How Do You Explain Twitter To A Newbie?

By Brad Shorr of Word Sell, Inc. – follow him @bradshorr

Trying to explain Twitter to the uninitiated can be a challenge. Twitter is so new, so different, and used in so many ways, it’s difficult to wrap your arms around it. I’ve come up with a couple of metaphors that seem to get the point across pretty well – I’ll share them in a sec.

But I’m betting the collective wisdom of TwiTips can come up many more, so maybe this post can help lots of people get a handle on a tool they really need to understand if they’re involved in any kind of business at all. tavernTwitter is a tavern. You walk into a crowded bar and there are all kinds of conversations going on. At first it sounds like a lot of noise, but if you listen closely you’ll realize these conversations run the gamut – deep, serious, funny, irrelevant, irreverent – you name it. Sometimes business deals get done. Sometimes you’re just killing time. You drift in and out of these conversations, but you always leave the bar knowing folks a little better, knowing what’s going on a little more. That’s what Twitter is like.

clownsuit01newTwitter is a three-ring circus. Let’s mix metaphors right away and say that Twitter is the Wild West of social media. Anything goes. At the circus, there’s nothing but action. Something amazing is going on everywhere, and no two performances are alike. But every performer is pushing the limits, trying something new, taking chances on a big stage. You don’t really know what to expect – all you know is the ordinary rules that apply to everyday life are suspended and that something marvelous is going to happen. That’s the attraction, and that’s what Twitter is like.

Can Twitter even be boiled down to a simple metaphor? If it could, that would be nice, because it would save new users quite a bit of time and frustration. So how about it – how would you describe Twitter to a newbie?


  • May 27, 2009

    I’m seeing more ads about twitter on adsense these days. This is great for adsense publishers.

    Nice post Brad! RT for ya.

  • May 27, 2009

    Maybe these work better in a face to face conversations.

    They don’t seem to make much sense to me.

    My experience is that people for most part do not want to use Twitter in order to have a ‘random conversation’.

    For most part people I speak to want to ‘achieve’ something with a tool they use.

    So I try to give real life business examples on how Twitter could be used in order to help a given business, raise awareness, collaborate and so on.

    That usually seems to work and people say ‘oh I see now I get it’, but they will not jump in and open an account from there on.

    I have also had some people who have signed up, but cannot seem to consistently apply themselves to it for whatever reason.

  • May 27, 2009

    I’m loving the Tavern metaphor, Brad. Great post! You don’t know how many times I’ve been approached by people who have no idea what Twitter is (let alone what a computer does) and have had to explain it to them. These examples will surely help.

  • May 27, 2009

    Twitter is a fabulous cocktail party mixed with all types of people, with a wide range of agendas, where you can step into conversations, learn, share, support & grow, as you build connections you never imagined. How’s that?!?

  • May 27, 2009

    My mom recently asked me to explain Twitter to her. I told her it’s like a radio with lots of stations, and you can choose which ones you tune into. Sometimes a station will mention another station, so you can check it out and decide it you want to listen to that one too. And since you also have your own station, all the other ones can tune into yours as well, if they want to. It sort of got the point across, but it still doesn’t quite capture it. My final advice to her was, the best way to learn about Twitter is to just jump in. :-)

  • May 27, 2009

    Twitter is like going to your local middle school, handing out crack cocaine and mega phones.

  • May 27, 2009

    Its like a constant ongoing phone conversation without the bill….lol
    I explain to my friends that its similar to texting but more social, and that seems to do the trick

  • May 27, 2009

    The best metaphor that works for me with both newbies and older folk is that Twitter is a radio talk show (known as ‘talkback” in Australia) where everyone gets to contribute without a host moderating. People can discuss and participate in current ‘trending’ topics or just ‘call in’ with whatever they want to talk about. Others can just ‘listen in’ to the chat without having to input.

    My older parents find this easy to understand as it relates to a communication frame of reference they understand.

  • May 27, 2009

    In trying to explain Twitter to my husband, I said it was like having an index card on which you can write anything at all–provided that it’s no longer than 140 characters. Anything you write on it will be transmitted across the globe to other index cards, and your card will likewise pick up anything other people write on their cards. So if you had this magic index card, what would you write on it? Reminders. Recipes. Quotations. Links. Jokes. Book recommendations. Notes to particular individuals. News alerts. Weather reports. Advice. Gossip…. Twitter is pretty much anything you want it to be, briefly put.

  • May 27, 2009

    I like the party metaphor. I describe Twitter as a cocktail party. You walk into a room of noise. Focus on a few conversations. You can sit back and eaves drop or be an active participant. If you leave the room to go to the restroom, when you return you don’t try to get everyone to rehash everything you missed but instead just jump back into the conversation stream.

    I like to point them to my posts Can you rely on Twitter for breaking news? and Are you in The Conversation?

  • May 27, 2009

    It’s like speed-dating without the dating.

  • May 27, 2009

    Attempting to define the undefinable. Well, I tell people it’s a global chatroom, at which point, they can make of that what they want. Your two analogies are good, too. They nailed it on Desperate Housewives, of all things, but it flew by so fast, that I can’t remember what she said. Something on the order of, “Instantaneous Updates, that the user requests….” but that’s a paraphrase, I’m sure….

    Might be an interesting crowdsourced video… Walk up to people and say, “What is Twitter?”

  • May 27, 2009

    I say that Twitter is a national (sometimes global) party line that let’s you put your finger on the pulse of what the country’s talking about at any given moment in time.

  • May 27, 2009

    My favourite Twitter analogy is coined by Ida Aalen in Twitter explained as an informal dinner party. (Translated from norwegian by Google Translate)

  • May 27, 2009

    Explaining twitter to uninitiated is interesting! In a similar post, I related it to Hall Conversation Meets the Internet.

  • May 27, 2009
    Natthan Davies

    I think Twitter is like a garden fence, you lean over and chat with the neighbors . when you first move in it’s just pleasantries bvt it deepens over time.

    The thing is it’s the largest garden fence in the world!

  • May 27, 2009

    Here’s how I explained Twitter and other social media to a friend…

  • May 27, 2009
    David DeWitt

    With Tweetdeck Twitter is like a circa 1990s IRC chat room. That celebs and politicians happen to be in.

    So, yes, like a tavern

  • May 27, 2009

    I like both of those. Well said. I always say, “Twitter is like recess.”

  • May 27, 2009

    Very good, to me the Tavern and Circus and cocktail party metaphors make sense! This is an easy explanation to someone who is just now adopting social networking and facebook into their world. Thanks for sharing!

  • May 27, 2009

    As I explain on my blog, Twitter is the office community I no longer have:

  • May 27, 2009

    As I explained in March about the time my barber asked me to explain Twitter while I was sitting in the chair, I said, “It is part text messaging and part blogging, with the ability to update on your cellphone or computer, but constrained to 140 characters.”

    She nodded and understood. Can’t get much simpler than that.

    Taverns and circuses are the typologies that should be part of a crowdsource experiment I ran last December: 14 ways to describe Twitter

  • May 27, 2009
    Elizabeth Ciccantelli

    Twitter–Massive osmosis of the human spirit.

  • May 27, 2009

    It’s lik laying in bed listening to birds chatter in the morning

  • May 27, 2009

    Blogging for Hemingway. Notes to the net.

  • May 28, 2009

    it s very difficult for me to explain twitter to a newbie ,because it has taken some time for me to understand twitter ,but once you understand what twitter is you are not going to leave it single day.

  • May 28, 2009

    What surprises me is, there’s all this talk on the internet about what Twitter is and how to explain it and so on, and it is in fact extremely simple. Yet everyone and their mother seems to find Facebook perfectly simple to use, and I–after more hours than I’d care to think about –remain utterly flummoxed by it. I really don’t get this discrepancy.

  • May 28, 2009

    I make twitter backgrounds, and my friends always ask me what is twitter?
    I always sound a little crazy when I’m trying to explain it… hehe.

  • May 28, 2009

    That’s a good question, because I was in doze type of explanation and I face different kind of user, some that they just can’t understand me, other that take it right away, and some that no matter how much I explain it to them they don’t understand, it’s like print in to me because its incompressible.

    But still it’s fun to have and bring new user to twitter, and ones you are there you are able to fallow doze that you would like from actor to news, from all around the world.

    Thank you for the pots.

  • May 28, 2009

    Thanks one and all for the insights, descriptions, humor, and conversation. All these different images of Google have truth in them, which I guess indicates how versatile Twitter is.

  • May 28, 2009

    Really liked your Tavern example. It makes it just so simple to understand.
    Thanks 4 sharing :)


  • June 7, 2009

    To start I always think of Twitter as a huge 24/7 party with people from all over the world… you feel a little bit lost in the beginning, say hi to all, interact, keep walking and talking with many people, then you start to focus on what you want, have fun, find people that has same kind of interest learn, call friends to join the party, it is a mix of DisneyWorld meets LasVegas, Hollywood/Bollywood meets Cannes and Cable News, Main Street meets Wall Street and BRIC**, Silicon Valley meets Politics, Sports meets Art and Spirituality and …much more
    Back to the Party :)

    ** Brazil, Russia, India, China

  • June 26, 2009

    I’m subscribed to twitter but don’t quite get it ( I’m very computer literate but older… is that the problem?) Both texting and Twitter make me feel like a slave to the phone. I have this feeling that I don’t want or need info about the personal activities of everyone around me and then some.

    If you are continuously paying attention to your phone/twitter/texting… how do you get real work done? When do you connect personally rather than randomly? Why do you want to talk with/connect to people you don’t know? Is that even safe? Are those around you annoyed when you check your phone every minute? It drives me nuts when my teenage daughter texts me instead of calling. Says it’s easier! Not for me… half the time the message is encrypted in text language and it takes forever to make any kind of plans. I’d rather have short talk on the phone. It’s kind of rude to check the phone all the time — when you are with someone you should be paying attention to that person rather than a personal electronic device…

    I don’t seem to be able to get enough done each day anyway (and I don’t tweet or text!) — How can I justify typing everything out on that little bitty keypad? It takes a loads of time to keep checking phone texts & twitters.

    So, do you twitterer’s spend any time without a phone? Inquiring minds want to know: How and when you get real work done with the constant interruption of tweets and texts? Do superiors at work allow texting/tweeting while you are at work? At one time most companies even frowned on personal phone calls… Tell me how you do it! Tell me why it’s good… Tell me how much of your time is consumed by your phone texting and tweeting… thank you tweeters ;-)

  • March 11, 2010

    try explaining it to a 70 year old that knows little about the web and computers. not easy.

  • March 19, 2010
    @not register as yet

    I like to get to understand twitter,I like following certain well known stars etc.

  • March 23, 2010

    I stand by my original estimation of Twitter, in that it’s a global chatroom. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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