How to follow a topic or conversation on Twitter without having a Twitter account
1. The easiest method is to go to http://search.twitter.com and type in a relevant keyword - eg #wcsj - press enter and see the results.
That will look like this - http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23wcsj
As new tweets are posted with the keyword you're interested in you will need to press the refresh button (ie reload the page) to see them too.
2. The second easiest method is to go to Monitter or Twitterfall (I prefer this one) and type in a word there and watch the tweets unfurl in real time - ie they auto refresh. I've found Monitter to slow down my laptop quite a bit, Twitterfall less so.
3. If the topic is very popular (eg anything to do with Michael Jackson last week) it will be a 'trending topic' - ie in the top ten of popular tags,
3a. What’s a hashtag?
It’s very similar to tagging or keywording (eg as used in Flickr to help people find things when searching). The # symbol adds a 'flag' to a word increasing its signal against the noise of every other tweeted word. It also makes it appear as an active link in the search results page at http://search.twitter.com. You can search for a word without putting a hash in front of it though, it's not essential for most things.
4. Receive tweets by email
Tweetlater (you need to register) is a free service which will email you the results of a Twitter search for a particular topic http://www.tweetlater.com/ - another way of catching up with a lot of tweets on a topic.
The information in the rest of the post assumes a Twitter account - visit http://www.twitter.com and sign up.
The middling to advanced tips
1. Ten Brutal Twitter tips from David Bradley
http://www.sciencetext.com/ten-brutal-twitter-tips.html - useful overview
2. Tweeting in 140 characters, shortening links
Edit: 8 July 2012 - Twitter now autoshortens URLs, bit.ly is still a useful service though
Each twitter post of 140 characters is a 'tweet' and the only way to include most web links is to shorten them otherwise they won't fit. Twitter does this automatically but to get the most info in your tweet, as you’re writing it, it's best to pre-shorten your URL so you can see how many spare characters will remain.
URL shortening services include Tinyurl (http://www.tinyurl.com), is.gd (http://is.gd) or bit.ly (http://bit.ly/) - bit.ly lets you track the number of times your link is clicked on, which may be useful information.
3. The @ symbol, "@replies"
In front of anyone's name (with no space) does two things (i) turns the name into an active link that can be clicked on taking you to their Twitter profile and (ii) sends a copy of the tweet to them - although they go straight to the person they are also public and others can find them, so do not use @reply for private messages, see DM below (though it's probably best not to use Twitter for private messages).
4. Retweeting someone else's post (RT)
RT (retweet) in front of a post means that you are reposting someone else's Tweet.
Here's one I tweeted earlier...
" RT @JRBtrip RT @TechCrunch Tweetraising: the potential for charities on Twitter http://tinyurl.com/ok6a5t "
This means that I'm retweeting @JRBtrip's post, he himself was retweeting @Techcrunch. My retweeting of this, using their @names means that both people will receive a copy of my message - ie they'll know that I've retweeted them.
There needs to be a space before the @ otherwise the name won't resolve to an active link.
5. Hat tip
Another way to acknowledge someone is to use h/t or ht to acknowledge that they were the originator of an idea, for example - here's me acknowledging that @SciCommConf and @marilyneb told me about the wthashtag (what the hashtag) website. It’s not done that often to be honest, but if you see the phrase that’s what it means.
"Not enough characters left in last tweet to h/t @SciCommConf & @marilyneb for highlighting @wthashtag - #wcsj transcript http://is.gd/1jsVl "
6. Direct Messages (DM or d)
Typing d jobrodie sends a private message to me but it will only work if I am following you (if I'm not following you it would have to be @jobrodie). You can also send direct messages through the Direct Messages link on Twitter.
7. Following posts / conversations in real time with a Twitter account
Tweetdeck is excellent for this, you can download it from http://tweetdeck.com/beta/ - it presents you with basic columns (all the tweets of everyone you're following, a column of tweets sent to you, a column of private messages plus any columns you care to add - eg a search for #wcsj).
You need to grant Tweetdeck access to your Twitter account for it to work - I've not had any problems with this particular service but have only used it on iPhone.
Some additional suggestions
1. Using Twitter on a mobile phone
Twitter's easy to use on a computer / laptop but there are mobile phone applications such as Twitterfon, Tweetie as well as Tweetdeck (for iPhone) that mean you can read or post tweets (might be a link to a blog post for example) while on the move. Many people at #wcsj were using phones to 'live blog' the conference.
2. A new account needs a bit of time to get going
It takes time to get the hang of Twitter but a little bit longer to build up a network. Lots of people sign up and then can't see the point of it. It's a bit like moving to a new neighbourhood and getting to know the locals - it's something you cultivate.
It really helps if you fill in the bio section, add a link to your website (or blog) and a photo. Then people know who you are.
3. Following people and being followed
Anyone can follow anyone else, unless they've restricted their "Twitter stream" by locking it - in which case you need to request permission to follow them. People are less likely to follow you if there's no information in your bio. In my case I'm likely to block you from following me if I can't see who you are. It's just difficult to engage with people if they're anonymous - and Twitter is meant to be a tool for social networking ;)
You can find people to follow by (a) searching for their name or knowing their Twitter account URL and clicking on the 'Follow' button, (b) by searching for keywords and following the people writing the most interesting posts about them, (c) if you've found someone to follow see who else they are following and who else is following them - some of those people might have similar interests to you.
4. Attention conference organisers
Please choose a hashtag that's simple and brief to type when tweeting from a mobile phone. #wcsj is pretty much perfect - short, letters only (numbers are on another screen on iPhones) and gives you more characters to type a message in - also it's very natural ('organic'!) and reflects what people were using already in referring to the conference. To be honest #scc2009 wouldn't have been my first choice for the sci com conference but it doesn't matter much when you're using a laptop of course.
Many conferences use Twitter to create a bit of a buzz around the event and draw people in, some conferences might want to set ground rules about what sessions can be covered - I expect people may well ignore this but sometimes it mightn't be appropriate to live blog things, I suppose.
5. Blog owners ... and possibly newspaper (online versions) people (?)
If you want to make it easy for people to share a post and you want to maintain some control over the link, pre-shorten the URL for them (create the post, shorten the URL, then amend the page to add in the new URL - I don't know a simpler way) or use a 'Tweet this' button. This makes it easy for people to share info on your website (promote your work) without having to shorten the URL themselves...
Using a bit.ly link here lets you collect some referral information about where clicks are coming from - and at this point we are at the limits of my URL tracking knowledge.
In David's post linked above one of the first things you see on the page is the 'Tweet this' button - if you read the comments you will see I was asking about this sort of thing when the text was originally posted.
Many sites do this very well with a panel of social media sharing buttons including Facebook, Digg etc. etc.
6. If you wanted to refer to the URL of a particular Tweet...
...look at the bit just below the Tweet - the 'time when it was posted', in this case "half a minute ago" gives the URL for that particular tweet http://twitter.com/TEDchris/status/2504201703
" TEDchris Mass-collaboration music vid. Beautiful way to nurture your fanbase: http://bit.ly/8yJiG (via@ndjbaker) "half a minute ago from web
7. Twitter’s just a series of RSS feeds
Some content you create yourself by typing it, some can be pushed from another source – eg I have an automated feed set up to collect any newly registered clinical trials about diabetes, which is published automatically whenever the ClinicalTrials.gov database is updated http://twitter.com/diabetestrials
If I think of anything else... ;-)
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