Concise Guide to Understanding Replies, Mentions and Direct Messages on Twitter – Part 1 of 2

by Robert Dwyer of The Wellesley Wine Press – Follow him @RobertDwyer

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A subtly confusing aspect of Twitter, even for people who have been using the service for a while, is understanding the differences between replies, mentions and direct messages. These concepts are confusing because they’re different than E-mail and aren’t necessarily the same as on other social networks like Facebook. The goal of this piece is to help well-meaning people from inadvertently annoying others on Twitter, or worse, accidentally sharing private information publicly.

This piece describes replies, mentions and direct messages in terms of how they’re used from the Twitter web interface. Once you understand how things work on Twitter’s website it’s easy to map these things to use within Twitter clients like TweetDeck or TwitterBerry.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Today we’ll talk about replies:

Replies

In it’s simplest form, a reply occurs when you see something that another user has tweeted and you want to respond to it in a public way. A reply is any tweet that starts with “@” followed by a user name.

For example, if I wanted to respond to the following tweet I’d click on the reply button:

twitter1

…and then the Twitter “What are you doing?” box changes to a “Reply to” box and the text is populated with “@makerstable:

twitter2

I’d then fill out my reply and click the reply button to send the tweet:

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@makerstable would then see this tweet appear in her Twitter feed -and- it would also appear in her list of “Tweets mentioning @makerstable”. This last point is important because “Tweets mentioning” or “mentions” for short provide a way for users to notice the tweets that are most important to them- tweets about themselves!

A reply doesn’t necessarily need to be a response to a specific tweet. It can be simply a message to a specific Twitter user. For example, if I simply wanted to ask someone on Twitter a question I could say “@BostonTweet Who makes the best burrito in Boston?” Further, the person you’re targeting with the reply doesn’t even need to be someone you follow on Twitter. You can reply to anyone and it doesn’t even need to be a response to something specific they’ve said recently.

When you reply to a user, that tweet is viewable to everyone on Twitter. However, it will only appear on other users’ Twitter feeds if they are following the person that the tweet starts with. Say for example you follow @makerstable in the example above. You would see my tweet that was a reply to her in your Twitter feed. If you weren’t following @makerstable, you would not. Either way, if you viewed all of my tweets (by clicking on my username in Twitter) you’d see this tweet.

How to use replies:

Replies are a great way to engage people on Twitter. It lets people know that you’re listening to what they’re saying and not just following their updates. It’s also a great way to respond to people who aren’t following you but have asked a question that you might be able to help with. Say you own a wine shop and you sell a particular wine. You could create a Twitter search for that wine and when you noticed someone tweet “Does anyone know of a wine store in Boston that sells Cakebread?” You could reply to them and let them know that you do. Using Twitter as a lazyweb can be powerful.

How not to use replies:

It’s not really that useful to frequently reply “ha!” “lol!” or “so true!” to something someone has said. This can be annoying when a group of people with similar interests follow each other and your well intentioned tweets begin to fill up someone’s Twitter feed. Also, it’s not a good idea to reply without providing context. Twitter has a notion of threaded conversations, but it also moves pretty fast so it’s a good idea to reply with context as to which tweet you’re responding to. Instead of “lol!” say “@mnik That’s hilarious! Whenever I hear the word ‘webinar’ I cringe too.”

Important points to remember about replies:

  • Replies don’t necessarily need to be responses to something specific someone has said
  • Replies are public so be careful what you say
  • You can reply to someone even if you’re not following them
  • Limit the use of inconsequential replies. Some people don’t like it when Twitter is used as a chat room.

Question of the Day: What other nuances about about replies weren’t obvious to you when you first started using Twitter?

[Read Part 2 of this post here]

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Comments

  • September 25, 2009

    I’ve always likened Twitter interactions to being in a crowded train station.

    When you walk in, you can hear everyone else around you. But once you start communicating with one person (aka. replies), that one person hears you along with everyone else. Direct messages are like whispers that only you and they can hear…

    It has always seemed to help newbies understand!

    – Jason Drohn

  • September 25, 2009

    useful information, thumbs up!

  • September 25, 2009

    If you like to answer someones tweet and you think this could be interesting for all your followers, just start with a short word like “Hey @NAME,” “Yes @NAME, I think…”

    In this case you will generate a Tweet which shows up at the mention-stream of @NAME and at all your followers, not only the ones who follow @NAME

    :]

  • September 25, 2009

    These are priceless gems that needs thorough understanding to effectively use Twitter to your advantage. Thanks for sharing!

  • September 25, 2009

    Hi…

    You are right Calaelen, but you also have to read the title of this article.

    My understanding is that this is a series that will show some of the proper ways communicating with Twitter.

    You have to think outside the box, it is not all about exposure.

    More then likely we will see some of your points in the next article.

    Cheers.. Are

  • September 25, 2009

    Thanks for giving this a read and for the tweets everyone. I appreciate it.

    @jasondrohn That’s a great analogy.
    @twthosting @SoftwareCritics Thanks for the kind words!
    @Calaelen @TwtrCoach You’re absolutely right- more on that tomorrow.

  • September 27, 2009

    The “reply system” is what bugs me the most about twitter, since it is not a reply system at all. Whenever you use a @someone tag you are mentioning someone and this does not constitute a real reply because:
    - there is no context preserved. Suggesting to incorporate some context in the tweet (wasting part of the 140 characters) is mandatory since there is no way for the recipient to know what you are responding to.
    - conversations lose value quickly, and became useless after few hours since they are impossible to organize. What you see is only a list of reversed order tweets from two persons that you must search in their personal timeline and order according to their timestamp.
    Whenever I reply to someone status on facebook or to an e-mail, I expect further replies to be accessible from the starting point (the status), being kept under it or similar. A permalink for a reply tweet is kind of useless since you read that and you say “What this guy is talking about? Maybe I should lazy load the timeline of the one he is responding to up to 2008 and see if I can find the original tweet and guess which one is in the list”.

  • November 18, 2009

    Robert: This was a very useful article and I linked to it on my blog (see address above). My only suggestion is that you ask TwiTip to provide a link to part 2 on this page and vice versa. — Steve Schildwachter

  • September 8, 2010

    I have been looking all over the place for this. I am new to Twitte and was having some problems with the reply system. I have sent messages to some people I started following and it didn’t show up on their page.

    I’d type @name and then the messages. I’d go over to their page and don’t see the tweet I sent. Problogger is one such person. What am I missing?

  • September 10, 2010

    @SteveS1 thanks for the suggestion- Darren added the link from Part 1 to Part 2 a while back.

    @barryb64 when a tweet includes someone’s user name they will see it appear on their http://twitter.com/#replies page. Or, if they’re using a client like TweetDeck it’ll appear in their Mentions column. However, other people won’t see it if they look at someone else’s Twitter page.

    For example if you mention @ProBlogger, Darren would see it in his replies/mentions but if I go to http://twitter.com/problogger I wouldn’t see it. I would only see tweets that originated from @ProBlogger. It’s unlike a Facebook wall in this respect. The only way someone would see your mention @ProBlogger is if:
    a) They follow you -and- ProBlogger
    b) They go to your Twitter page
    c) They did a Twitter search for the occurrence of “ProBlogger”

    Hope this helps,
    Robert

  • September 11, 2010

    Thanks Robert for the info. Hopefully, this will help other beginners. I admittedly was expecting something similar to Facebook’s Wall.
    Thanks for the other materials on best practice when RTing. :)

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