I have a lot of friends who are on Twitter, and also quite a number who are not. When you hear people talk about Twitter, they talk about how amazing it is with its instant connectivity, all of the cool people you meet, etc., etc. What they're really talking about is the mature stage of Twitter. It's not what you see when you first get there, unless you're being invited by a friend who will begin by introducing you to a large number of pre-existing Twitterfolk. So for those who are less familiar with Twitter, I thought I'd describe the stages of its development for me, by comparing them to the life cycle of a butterfly.
1. Egg stage
You have a Twitter account. You don't follow anybody so the Twitterverse looks like an empty room. You try to find things to say and feel like you're talking to yourself, so you hardly say anything. If you try to invite people to see something you've done online, you're met with resounding silence. Maybe a person or two notices you and gives you a follow but there's little interaction.
How to move to the next stage: Ask your friends if they're on Twitter, and follow them. Take Twitter's follow suggestions if necessary. Find the Twitter accounts of groups you may be associated with. Whenever someone follows you, swing over to their profile and see what they're talking about. They might be a spambot (block!) but if they're human and interesting, follow them.
2. Caterpillar stage
You follow enough people that you're getting some interesting tweets coming in. You're also tweeting a bit more yourself, both socially and with content. You know how to use @ signs to contact particular Twitterfolk. The Twitterverse looks bigger and starts to have people in it: you have an incoming stream of information, and maybe you also have a friend or three, or have made acquaintances who care about your tweets. You get really hungry and start following people, and it becomes more and more likely that these are people you discover through tweets that come indirectly to your Twitter stream, via re-tweet. If you announce something to your followers, a few people click through; if one of your tweets hits a really well-connected person, you may see a wave.
How to get to the next stage: Keep doing what you're doing. Keep your eye out at the edges of your leaf. If you see interesting content, engage with it. Especially if you run across a highly-connected person, interact and engage with them. Follow them, because they will be passing on lots of cool information and new people to get to know. Don't underestimate the importance of simple greetings and expressions of solidarity, like sympathizing with people or cheering for them when they need it. You would do it for your friends, and this is important: These are your friends.
3. Butterfly (Flutter) stage
You're really in the wind now. There are no more walls, and butterflies are in flocks all around you. You've figured out the hashtags marked with # (though you may still be learning how some existing ones work). You're still doing social and content tweets, but you can contribute to hashtags. Sometimes your post will reach a few people, and sometimes it will reach waves of people you never imagined. You can also use hashtags as guideposts to help you know where to fly. Everything is connected, and you can see a tiny connection path when it shows itself, follow it and discover an entirely new "region" of interconnected people. You might attend a hashtag chat or follow a hashtag you're interested in to see what you can discover. You start seeing people you know sending messages with @ signs to other people you know. You might rediscover someone you met twenty years ago because they happen to be on Twitter and the wind blows them your way (this happened to me).
How to handle this stage: read what you want to read. Don't be afraid to unfollow if you're feeling overloaded, but don't feel obliged to read everything everyone posts, either - just read the wind when you stop in and see where it takes you. Tweet what you want to tweet, considering that you're speaking into a crowd; don't feel obliged to report every part of your day, because that's not necessary and it may exhaust you. Realize that there's more out there than you could ever process on your own. Explore and have fun.
I'm sure there are meta-levels of Twitter expertise which I haven't touched on. That's just because I haven't been there yet. Maybe when I get there I'll be able to find myself a new metaphor... Until then, I hope you like butterflies.
You can find me on Twitter here: @JulietteWade