Q: I finally signed up for a Twitter account and am very uncertain about how all of this works. What are the things that a new user should know? — Sharon

Twitter is getting more mainstream attention from some of the biggest stories of the year: the Hudson River plane crash and the election turmoil in Iran to name a few, but it’s important that you understand what Twitter is and isn’t.

The first mistake most new users make is trying to compare it to an existing communication system; it’s not like e-mail, it’s not like text messaging, and even though it’s referred to as a micro-blog, it isn’t really like blogging.

Twitter is another way to communicate with others either one-to-one or one-to-many. Most speculate that the reason that Twitter has caught on so well is that it forces users to articulate their thoughts in 140 characters or less and since we all have A.D.D. on the Internet, it’s the easiest way to interact with a large group of people.

The numbers are growing quickly and the demographic profiles may surprise you. According to Compete.com, the number of unique visitors to Twitter.com in December of 2008 was just over 4 million and in less than 6 months the number is at just under 20 million.

Many assume that Twitter is for the younger, more Internet concentric set, but according to a recent Pew study, the median age of Twitter users skews older than both Facebook and MySpace.

Another study suggests that 21% of Twitter users are over the age of 50, compared to just 8% for Facebook and MySpace.

I have an unscientific explanation for why the median age of Twitter users is much higher than Facebook or MySpace: ever met a teen or twenty-something that understands the value of networking or could articulate a thought in 140 characters or less? Me either!

I knew Twitter was different when my two teenagers that grew up on social media both shrugged their shoulders and said what many youngsters have said: “I don’t get it.”

Because it’s a completely different approach to communicating, my first bit of advice is just start ‘listening’ to the conversations of the people you are following. It won’t take long for you to get a feel for the communication protocols.

Here are some common mistakes made by new ‘Twitterers’:

No profile picture — this is a SOCIAL media that connects people. Seeing a human face makes a huge difference in how the rest of the community perceives you. Most won’t follow/engage with users that haven’t taken the time to put a face on their profile (it kinda screams that you don’t get social media).

No bio info — If you don’t fill out the bio that explains who you are and what you’re interests are, it’s kind of hard to get folks engaged with you. Twitter connects people with common interests and backgrounds; make sure you make yours known.

No links in tweets — Whenever possible include a link to more info about what you are tweeting about. How valuable would Google be if it brought up brief descriptions of info you sought but no links to learn more? Your dispatches with links will be viewed as much more valuable by those following you (and shorten the links by using services like http://bit.ly)

Not validating others — Twitter is not a ME community, it’s an US community. Don’t always ‘tweet’ about yourself as that often comes across as a monologue. Twitter is a dialog, so you need to let others know that you agree, disagree or appreciate the information that they have posted. The best way to validate others in Twitter is to ‘retweet’ what they have posted with your two cents added.

Long conversations between two users — Don’t alienate your followers by having long one-on-one conversations with a single user. If it isn’t really for the rest of the followers, learn how to use the DM (Direct Message) section of Twitter.

Use 3rd party applications — The Twitter Web site has limited capabilities for managing your account, but programs like Tweetdeck are indispensable for novices and veterans alike. If you have a smart phone, check around for free Twitter applications that will give you the freedom to tweet (with pictures even) from your phone.

Many that read this may think ‘I don’t want to share that much about myself.’ My final word of advice: if you aren’t social by nature, then SOCIAL media may not be for you.

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show