TwitterBirdShoutingImagine this: Your kids are someplace in the neighborhood, and you’re not really worried where they are because …

OK, let’s jump into our Tardis (time machine). (Sorry, I can’t resist a Doctor Who reference especially because the new Time Lord, Peter Capaldi, is 55 years old, and I’m here exulting in the accomplishments of the “Better After 50” crowd.) We’re kids again, and “after-school activity” means getting on a bike and riding a few blocks to a friend’s house. Probably our parents should have been worrying because kids disappeared even then. Still, we all yearn for the simple, connected-to-our-neighbors life (which may explain the resurgence of the “Bungalow Colonies” in the Catskills.

Now back to our regularly scheduled tech column…

…which is about Twitter and all the wonderful things it can do, like keep you connected to people and ideas and trends and news. In a way, Twitter can be that safe space neighborhood we’ve always longed for. Of course we need to be smart and not take Twitter lessons from Anthony Weiner. We need to get over the weirdness that Twitter functions because it is primarily public. (There is a private message feature, which I’ll talk about in my next column, but that is basically a potted plant sitting alongside of the blooming Twitter garden. This garden thing is one of the worst extended metaphors I’ve ever used, but I’m going to keep it up.) Once you start feeling the earth between your toes, you’ll probably like what you find growing.

Here’s what you can do on Twitter:

You can have conversations. twitter conversation

Do not ask me what this conversation is about. Also, I’ve only met a few of these people in real life. Yet I chat with them every few days, mostly about the weather or surfing or stuff like that. It’s fun. We type in each other’s “Twitter handles,” our Twitter names (mine is @wordwhacker) and add a few words. It’s like saying hi. I also talk to people I know — much the way I would send a text message. When I’m working on my computer and have something to say, I don’t have to pick up my phone or go into my email. I just tweet.

You can find out news. why you need to tweet

Not too long ago when people were waiting for Prince William to sign the birth certificate of the third-in-line for the British crown, Twitter had the scoop before the many U.S. news outlets.

A fantastic feature of Twitter is the hashtag (#), an organizing device now adopted by Facebook, GooglePlus, Instagram and other social platforms. If someone uses a hashtag before a word or phrase — #royalbaby, for instance — people can search for all tweets with that word or phrase. Sometimes someone official will tell people what hashtag to use. For instance, during the Grammy Awards, the producers kept flashing “#Grammys” on the television screen. Other times the hashtag evolves organically. People go with the hashtag others are using. News events may use several hashtags: Last autumn, as Hurricane Sandy swirled toward the U.S. East Coast and the toll became serious, the hashtags evolved from “#stormacalypse” and “#stormzilla” to “#hurricaneSandy” and “#Sandy.”

You can find your community.

Finally I’m back where I began.

Last fall I was visiting a friend with 10-year-old twins who were playing with friends the next street over in their suburban neighborhood. My friend Marianne was using a “tool” called Seesaw to follow a certain hashtag that she and her neighbors had decided to use to designate their area: #ShadySidewalks. With Seesaw, tweets appeared like tiles, and photos are immediately visible. My friend tracked her kids as they moved from a video game session in one girl’s basement (“Hey, Becca, can you move them outside?” one mom had tweeted ) to an impromptu game of basketball in a boy’s driveway. When Marianne decided it was time for her children to come home she tweeted, “Whoever sees my duo, please tell them time for dinner.” The twins were in her kitchen in 15 minutes.

As a journalist, I love following the news on Twitter. I do not love seeing all the rumors and stupidity that get passed along, all the self promotion (Read my blog! Watch my video! Buy my stuff!), all the noise. After you’ve been on Twitter for a while, though, you learn to follow people who are fun, interesting, and trustworthy, and you filter out a lot of stupidity. Your Twitter stream becomes a source of information and fun.

A big believer in the power of people working together, I love how social media promotes community building. If it weren’t for social media, I wouldn’t know Felice, Ronna, Mindy, and so many others in the community.

Next week I’ll give more specific advice for getting on Twitter and making this social platform work for you. You don’t have to be “on Twitter” to look around and see what’s up. So if you’re interested, go to and snoop out what people are saying. I’m getting a big kick lately out of the account from former President Bill Clinton. And Steve Martin provides some good howls.

So until next week, leave me any questions below in the comments, and I’ll get back to you.


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