How Does Twitter Work?

How Does Twitter Work?

Social networking sites have risen to a position of dominance on the Internet. Where once employees and students got “busted” for using their personal e-mail or reading The Onion, social networking has taken over top spot as Internet-based Time Waster.

The social networking site featuring the most meteoric rise to fame is Twitter. Unlike other popular social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace, Twitter has very little in the way of “bells and whistles”. People on Facebook are encouraged to posts pictures, videos, links, and all kinds of gadgets like quizzes and “gifts” that attempt to “amp up” the social part of social networking. Twitter, on the other hand, limits users to posts of 140 characters or less. Called “micro blogging”, these short messages are both the appeal and the limitation of Twitter.

Why Twitter?

When a user signs up with a Twitter account, that user intends to post and receive messages to a kind of network of their personal and business contacts.

Instead of sending out a dozen e-mails or hundreds of text messages (or depending on blog traffic that can be sketchy and difficult to track) you can send one message to your Twitter account. The service then automatically distributes that message it to all your Twitter “friends”.

The limitation of Twitter basically dictated its purpose — people use Twitter to throw parties, meet up for lunch, schedule meetings, entertain a big group discussion, or (most annoyingly) to send out updates to let people know what’s going on in their lives. This is why most people’s Twitter experience is hundreds of messages like — “Going 2 lunch at Burger King. Who wants in?” These short messages are called, affectionately, Tweets.


A Tweet is any message sent on Twitter. A tweet can be a noun, or one can “tweet” a message, making a verb.

To send or receive a Tweet, a user must create an account with Twitter (which is free) and build a list of friends and contacts. These contacts have to have Twitter accounts as well — otherwise you’re typing to no one.

That may be the beauty of Twitter. In order to make it work for you, you have to build a network of other people who use Twitter. It is a kind of self-fulfilling marketing ploy, and one that works well based on the size of their customer base — in the millions at this point.

Another way to use Tweets is what we referred to before as “micro blogging” — make all your Tweets public and allow any Twitter user to stumble across them and read them. Ideally, this person would be interested by your tweets enough to become a contact of yours.

Building a Twitter Network

Once you have an active Twitter account you can start building a network of contacts. This works a few ways — you can either invite other users to receive your Tweets and start following other member’s posts or you can invite a million people to follow you and hope that works out.

As you receive Tweets from other people, you can respond and in that way gather new contacts. If people want to take part in larger Twitter debates or conversations, they’ll have to become a member of all of the participant’s networks.

Why So Short?

Comedians make jokes about it. Headline news complains about our “micro” culture — and yes, Tweets are very short messages. But there’s a beauty to a Tweet’s length.

Tweets can only contain text — you can’t Tweet pictures, video or other files. Twitterers who want people in their network to look at multimedia content must find a page to host the files, then send a link in a message containing the page’s address to their various networks. It sounds way more complex than it is.

People complain about the brevity of Tweets, but the short length of Twitter messages not only fits our fast-paced modern lifestyle, it causes people to get right to the point. If brevity is the soul of wit, Twitter should be one of the wittiest places on the Internet.

Twitter is a great tool for social networking as well as business applications. I was stunned last week to discover that my father is on Twitter as a representative for his company. My dad had a Twitter page before I did! Businesses and non profits have found that Twitter is a cheap and effective way to get the word out about their products and services.

This is part of a series of blog posts we’re publishing about How Stuff Works. The other posts in this series include: