Although most tweets are sent out to your entire feed, sometimes you want to respond directly to a particular person. Twitter is set up for that — all you have to do is hit “reply” — but you need to understand how it works. Otherwise, you risk sending tweets to either more or fewer people than you intend.
If you start a tweet with an @username, the tweet doesn’t go to everyone following you, but it will appear in the feed of anyone who follows both you and that person. For instance, this tweetappeared in the feeds of not only my pal @miscellaneaarts, but our mutual friends @MetaCookbook, @GingyNorth, and @antigenic. It also appears on the list of everything I’ve tweeted. If you want to communicate something that you don’t want publicly visible (like a phone number or an email address, for instance), send a direct message (DM).
The flip side of that is remembering that a tweet that starts with an @username doesn’t go out to everyone following you. If you’re referring to someone by username but the post is more about that person than to that person, put something, anything, before the username. A period is the standard way to do this, since it only uses one of your 140 characters:
You can also add a “cc: @username” at the end of the tweey. (We’ll talk in a future post about how to make sure that you’re not missing tweets where someone else is mentioning you by username.)
So when is it appropriate to hit “reply” to respond to a tweet? Pretty much any time. You don’t need to know the person you’re responding to; in fact, responding and engaging on Twitter is how you make friends there. So if someone asks a question and you have an answer, go ahead and respond:
And if you think of a witty reply to a tweet — what the heck, hit “reply” and share it. The other person may or may not respond, but it’s no biggie either way. (And I must say, the highlight of my Twitter career so far was when Steve Martin responded appreciatively when I tweeted back a joke at something he wrote.)
You can also tweet directly at a celebrity in hopes that he or she will retweet and you can cash in on all those followers — both Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) and Colin Mochrie (@colinmochrie), to name a couple of Canadians who might well have never been mentioned in the same sentence before, will do so. Try it and see what happens — I have never done it myself, and I tend not to be particularly responsive to people who do it at me (or, more often, at an account I handle for a client), but not everyone reacts to these things the way I do.