Everything you need to know to start tweeting, hashtagging, and following, on a social network perfectly suited to Apple’s smartphones

Of late, Twitter has gained a certain mainstream acceptance. Usernames, hashtags and tweets routinely appear on websites, on TV shows, and in print. But despite having over 300 million active users, and more than half a billion tweets being sent via the service every day, Twitter can baffle those not yet immersed.

The thing is, Twitter can be great for all kinds of reasons. You can get breaking news first, converse with others who enjoy the same things you do, and follow people you admire from all kinds of fields. Twitter is so often dismissed as loads of minutiae being endlessly flung on to the web, but it’s really a melting pot of information, entertainment, and personalities — and it happens to be a perfect match for mobile.

This guide is your entry point, covering the basics, helping you get started, and listing the best Twitter apps for your iPhone.

Twitter terminology

Users on the service have usernames that begin with an @ symbol — ours is @tapsmart. Once you’ve registered an account and chosen your username, you can post ‘tweets’ — messages of up to 140 characters in length. This limitation stems from Twitter’s origins that demanded compatibility with mobile phone text messaging, but it also promotes brevity.

TapSmart's Twitter profile.

TapSmart’s Twitter profile.

The tweets you post are displayed on your profile page, in reverse chronological order. This feed is accessible on the web at twitter.com/[your username], or (typically) by tapping your account’s name or icon in an app. (Using Twitter’s settings, your tweets can instead be made private, only accessible to approved followers, but a public feed is the norm.) Tweets can include images, which are uploaded to Twitter and expand when a thumbnail is tapped/clicked. When you link to certain sites online, media may also be integrated into your tweets, for example Soundcloud pages and news site headlines.

Following and favorites

Anyone can ‘follow’ anyone else on Twitter, but following is asynchronous, unlike ‘friending’ on Facebook. On following accounts, their tweets will appear in your Home timeline, in reverse-chronological order. Any tweet can be reposted on your profile timeline by ‘retweeting’ it, with an optional added comment via a quote; a tweet can also be flagged as a ‘favorite’, which needn’t necessarily denote agreement — many Twitter users consider favorites akin to bookmarks.

A typical Home timeline.

A typical Home timeline.

Note that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use Twitter after you’ve signed up. You might choose to be highly active in terms of posting, using it like a microblogging service or a public messaging system with friends who also have accounts. Alternatively, you might mostly ‘lurk’, primarily using Twitter to follow news services, accounts related to your hobbies, or the thoughts of celebrities.

Get started with Twitter

The best way to get started with Twitter is to dive right in. Download, install and launch the official client on your iPhone, and tap ‘Sign up’. You’ll need to provide a real name, username and password, along with a phone number (for activation); if you’d prefer to activate your account via email, scroll down and tap ‘use email instead’.

Twitter's initial launch screen.

Twitter’s initial launch screen.

Your username can be abstract or a real name. This is entirely your choice, but avoid identifiers (so, for example, don’t use your birthdate as part of your username). Since every Twitter username is unique and millions are already in use, you might have to get a bit creative, but try to keep things short and memorable. (Your username can be changed later, although when doing so, any previous handle can be taken by someone else.) Regarding your password, make it complex, preferably creating it with a password manager.

Your first steps

Twitter has what’s referred to as an ‘on-boarding’ service, rather than dumping you in at the deep end. On securing your account, you’ll be asked to choose subjects you have an interest in: news; entertainment; comedians; science; and so on. You then get a selection of recommended accounts to follow. Note that follows can be amended at any time later, or you can just skip this stage entirely and start with a blank slate.

Recommended accounts during sign-up. Feel free to follow or ignore them.

Recommended accounts during sign-up. Feel free to follow or ignore them.

You’ll be asked during this process to provide information for your profile page. Again, this can be somewhat anonymous or very public in nature, depending on your wishes. The profile content is, suitably, limited to (roughly) tweet length, and can include email addresses and usernames. Your location can be vague or omitted entirely. Adding an account image is a good idea, though, because those without them are associated with spammers. But it needn’t be a photo of you — just something you’d like people to associate with your account, and that also works quite small, since it will be displayed next to your tweets in people’s timelines.

Tabs and tweets

Once you’re inside the app proper, you’ll have access to four tabs: Home; Notifications; Messages; Me. On choosing a tab, the buttons at the top of the screen will change in context, enabling you to perform appropriate actions.

Home is the Home timeline, showing a scrollable feed of tweets from people you follow. Images can be tapped to display them. Tap a link to load it into the built-in browser, or tap-hold to get further options, such as launching the page in Safari or sending it to Reading List. If you launch Twitter after a long absence, your Home timeline will list what it considers the most important tweets from ‘while you were gone’. This can be useful if you follow quite a few accounts and don’t want to scroll back through many hundreds of tweets to find some potential gems.

Tap-hold a tweet for an actions list.

Tap-hold a tweet for an actions list.

At the bottom of every tweet you’ll find tiny buttons for replying, retweeting, or flagging it as a favorite. If you’re not following the account that posted the tweet (because it’s a promoted advert, or has been retweeted into your timeline by someone you do follow), you’ll see a button for adding the user. This button has the same icon as the larger one at the top-left, which enables you to find people by their relationship to your existing follow list (Tailored) or their prominence on Twitter (Popularity). If you at any point want to view an account’s profile page, tap their image or username. You can then view their profile details, tweets, media (uploaded images) and favorites.

