twitterMany people tell us they’re confused by Twitter. What is it? Who’s out there? And what are they saying? Oh: And why would we care?

Twitter delivers “tweets.” And each “tweet” is no more than 140 characters. But there’s usually a link in there to a longer story. Tweets can come in to your computer, your phone, or whatever you have that can connect to the Internet. You can get pages of tweets from sources and subjects you select and they can range from bits of chit-chat about family members to what’s happening in the Congo.

Surprisingly often the source of those tweets may be from someone right on the spot, perhaps snapping a picture long before a reporter gets there – because tweets can include pictures. They can be hot, hot, hot. When the U.S. sent a Seal team to capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, someone who lived nearby tweeted that there seemed to be  two military helicopters headed for that walled compound a few blocks away. He thought they looked American. Fortunately for our side, the target wasn’t connected to Twitter at the time.

That was in the early days. Today, there are more than 500 million tweets a day. Aye, there’s a the rub, as some playwright once remarked.  So you have to pick your shots, selecting who you want to hear from and what subjects and/or locations you want to hear about. Go to, sign up, and be careful, because some people think nothing of sending a hundred messages a day – and we are not exaggerating. Nobody has that many interesting things to say.

Many tweets contain pictures. When you subscribe to tweets from a news source, say the “BBC,” you are said to “follow” that source; you’ll get tweets all day long. You can have followers too — people who regularly read what you write. It’s quite common to have someone you follow, follow you in return – though likely an individual, not a national news source. If bored or annoyed, you can always stop subscribing to someone’s tweets. Just click “Unfollow.”

Twitter is in the news again lately because “tweets” can be profitable. Like the Bin Laden attack tweet, or a picture of a news event, you can know whether to buy or sell or get out of the way. If you got a tweet that a miracle drug is now killing people, for example, you might want to short the stock. Or, you might want to write a mystery story about it.

Signing up is easy. Go to, type in your email address, and choose a user name.  We recently signed up for a second account, after first signing up as “oncomp” in 2008. A lot has changed since we first signed up.

In the old days, Twitter loaded your entire contact list during setup, setting you up to “follow” everyone you know, no matter how remotely. That meant hundreds of little comments cluttering your Twitter home page, most of them nearly unreadable. You gotta cut that down. Early on, we decided to follow only a handful. Even then, we found Twitter distracting and rarely went there.

Now Twitter has a “List” feature. Instead of a junk filled inbox, lists let you keep tweets categorized. To start, click the “Me” link, click “More,” and “create a list.” So far, we have lists for science, technology, economics and recipes; if something is happening in suburban Islamabad, we don’t want to hear about it.

To create a new list, give it a name like “Science,” then do a search for organizations, magazines, or individuals who interest you.  When you find one, click the little picture of a gear and choose “add/remove from lists.” We added “Popular Science,” “NovaPBS,” “Scientific American” and the TV science show commentators Michio Kaku and Neil DeGrasse Tyson – because you can list people as well as organizations.

What may confuse you about Twitter (at least it confused us at first) are the little symbols people add to their blurbs. These are called “hashtags.” These are the things we used to call the pound sign, which looks like this: “#.” If you put a hashtag next to a key word in your tweet, anyone searching on that topic will find your post. For instance, a search on “#physics” will find all the posts on that topic, If you click on any subject with a hashtag in front of it, you’ll see the latest posts on that topic. Whew!

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