Whether playing a part in a tabloid scandal or a political uprising, those Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer seem inescapable. Even Apple gave Twitter the seal of approval earlier this month, with the announcement that the service will be integrated into the heart of iOS 5, the new iPhone software. For new users to the service, the first step is to head to the Twitter website and sign up for a free account. Your next step should be to download a desktop or mobile app, because they make it easier to scan through tweets, save your favourites, compile lists of users and share photos and links. Available for a variety of smartphones, the official Twitter app, also called Twitter, keeps things simple. It gives you four views to choose from: a feed of updates from the people you follow, replies to your tweets, an inbox for your direct messages (private messages not seen by everyone on Twitter — see panel), and a search page that also shows what topics are popular on the site. It’s more than sufficient for your first steps into the world of Twitter.
Got the Twitter bug? Now move on from the standard app. TweetDeck, which was bought by Twitter last month, is a good choice if you switch between using Twitter on a phone and a computer, because it syncs your account between both, so you don’t end up reading the same tweets twice. It uses a columnar layout to allow you to scan updates, replies and direct messages easily; lets you create new columns to sort tweets into topics and lifestyle areas such as messages about work, from your family or from news or blog sites; and will pull in contacts and messages from many other social networking services. But it can become overwhelming: leave the real-time updating feature switched on in the desktop version and tweets become an unstoppable stream that can be hard to keep track of.
Like TweetDeck, HootSuite uses columns to separate updates from your replies and direct messages. The difference is that it is geared towards handling multiple Twitter accounts and other social media services, including Facebook — useful for anyone using Twitter for professional purposes. Also handy is that, as replies come in to your Twitter account, HootSuite allows you to assign them to other people in your business. Plump for a paid subscription — from $6 (£3.70) a month — and you’ll get additional tools, such as the Google Analytics online marketing service. HootSuite has such a wide range of options and settings that it can be offputting at first; persevere and you’ll have a great app for managing a business’s web presence and engaging with customers.