The 12 most confusing things about Tweets, Retweets, Replies and Direct Messages

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Because different interfaces create and display Twitter messages in different ways, depending on your interface, you may have an entirely different idea of what a retweet is than someone else does. And also because tweets that look similar can act in different ways, people take a long time to learn how messages on Twitter work.

Here are the twelve things that confuse people the most about tweets, retweets, replies and direct messages.

► 1. Tweets that start with “@…” are mostly private and won’t be seen by many people.

These are known as “@messages,” and are pronounced “at messages.” As private as they are, there is a trick you can use to make @messages be seen by everyone. And it can help you make friends quickly on Twitter.

Some people call this Twitter preventing you from eavesdropping. Here’s how it works: If you are @Girlfriend on Twitter, and @Boyfriend sends you this tweet:

@Girlfriend Dinner tonight?

None of @Boyfriend’s follower’s will see it unless they also follow you. (However, it can also be found in Twitter search, or if someone visits @Boyfriend’s Twitter page directly, e.g. Twitter.com/Boyfriend.) The most common error is sending a tweet something like this:

@TweetSmarter is very helpful—if you’re looking for help, contact them.

None of your followers will see this tweet unless they already follow @TweetSmarter! You need to rewrite the tweet so more of your followers can see it, and the easiest way is one of these methods:

  • .@TweetSmarter is very helpful—if you’re looking for help, contact them.
  • If you’re looking for help on Twitter, try @TweetSmarter. They’re great!

For a detailed table covering all the possibilities, see Meg Pickard’s great table of replies & DMs here.  If you are seeing tweets from someone you follow that start with “@…” that means that either:

  1. They are writing to someone you also follow;
  2. Twitter is having errors
  3. You didn’t notice that it was a Twitter.com “native retweet” (explained next).

Here’s how native retweets work:

► 2. You will sometimes see Tweets from people you don’t follow

UDPATE: Twitter is beginning to put ads from people you don’t follow into your stream…another way you may see a tweet from someone you don’t follow.

There are two main forms of retweets. One is sent out looking like a regular tweet, but include a tiny retweet icon. This is the Twitter.com “native retweet.” All others use some form of writing in the tweet to let you know it is a retweet (see #3 below). It’s confusing, because Twitter prefers the kind they created, and so don’t provide much information on the other kinds of retweets (again, see #3 below).

What you need to know is how to identify one of the special kinds of retweets, or it will look like people you don’t follow are posting tweets in your timeline. As Twitter says “If you see a message from a stranger in your timeline, look for the retweet icon – the retweeter should be someone you follow.” See the white highlighted area in the picture below—this is what the retweet icon looks like:

However, many Twitter clients will let you easily edit retweets. But when you do, what are the rules of etiquette for how you can edit a tweet to turn it into a retweet? Start here:

► 3. Retweets need to include the username of the original tweeter, and not necessarily the author or website usernames.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s perfectly FINE to include the usernames of an article’s author or website—it’s just not required to make it a retweet. Twitter actually has rules regarding this, but they are not strongly enforced. The general idea is that if you see a tweet and then make a tweet of your own as a result, you need to credit the person who wrote the tweet, and crediting anyone else is optional. Here are some handy guidelines:

  1. What are the standards for retweeting?
  2. Retweet Glossary, Syntax and Punctuation
  3. Tips and benefits of being brief when retweeting

► 4. Twitter turns some things into links…but only if you do it right

If you write a bunch of characters that start with “http://” Twitter may turn it into a clickable link for you. So, for example, if you type “http://blog.tweetsmarter.com” into a tweet, it will appear as a hyperlink that users can click on, e.g. http://blog.tweetsmarter.com. But if you only write “blog.tweetsmarter.com” it only might become a clickable link. Why? You should start URLs with “http://” and there must NOT be any space after the //

But even then, it could be turned into a WRONG link. If the URL is the last thing you type in a tweet, you should be fine. But otherwise, make sure you have a space at the end of the link! Without the space, Twitter may think that what you wrote next is part of the website URL.

Two other things Twitter turns into links are #hashtags and @usernames. The same rules apply: If the #hashtag or @username isn’t the last thing in your tweet, be sure it is followed by a space. However, some punctuation marks are okay, for example @TweetSmarter: will be turned into @TweetSmarter: but if you’re not sure, put a space after the #hashtag or @username to make sure the link is accurate. And that there is NOT a space after the # or @. So an error might look like @ TweetSmarter —which will NOT be turned into a link in a tweet because of the space between @ and Tweetsmarter.

