Despite being a social networking site with a chirpy little blue bird for a logo, and over 140 million users, Twitter still has the power to inspire in jitters in many of us. Call it fear of the unknown. And you are probably one of those with Twitter jitters, suffering from a mind-sucking black hole when the conversation turns to tweets and hashtags. Not to fret. You’ve come to the right place, to shine a torch into all those dark recesses, and get Twitter out into the light, and fully-fledged for you.

Let’s begin with a tweet. A tweet is a message; pinging these messages back and forth is what Twitter is all about. The beauty of Twitter is that it keeps its message (its tweets) mercifully short – 140 characters short, to be precise. That brevity means Twitter isn’t all about complex thoughts, and weighty matters (though it can do serious). It means that when you’re tweeting, you have to keep things simple. So much of your twittering is effectively digital small talk.

Following the followers

But who exactly are you talking to? Why, your ‘followers’ of course. Being on Twitter only makes sense if you want to listen to others (by ‘following’ their Twitter accounts); or you want to speak to others (all those who ‘follow’ your Twitter account); or you’d like to do a bit of both (which is probably most of us).

So when you set up shop on Twitter, one of the first things you’ll be asked to do is to ‘follow’ someone. Don’t worry, you’re not signing up to a religious cult (well, probably not). It just means when that person tweets, you’ll get the message sent direct to you. So it makes sense to follow a number of Twitter accounts of the sorts of people you’d like to hear from. That could be friends, celebrities, newspapers, magazines or any group that takes your fancy.

Congratulations – you’ve just become a tweep – a user who is following another Twitter account.

Keep it interesting

Of course, if you want to have a two-way conversation, you’re going to want to do more than just listen to others tweeting – you’ll want your own followers. You can nicely ask (‘Invite’) people to follow you, or you might find that people whom you are following will do the decent thing, and follow you in turn. But of course they’ll only follow you if they find your tweets interesting.

So what interesting thing should you be tweeting about? That depends what sorts of conversations you want to have, and who your followers are. Some people tweet about all the mundane things going on in their lives (which others can find fascinating), some tweet juicy gossip, some like to pass useful information, pictures or jokes around. Some even like to use Twitter to start a revolution (but maybe you should put that one to one side for a bit).

Twitter is a very public place to talk

The thing to remember about tweets is that they’re public, like speaking out loud in a crowded room. All your followers will hear, as well as those who aren’t your followers – they are effectively listening ears pressed against the wall. Even when you tweet to someone in particular, by ‘addressing’ them (putting an @persons_name in your tweet) that tweet is still visible to all those twitterers out there.

So if you want a truly private conversation (in 140 character chunks of course) then you use a feature of Twitter called Direct Messaging (or DM). This keeps things at a whisper-level between the two of you, on the digital grapevine. Another thing you can do with tweets you receive is to pass them on to your followers. In the land of Twitter, that’s called retweeting.

The great thing about tweets – and their tiny little space for your thoughts – is that they makes sending messages simple, where ever you are. You can send tweets from your cell phone, using texts, as well as your computer, tablet or smartphone. A few words squeezed into a tweet is easy to manage, even when you’re on the move. And necessity being the mother of invention, that small size can make people pretty creative in their communications. There are even twitterers tweeting Japanese poetry in single tweets.

But you don’t have to stick religiously to the limit. You can send links to websites and articles, pictures and movies, for example. There are apps which let you send long messages, such as TweetDeck, which splits the message up into 140 character pieces. Sites like Twitpic let you send photos and tweets together, handily sending back comments to you as tweets (naturally).

Hashtags and trends

With all those tweets out there – a huge seething mountain range of information – a really useful thing would be if you could search for a specific piece of it, needle in haystack style. This is where ‘hashtags’ come in – or, as us tweeples like to call them, ‘#’. Put a # before a word, and Twitter will gather your tweet into big piles, along with all the other tweets using that hashtag. If you wanted, for example, to say that your tweet is related to how Twitter works, you would just put a hashtag of #HowTwitterWorks into that tweet.

Twitter keeps count of how many of each hashtag there are, and also how fast they’re growing popularity. If a particular hashtag has a lot of tweets, it is said to be ‘trending’, and maybe make it onto the Trending list. That’s a big deal, because lots of tweeps like to see what’s trending, to find what the hottest topic of digital conversation is. So, as you might guess, celebrity shenanigans feature big time on the trending list; but so, too, do big news breaking events.

So that’s Twitter – a great big messaging network that spreads the most trivial, and the most dramatic, of events, worldwide in seconds. All through tiny little sentences. I think you’ll agree, there’s not a lot to be scared of, after all, when I comes to Twitter.