The Twitter hashtag for AAAS this year is #aaas09


What's a hashtag, you ask? It's a handy device that allows you to follow a particular event or topic on Twitter. Get set up with Twitter and you can follow your colleagues who are attending the AAAS conference later this week, as well as contribute to the conversation. Get commentary on former vice president Al Gore's talk as it happens, find out where the cool people are meeting for dinner, and much more.

What is Twitter?">What is Twitter?

Twitter is a social networking tool, like Facebook and LinkedIn. It is often described as a microblogging service, but the beauty of this service is it's very fast and lightweight, and you don't need to establish your own blog to connect with others. Instead, you send your posts — short text messages called tweets — to a centralized site, Other users can sign up to follow your gems, and you can follow theirs. The tweets show up as a steady stream in a browser window.

And if you know how to use hashtags, you can follow everyone who is tweeting about the AAAS conference or another event and join in the conversation, even if you're not there.

How do I get started?">How do I get started?

Sign up at Twitter with a username and password. Then start posting your tweets — 140 characters or fewer — in answer to the question "What are you doing?" An on-screen counter tells you how many characters you have remaining.

Find people to follow. In the Find People tab you can have Twitter search your address book for Twitter users. In the same tab you can also search for people by name (click on Find on Twitter). In addition, watch for Twitter links and usernames in email signatures, websites, blogs and elsewhere. When you click on a "follow me on Twitter" type of link, the person's recent tweets will usually pop up on a new Twitter screen; you can then click on the Follow button just below their name. If they don't provide a link, search for their username in the Find People search box or append it to (for example: and then click on the Follow button.

Find organizations and news outlets to follow. You can get breaking news and other tweets from a growing number of organizations. The FDA, for example, is now posting peanut butter recalls on Twitter as Nancy Shute reported this week. The New York Times regularly posts links to stories. My local paper posts weather reports and breaking news throughout the day. Sign up to follow any of these kinds of sites and all subsequent tweets will be sent to you.

Encourage people to follow you. Give people your own Twitter address and then post interesting items. Interact with others, help out those who ask questions or are looking for sources, and don't tweet about what your cat is doing or what you ate for lunch. Your list of followers, also known as your posse, will grow over time.

How do I follow an event?">How do I follow an event?

An easy way to follow an event is by using a hashtag. In general, a tag is a keyword that you assign to an article, a photo, or just about anything online that you want to label or categorize and be able to search for later. A hashtag, such as #aaas09, is simply a tag for a tweet. All you have to do is include the hashtag in your tweet text. For example, you might tweet, "#aaas09 Who is speaking at 2 pm in the main hall?" When everyone uses the same hashtag, all such tagged tweets can then be aggregated and followed.

Before an event starts, nose around to see if anyone has established a hashtag for it. Hashtags can be assigned by anyone. Sometimes they are designated by a conference organizer. Other times, they are assigned by whoever names it first, and are then spread through various social networks. For example, I first learned of the #aaas09 hashtag from a post on Nancy Shute's Facebook page. Searching around a bit, it looks like David Harris of symmetry magazine was the first to suggest it, and a few days later Joe Bonner at Rockefeller University reinforced the idea of using it as the conference hashtag.

As the event unfolds (and afterward), you can find and view all of the tweets with the chosen hashtag (whether you are already following those people or not). There are a few options for doing this. Search for the hashtag at Twitter search. You'll see a feed of the tagged tweets. You can periodically refresh that search, or you can have the tweets sent to your preferred feed reader, such as Google Reader (click on the orange Feed button).

Another option is to use a third-party interface for your hashtag stream and all of your Twitter interactions. The Twitter home page is pretty plain; everything shows up in one column. But with TweetDeck, for example, you can sort your incoming and outgoing tweets into a number of columns (friends, family, replies, etc.). One of those columns can be set to continually search for and display tweets with the event hashtag.

A third option is to have all the tagged tweets sent to you by email, using the TweetBeep service.

If you want to follow the coverage on a mobile device, check out some of the applications for using Twitter on an iPhone, Blackberry or other device. You can find apps at and

(Some people also suggest signing up to follow the hashtags service, which is supposed to track any hashtags you use and aggregate them. But reports are that this service is not working well at the moment.)

What else can I do with Twitter?">What else can I do with Twitter?

People are finding new uses for Twitter all the time. You can:

  • Report or follow breaking news. In recent months, Twitter users alerted others to the path of a tornado in Colorado, sent out on-the-scene updates on the violence in Mumbai, and tweeted from inside a crashed airplane.
  • Alert your regular readers that you've published a new article or blog post. Or let people know about an interesting article you've come across (Twitter automatically converts long URLs into short ones).
  • Find a source — often within minutes — by sending a request to your followers.
  • Give a speaker feedback on his talk — before he has left the stage. (Maybe this is not entirely welcome, but it is done.)
  • Build an audience for your forthcoming book.
  • Correspond privately with someone by prefacing your tweet with "d username."
  • Share photos on TwitPic.
  • Get an email alert when you, your publication, or any subject you follow is mentioned on Twitter, at TweetBeep.
  • Join a cause. For example, see Twestival, a site that is coordinating 175 city-based events around the world in support of clean water.
  • Get up-to-the minute news on which publications are closing and which editors have been laid off from themediaisdying.
  • And of course, find out where your friends are going for dinner at AAAS.

If you want to learn more about Twitter, the Poynter Institute is offering a live Webinar on February 11: Twitter for Journalists: New Channels, New Cycles for News. You can attend the live online event or download it later. Tweeternet also has lots of good information and links to resources and applications.

Catherine Dold is a freelance health and environment writer in Boulder, Colorado.

Feb. 8, 2009

Drexel Science and Health Communication Concentration