What is the most useless invention you can think of? For me, it is the first fax machine. After all, if you are the only one with a fax machine, just who are you going to fax? And who is going to send a fax to you? When the second machine was sold, it had a little more value than the first. There was at least the possibility of  receiving a fax from one other person. Moreover, the second fax machine added value to the first machine by giving it a machine with which it could communicate.

Likewise, the third fax machine added value to both of the first two. And so it goes–every fax machine adds value to all of the others in existence.

So what does that have to do with Twitter? Twitter is dumb, or Twitter is extremely valuable. Which situation rings true for you or me has little to do with the tool itself. It has everything do to with the audience which embraces it.

To illustrate this point, just look at Facebook. When asked if they had a Facebook account as little, as three years ago, most adults would have called it a “teenage waste of time.” Now it seems everyone uses it. And everyone uses it because…well, everyone else uses it. Facebook hit the “Tipping Point” somewhere in the last couple of years. Twitter has not, at least not yet.

What’s the difference between the two? On the surface, what is striking are the similarities. “Following” someone on Twitter is the equivalent of being a Facebook “friend.” You see the list of “tweets” from those you “follow” in the same way you see the “newsfeed” of all of your friends. You can “comment” on Facebook or click “reply” on a tweet. You can click to send a “message” to just one person (which only that person will see) on Facebook, or send a “direct message” (which only the one recipient will see) on Twitter.

With all of the similarities, what are differences? Why would someone have both?

First, to get more familiar with Twitter, here is a a very good introductory video. YouTube is full of similar Twitter videos.

So how is Twitter different from Facebook? To be “friends” with someone, you must send them a request and they must approve it. You are then friends with each other. You see what each other posts. With Twitter, you “follow” whoever you like. You do not need their approval (although they can block you if they like). When you follow someone, they are not necessarily following you.

To me, the biggest difference is the “hashtags” Twitter uses. Hashtags are a way to designate the tweet is for a certain group or about a certain subject. For example, I usually include #GetOrganized! at the end of my tweets. If my tweet relates to a particular conference, such as the ASCD conference later this month, I will include #ASCD2011 at the end of the Tweet.

The advantage of using hashtags is that it allows people interested in a certain subject to find tweets others have written on that subject. It allows people who write about a certain subject to be found by people interested in that subject. People interested in the ASCD conference can search Twitter for #ASCD2011 and find tweets from people who are presenting and learn more about their topics, talk with others who are attending, and share their experiences with people during and after the conference. It’s sort of like having a large conference call.

The whole hashtag idea is very informal. There is no formal directory of official hashtags. One gets started, and others simply adopt that. Here is a collection of hashtags commonly being used in the world of education.

As a next step, I would recommend deciding what it is you want to do with Twitter. Do you want to communicate with a certain group, such as the rest of the teachers in your school? On the other hand, are you wanting to use the tool to follow topics of interest?

How will you use Twitter? If Twitter is going to be a tool to communicate with others in your school, the easiest thing would be for everyone to establish a Twitter account one day, exchange user names, and then start following each other the next day. One person “Tweets” and all of the others see it. Used in this way, Twitter would be similar to sending an e-mail to a distribution list. The difference is that instead of you adding people to your e-mail distribution list, they add themselves by following you.

The tweets you send could be announcing that school has been canceled due to weather (replacing the telephone tree many schools used previously), the current score of the basketball game you are attending, or the link to a great article you read that you think your colleagues would like.

In you want to join in the bigger game, you can use hashtags. Create a tweet and include the #edtech hashtag, and others interested in educational technology will likely see it. Create your own hashtag for your school faculty and it will be easy for your colleagues to find tweets related to the school.

Of course the best way to learn about Twitter is to jump in and learn as you go.

In the next post, I will talk about four places you could go to read Twitter.