live music, or tweet-ups where an idea or issue is being discussed in a virtual forum.

Teens and Twitter

Another little known fact about Twitter is that 18% of all American teenagers are actively using the service – and this is the fastest-growing sector of users. Just when mom and dad finally got a Facebook account and forced their kids to friend them, teens are migrating to Twitter. Why? It’s not just because their parents probably aren’t on Twitter; rather, many say Twitter has less drama. People don’t perceive it as a closed or protected network (a common misperception with Facebook). They know their tweets are public, and they behave more appropriately. But also you can’t be tagged in a picture on Twitter, and that fact alone makes many teens say there’s just less drama than on Facebook. 

Twitter = more ideas than personal details

The teenager insight that Twitter has less drama reflects one of Twitter’s most powerful features: it’s not Facebook. It’s not for life-casting: sharing the intimate and sometimes mundane details of your life. It’s more of a thought-space, where your opinion and insight can resonate with your followers and sometimes with 218 million others. It’s a communal place of expression; and while you may have a small number of followers, retweeting is the power of the service. If someone likes what you tweeted, they can broadcast it as a quote to all of their followers. Ideas can catch fire in this way and the idea of “going viral” happens best within Twitter because of retweets.

Want to follow me? I’d be honored. I mostly tweet tech tips and tech news, with occasional observations on parenthood and other forms of insanity.  I’m @bworley, on Twitter.