Searching and tweeting

Tap the search button (the magnifying glass) and you’ll see trending (popular) topics you can explore. Alternatively, start typing a search term and related accounts and search possibilities will appear. Tap any to view. Search-term results enable you to flip between Top Tweets (the most popular) and ‘All Tweets’ (everything).

At the top-right of the Home tab is the all-important compose button. Tap that to load the screen for creating a new tweet. As you start typing, you’ll see how many characters you have remaining. You can optionally include your location by tapping the left-most button above the keyboard (beware the privacy implications of doing so); start the process of adding an image from your Photo library by tapping the camera button. Note that adding images takes up characters.

Composing a tweet.

Composing a tweet.

To post your tweet, tap Tweet. If you want to save it for later, tap the cross button at the top-left and then ‘Save draft’. (A draft button will then appear above the keyboard when you subsequently enter the tweet composition screen.)

You’ll notice Twitter’s keyboard includes @ and # keys at the bottom right. Those are essential to the service. Use @ to send someone a public message. (People who follow you both will also see this in their Home timelines.) If you wish to reply to or mention someone and have the reply directly in your Profile timeline, then convention is typically to place a period before the @. For example:

.@tapsmart’s got great new iPhone guides online!

The # is for applying hashtags to your tweets, which enable tweets sent by multiple users to be ‘grouped’ by subject. #Some #people #go #a #bit #overboard #with #these, so avoid doing that. Generally, hashtags are best restricted to showing public support for campaigns, or when being part of an ongoing conversation with several people.

Notifications, Messages and Me

The Notifications tab is the place to see public replies to you. It also informs you when someone follows you, or when one of your tweets is retweeted or flagged by someone as a favorite. By contrast, Messages is for ‘direct messages’ that are private between two or more individuals. By default, you can only direct message someone if they follow you (and someone can only respond to you if you follow them). The top toolbar provides a ‘mark all as read’ button at the left and a compose button at the right. On tapping the latter, you must select an account to send a message to.

The Me tab is for accessing your profile page. Here, you can see how many followers you have, and how many accounts you’re following. (Tap either figure to see an accounts list for each.) You can also use the tabs to switch between your tweets, media and favorites.

A Twitter profile page.

A Twitter profile page.

To the right of your profile image are three buttons: settings (a cog); accounts (two heads); ‘Edit profile’. The last of those is for tweaking your account details; the accounts tab enables you to add further Twitter accounts that you can switch between (for example, you could have a personal account and one for a business); and settings provides access to four options: Settings; Lists; Help; Sign Out.

The last two of those are self-explanatory. The first, Settings, takes you to screens that enable you to fine-tune notifications, protect your tweets should you feel the need, and decide whether you want to receive direct messages from anyone rather than just people you follow (rarely advisable). There are also General settings for toggling sound effects, adjusting text size in tweets, and selecting an alternate read later service (Instapaper or Pocket rather than Reading List).

Creating lists and staying sane

Lists are an interesting feature of Twitter. In someone’s profile, you can tap the cog icon and then Lists to see lists they’ve created. Tap one and you can view its tweets and members and also subscribe to it. Typically, people create lists based around certain topics they’re interested in, and so they can be a great way to access a focussed set of tweets.

In your own profile page, the Lists button details the lists you’re subscribed to and lists your account is a member of. You can also create your own list. To do so, tap the + button, give the list a name and description, and denote whether it’s public or private. Next, type usernames and select them to add them to the list.

Adding a list.

Adding a list.

If you end up following a ton of people on Twitter, consider creating a private ‘filter’ list, containing your absolute favorite accounts. That way, you can still browse hundreds of accounts in your Home feed, but more carefully scrutinise the relative few in your filter list. However, Twitter in general is mostly for dipping in and out of. Don’t try to read every single tweet, because that way lies madness. Do delve into the service, though, because while there’s admittedly a bit of a learning curve, Twitter can be fun, informative, and a great way of finding out the news and people’s opinions; and, as we’ve said, it’s perfectly suited to iPhone.

Speaking of which, here are our top three iPhone Twitter apps we reckon you should download…

The best Twitter apps for iPhone

Once you sign up for Twitter on your iPhone, your username and password are stored by iOS. This means you can easily swap between Twitter apps in seconds. All your tweets, lists and direct messages will be present and correct, regardless of the app you’re using.

Twitter (free)

The official Twitter client is the one we’ve worked with in this feature. On iPhone, it’s pretty good, despite placing some ads in your feed and requiring too many taps to get to your lists. Even if you end up using another Twitter app, the official one’s worth installing for its excellent Notifications feed.

Tweetbot ($4.99/£3.99)

This app’s long been a favorite of Twitter power users. The interface is polished, and it boasts plenty of useful features, including powerful muting, customisable tabs, tight integration with third-party services (such as Instapaper), and the means to swap out the main feed for a custom list.

Twitterrific (free + IAP)

Created by the Iconfactory, Twitterrific feels like a Twitter app for people who appreciate design and great interfaces. It’s readable, with tweakable themes, and really nice to use. For convenience, replies and direct messages can integrate into the main feed, and if you purchase the notifications IAP ($1.99/£1.49), there’s a great Apple Watch extension for owners of Apple’s wearable.