Understand Twitter: How to decode the jargon

"Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" (from the Twitter website)

Twitter is one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the world. It is a tool to send short messages, of 140 characters or less, to your followers. What can you say in just 140 characters? As it turns out, quite a lot!

Once of the best features of Twitter is its ease-of-use -- because it can be installed on your mobile phone, you can simple login in whenever you have a few moments to spare and send out a few tweets. 

Twitter, however, is only as interesting as the people you follow. So make sure you find and follow interesting people and interesting conversations. Many South African journalists and Members of Parliament and NGOs are on Twitter, as well as a host of regular South Africans engaged in daily discussions. 

Twitter can look and sound very confusing to the uninitiated. But once you learn a few basics, you’ll easily read and understand the flow of tweets.  

Um, What’s a “Tweet”?

Firstly, a “Tweet” is a 140-character message. The short message format allows twitter to update the entire twitter universe instantly, in real time, and broadcasts those tweets to your feed.


The tweets you see on your homepage is the stream or newsfeed. It is comprised of tweets from all the people you follow, as well as those re-tweeted by the people you follow.  

Sounds simple enough, but you will soon confront a bewildering syntax of special characters and abbreviations.  However, if you can make sense of a few of the most common ones, you can jump right in.

The Language of Tweeting


The at sign, @, directs a tweet to a specific person using their Twitter handle.  If you want to send a tweet directly to Nonprofit Network, start your tweet with @nponetwork, eg.

@nponetwork This is a sample tweet. Only people who follow both me and Nonprofit Network will see it. 

When you begin your tweet with an @, it will be seen by the person you are sending the message to, and in the newsfeed of people who follow both you and the person you are tweeting

If you would like the message to be seen by everyone who follows you, either start your message with a period, or simply mention the name later in the message. Eg.

.@nponetwork This tweet will be seen by anyone who follows me, regardless of whether they follow Nonprofit Network.


This tweet will mention @nponetwork but will also be seen by anyone who follows me. 

RT, or  retweet

A tweet preceded by “RT” means that it has been retweeted by someone, in other words, forwarded on to their followers. When you see a tweet you’d like to share with people who follow you, click the RT button. This will automatically send the tweet to your followers. 

For the tweet

Nponetwork: Here are 10 tips on using twitter. Visit our website: http://www.nonprofit.network.org

Your RT

RT Nponetwork: Here are 10 tips on using twitter. Visit our website http://www.nonprofit.network.org

When you heavily edit or modify a tweet, it is a courtesy to identify it as a mRT (modified retweet) e.g.

Your mRT

This is a great resource, check it out!  mRT Nponetwork: Visit our website http://www.nonprofit.network.org

Of course you could just copy and past someone else’s tweet without bothering with “RT” or “mRT”.  But that would be bad social media manners. Think of RTs as citations or acknowledgements. 

Hashtag (#)

A hashtag is a search/discovery tool that you to find tweets based on topics. (e.g. #BudgetSpeech, #Vavi). You can either enter a hashtagged  term in the searchbox, or click on a hashtag to see all the tweets that mention the term in real time — even from people you don't follow.  Hashtags are used as subjects but sometimes also as a punchline that gives context to the tweet. For example:

Trevor Noah @TrevornoahEskom is trying to keep Africa's reputation of being "The Dark Continent". #NoElectricity

      • Don't #spam #with #hashtags. Don't over-tag a single Tweet! 2-3 #hashtags max per Tweet.
      • When you’re driving a fundraising/awareness campaign, choose a short hashtag that is direct, to the point and represents your event or brand, for example: #madeinmovember
      • It is also a good idea to have a unique #Hashtag that really speaks to your campaign/organisations/cause. Examples of unique #Hashtags include: #InyatheloAwards, #NGOJobs, #OperationShoebox, #YouthFund, #NPODialogue, #GivingTuesday, #onlinedonations #festivegiving)
      • Examples of other (more generic) #hashtags for the non-profit space: #nonprofit, #philanthropy #grantmakers #charity #fundraising #donors, #Givingback, #civilsociety)