How Twitter Works

by David Weedmark

Twitter is a popular online social networking platform that allows you to send short messages of 140 characters or less. Because of the short messages, it is often referred to as "microblogging." You can say anything that is on your mind on Twitter, or include links to websites, pictures or videos.


Messages sent on Twitter are called tweets. Tweets are limited to 140 characters because Twitter was designed to work with the SMS mobile text messaging standard, which limits messages to 160 characters. The extra 20 characters are reserved to leave room for your username, which is added to every tweet. Anyone following you can see your tweets, just as you can see the tweets of the people you are following. Your tweet is also visible to anyone searching for information on Twitter, unless you have made your profile private. Sending a tweet that begins with the "@" symbol and a username is visible only by that person and your followers who are also following that person.

Followers, Following, and Lists

You can follow anyone on Twitter by clicking the “Follow” button on their profile, or next to their username in a list. Following is automatic unless the account is private, in which case a request to follow is sent to the person. Every Twitter profile has two lists associated with it: accounts they are following, and accounts following them. You can also make your own customized lists of people on Twitter, whether you are following them or not. You can use lists to organize people based on common interests, or any other criteria you want to use. Others can then follow the list as they would a Twitter account. When viewing a list, you see only the tweets posted by the people in that list.


If you see a tweet that you want others to see, you can choose to retweet it. Clicking the “Retweet” link under the tweet will automatically post the tweet to your followers. Your followers will see that person’s profile picture with a notice that it was retweeted by you. This is commonly known as “automatic retweets.” To manually retweet a post you like, you type “RT” followed by the person’s username, then paste the original tweet.

Direct Messages

In Twitter, most people refer to a Direct Message as a DM. Direct messages are private correspondence sent from one person to another on Twitter that are not seen by anyone else. Like Tweets, they are limited to 140 characters. You can only send a DM to someone who is following you. In order for them to send you a DM, including a reply to your message, you need to be following them. Direct messages can be viewed in the "Messages" window on Twitter.


Many people use hashtags (#) to identify a tweet that relates to a specific topic of interest. This is usually used for newsworthy topics or for discussing a topic. The hashtag is placed in front of the topic name. Many groups use Twitter to discuss a topic, often on specific days and times during the week. For example, writers discussing scripts will use “#scriptchat” to mark their tweets as part of the discussion. Anyone wanting to see only tweets in that topic can type “#scriptchat” into the Twitter search field.

About the Author

A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has advised businesses and governments on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years. He has taught computer science at Algonquin College, has started three successful businesses, and has written hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines throughout Canada and the United States.