► 5. That funny “#” sign can be a menace or a friend

If you put a # in front of a word, Twitter will turn it into a link, and some websites might display your tweets. This is called a “hashtag” and would be written like this: #hashtag. Some people believe it helps their tweets be seen by more people, and so they figure using more is better. Wrong. They make your tweets hard to read, and using too many often hurts more than it helps.

Generally if you don’t understand how to use hashtags, avoid them. And usually try not to use more than two or three per tweet. (One or none is often best.) Only the most popular or current #hashtags generally have any beneficial effect on your tweet being seen by more people. Here are a few references about hashtags. Of course, if you have a deeper understanding of how hashtags are used, sometimes it makes sense to use a bunch of them in a single tweet. But not usually.

► 6. How do tweets become pictures, videos or documents?

Some interfaces make it appear that a Tweet is a picture or video, and people get confused. What you need to know is that you can put a link IN a tweet to a picture, video or document (or anything else that can be linked to). But first, the picture, video or document has to be posted somewhere on the web. See this list of services that make it easy to take something from your computer and post it via Twitter.

► 7. Why did my tweet disappear?

There are a lot of different scenarios possible. One that is often overlooked is that people type what is intended to be a public message into a DM box. At least once a week someone I follow sends me a Direct Message something like this

“Hey @Mom, I’ll bring the potato salad on Sunday.”

And I have to write them back and tell them that @Mom never saw their tweet, because they accidentally sent it to me as a Direct Message!

If you start a tweet with certain word, such as “get” Twitter interprets it as a command, and your tweet will disappear!

For other reasons regular tweets sometimes go missing, see this. If you have sent a DM that disappeared, here is one of the weirdest and least-known features of Twitter: If you send someone a DM, and they delete it, it disappears from YOUR sent DMs as well as their received DMs. That’s right, people can remove DMs that you have sent from your outbox by deleting them from their inbox!

If someone deletes their Twitter account (or it is suspended) all the DMs they sent to you will disappear as well.

► 8. Why did my private tweet get posted publicly?

There can be several reasons for this. Usually it’s because you were using “d” or “dm” to create direct messages and you had a typo. (Starting a tweet with “d @user” or “dm @user” turns it into a direct message if that user already follows you.) Specifically, you have to be careful about replying to DMs that you receive by text/SMS. See Twitter explanations for common public DM problems here.

► 9. An awful tweet got sent to me—why can’t I delete it?

You can delete DMs that are sent to you (Direct Messages) just as you would an email message. But if someone send a public tweet, you can’t delete it. It would be like being able to delete other people’s blog posts. You can only delete tweets that you created, or any kinds of Direct Messages.

However, you can hide tweets you don’t want to see from some interfaces by creating a search that filters out what you don’t want to see. The best example of this is TweetDeck’s global filter.

► 10. Why can’t I edit my retweets? Other people do!

The retweet function on Twitter.com creates a special kind of retweet than can’t be edited. Some ways to be able to edit retweets include:

  1. Use a browser plugin that creates editable retweets.
  2. Copy/paste and write your tweet by hand.
  3. Use something other than Twitter.com to tweet from, such as HootSuite or TweetDeck.

► 11. Why do certain retweets behave strangely?

Why can’t I see some retweets?

If someone uses the Twitter.com retweet link (classic retweet) it won’t be seen in some situations:

  1. Twitter.com classic retweets do NOT show up on Twitter lists. So if you follow someone via placing them on a list, you won’t see ANY of their retweets sent via the Twitter.com classic retweet link.
  2. Once someone has retweeted a tweet using the Twitter.com classic retweet link, it won’t be repeated in your timeline. So if you missed the first retweet of it, no matter how many more people retweet it, it won’t be shown in your timeline ever again.

Why can’t I retweet certain tweets?

This is most likely because you’re viewing a tweet from someone who has protected their Twitter account. See Twitter’s explanation here.

► 12. I’m getting DMs that I can’t reply to!

If you follow someone, that is the same as giving them permission to DM you. But only if they follow you can you send them direct messages. Sometimes people intend to follow you but forgot or had an error. So if you’re pretty sure they meant to be following you, just send them a tweet something like this:

“Hey @user will you follow me so I can reply to your DM?”

► 13. Bonus answer: “____ doesn’t work or always gives me an error!”

Many Twitter features are a little bit broken at times. Some problems can be easily cleared up by clearing the cache in your browser, so that is a good thing to try first. Otherwise, check out this reference to fixing Twitter problems, or send a tweet to @TweetSmarter with your question.

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