I’ve been participating in, or monitoring, a few Twitter chats lately (#brlchat and #a11ychat to be specific), and I’ve observed some people have questions about what a Twitter chat is, how to participate, and why you’d even want such a thing. So, here’s one Geek’s thoughts on the subject.
What Is A Twitter chat
A Twitter chat is, at it’s simplest, a designated time when people gather on Twitter to discuss a particular topic.
Well, No Crap Sherlock, I could have figured that out
Oh, that’s how you’re going to be? Fine. You want the long explanation?
A Twitter chat extends the use of a hashtag by designating a specific timeframe when the chat will take place. Generally, there is a host(s) who is monitoring the hashtag and guiding the conversation. The only real difference between a Twitter chat and freeform conversation using a Twitter hashtag is that Twitter chats are moderated, probably in the loosest sense of the word.
Whoa, Geekzilla. A Hash What, Now?
Oy, make up your mind. Do you want easy, or detailed?
I Want Both. What’s A Hashtag?
Ooooooakay then. A hashtag is simply the convention of placing the hash (pound for those of us west of the Atlantic; Octothorp for those of us who were friends with complete nerds in college) symbol in front of a keyword, or space-eliminated phrase, to collect tweets relating to one topic into a searchable collection. For example, people in Lincoln, Nebraska often place the hashtag #lnk somewhere in their tweet when talking about the city. You can use Twitter search, or the search features of your Twitter client to monitor a hashtag so you can see what people are saying without having to follow everyone who is talking about the topic.
The hashtag concept was actually brought to Twitter by long-time users of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) where the hash precedes the name of a discussion channel.
Twitter chats use the hashtag concept, generally appending ‘chat’ to distinguish the time-segmented conversation from the general chatter. For example, #brlchat is the hashtag for Braille Chat, a weekly discussion about Braille and blindness topics originally instigated by Natalie from Without A Classroom (Twitter:@nlshaheen; and #a11ychat is the monthly Accessibility Chat sponsored by the folks from Deque systems.
Internet Relay Chat?
You do sure “squirrel” on the oddest keywords. I admire your spunk, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If you really want to know more there’s always Wikipedia, and the ever popular collection of Idiot quotes at bash.org.
Fine, I’ll Get Back On Topic. How Do I Participate
Many people have gotten confused about just how to participate in a Twitter chat. Do I have to log on? How will you know I’m here? How do I see what’s being said? These questions come up all the time. So, here’s how to do it.
First, if you don’t already have one, go get a Twitter account. They put the sign-up form right on the homepage.
To read what others are saying, you need a method of interacting with Twitter’s search capabilities. You can use search.twitter.com if you’re a glutton for punishment, or really really like the web interface. However, I would recommend getting a Twitter client. A twitter client is a program that runs on your computer or phone and sends and receives tweets. I’ve found that most clients are generally a lot more friendly than using the website, and give you a few more options (I’ll mention a couple later).
Whichever method you choose, you will want to access the search function and type in the hashtag of the chat you want to participate in. In my case, since I will be participating in the Braille Chat on Thursday night I would enter #brlchat. Make the search go do it’s thing, and you should soon see a list of everything that has been posted with that hashtag in the last… well, no one actually knows how long Twitter search results last for, but roughly a week is kind of a good guess… sort of.
Pro Tip: add “-rt” (without the quotes) to the end of your search to filter out retweets. So, “#brlchat -rt” would search for the #brlchat hashtag, but wouldn’t show me anything that was a retweet. Retweets are good, but if you’re watching the hashtag, seeing a lot of them can get kind of… overwhelming (and in some cases, annoying).
Cool, I See Tweeting People. How Do I Tell Them All The Cool Things I Have To Say?
The obvious nod to the Sixth Sense aside, and really we’re putting it way aside because a) really? 1996?; and b) we all knew the ending before we saw the movie. To post a message to the Twitter chat, just type it the way you’d normally type a tweet and add the hashtag somewhere where it makes sense. So, if I wanted to say that I was glad to be a part of #brlchat, I would logically say, “I’m happy to be participating in this week’s #brlchat.” There is no need to be redundant by saying, “This week’s Braille Chat is going to rock. #brlchat,” you’ve only got 140 characters, use them wisely.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to retweet something, take the hashtag off. I say this because anyone watching the chat is already going to see the message. If you want your followers who aren’t participating in the chat to see it, that’s great, but I’d recommend taking the hashtag out to eliminate clutter.
If you are replying to someone’s question, use the standard @username convention so they know it’s a reply to them, but do leave the hashtag in. This way others will see the response and benefit from it.
Will People See My Tweets if I have A Protected Account?
Only your followers. It’s not possible, while your account is protected for people who don’t follow you to see your tweets.
but I Used The Hashtag.
Doesn’t matter. It’s like screaming in space, silent is silent. You can, however, un protect your account during the chat, and re protect it later. Your tweets will come out of late-searches, but those in the chat real-time will see you. Oh, and if you do decide to scream in the vacuum of space, a protected Twitter account will be the least of your worries, and I won’t be held responsible for the implosion of your lungs.
That Sounds Super Easy. You’re leaving Something Out.
not really. That’s pretty much all there is to it. it’s just a different way of using Twitter than a lot of people are used to.
You Mentioned Twitter Clients, What Benefits Do I Get?
Well, a number actually. it’s a lot easier to save the chat if there are links, or other thoughts you want to revisit later. Generally refreshing and search result updating is done automatically. You also have the ability to do things like remove the hashtag from your main timeline. So, while I love all my friends that participate in #brlchat, I don’t necessarily want to read their chat tweets twice. I use a capability of my preferred client Tween to filter those posts that have #brlchat out of my main timeline; then they only show up in the search tab I have open for the chat.
That Client is In Japanese. Since When Do You Speak Japanese?
I don’t. The interface is in English and it’s kind of self-evident. The documentation however, is machine translated and I avoid it like the plague.
That’s Too Much Work. Your Client Is Silly
Well, take your pick of clients. I’ve also had success with The Qube a client for blind users. On the iPhone I prefer Tweetlist Pro. I don’t really have any experience with other clients. Got a favorite? Post it in the comments.
Thank you. Now That You’ve Answered All My Questions, What Are You Going To Do?
Actually, I love you, but you were kind of exhausting so I think I’m going to find chocolate and a pillow.
Anything I didn’t cover? Comment and I’ll try to answer.