How to participate in a Twitter chat

Participating in a Twitter chat may seem a little disorienting at first, but a tool such as can make the process quite easy, even for a Twitter newbie.

Twitter chats are a great way to converse on a topic while sharing the dialogue with a large audience. And unlike the chat rooms that were so popular years ago, Twitter chats leverage the power of your existing social network while still providing a come-and-go environment for casual chatters and dedicated listeners.

SPJ members have organized #SPJchat, a weekly Twitter chat on journalism issues, and several other journalism innovators have developed a weekly chat called #wjchat that has become quite popular. But for someone new to Twitter chats, and especially for someone new to Twitter, trying to make sense out of either of these weekly events can be quite disorienting.

The first thing to understand about a Twitter chat is that there is no special chat function on Twitter. Rather, chatters have simply chosen to include the same hashtag in all of their tweets. And when that hashtag is isolated from everything else that’s being said on Twitter, you have a Twitter chat. See this page in the Twitter Help Center if you don’t know what a hashtag is; understanding hashtags is key to understanding how a Twitter chat works.

It’s certainly possible to participate in a Twitter chat from the interface. All you have to do is include the hashtag — in the case of SPJ Chat, that would be #spjchat. There’s no moderation that takes place in a Twitter chat so your tweet is immediately included in the conversation. To listen in on a chat using the interface (or the Twitter iPhone app if you’re away from your computer), just search for the chat hashtag.

There’s an easier method than the interface, though. The free online tool TweetChat significantly simplifies the process by providing you with a streamlined interface that’s ideal for Twitter chats. TweetChat also automatically appends the chat hashtag to your Tweets and allows you to “Feature” certain users and “Block” others, which can be helpful in busy chats when you don’t want to miss out on the comments of especially insightful contributors.

Added Jan. 18 at 9:30 a.m.: Digby Killick (@Dogby52) adds a useful tool: the Chromed Bird extension for the Google Chrome browser. He writes: “It appears as a small icon in the top right of the browser that expands when you click on it, so you don’t need to run a separate program. It tracks your tweets, @mentions and direct messages and updates in real time, but one of the best features is that you can get it to track searches, so all you need to is have it monitoring a hashtag to follow a chat …” I would add that his suggestion should work using any of the various Firefox add-ons and you could definitely accomplish the same task in the Rockmelt browser, which has these functions built-in.

There are likely other great Twitter-chatting tools out there. If you know of one, leave it in the comments. Also, be sure to check out #SPJchat and #wjchat. #SPJchat takes place at 7 p.m. Central time on Thursdays and #wjchat is held at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesdays. Be sure to follow @spjchat and @wjchat for updates and weekly previews of upcoming chats.

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