Twitter, the minimalist-format social network that claims to have 100 million users, has built its reputation around its simplicity. Members can post to the service only in text messages of 140 characters or less. They can include a link to another site, or to a photo or video. They can repost other users' messages on their own pages. They can send each other equally spartan private messages. That's about it -- or so it seems.
Look more closely, and you'll find that Twitter has been augmented, by the company and by other Internet toolmakers, with a virtual appliance store of simple, utilitarian features, widgets, and services that let users find interesting posts, create photo albums or search Twitter more efficiently. Yet unlike, say, Facebook or Microsoft Office, Twitter's power tools are easy to find and easy to figure out.
UPLOAD PHOTOS: If you post a link to a photo from one of a long list of other sites, Twitter automatically will display the image in the right-hand "details" pane when another user looks at your post. These sites have a post-to-Twitter option on their image upload pages. There are 16 supported sites: DailyBooth, DeviantArt, Etsy, Flickr, Justin.tv, Kickstarter, Kiva, Photozou, Plixi, Twitgoo, TwitPic, Twitvid, Ustream, Vimeo, Yfrog, and YouTube.
MAKE A GALLERY: Moreover, Twitter creates a photo gallery page that displays each user's last 100 uploaded images. (There's no similar feature for video.) An independent site, Hashalbum, automatically groups Twitter users' images into separate albums based on any hashtags included in the post to Twitter. For example, hashalbum.com/aquapets displays all the images whose URLs were posted to Twitter with the hashtag #aquapets.
SAVE YOUR FAVORITE TWEETS: Everyone seems to know that you can retweet another user's Twitter post on your own account's feed. But many users have never tried the star-shaped Favorite button next to Twitter's Retweet button. Clicking on Favorite below a Twitter status update adds it to your personal Favorites list, much like bookmarking a Web page in your browser. To see your Favorites, click Profile at the top of Twitter's Web interface, then click the Favorites tab on the left-hand side of your profile page.
The Favorites list is more useful than it seems at first. Unlike a Web page you found on Google, a Twitter status update might be impossible to find in a few days because of the nearly 300 million new entries posted to Twitter every day and the small odds of a unique search keyword match in the short text posts. Just try to find that cogent comment about Paula Deen from last week. Even finding your own posts from a few months ago can be tiring. If you post something you want to save for the ages, click Favorite on it yourself.
DO POWER SEARCHES: Twitter's default search box often returns too many results, mostly from the last few hours, for just about any popular keyword. To zero in on a specific entry, click Refine Results near the top center of Twitter's search results page. That will take you to Twitter's advanced search page. There, you can specify further search filters, like a specific Twitter username or hashtag.
The separate Web site Topsy goes even further, so much so that Twitter recommends Topsy in its official guide for journalists. Topsy indexes Twitter updates with additional information that can be searched, like a date range for finding older posts. On Topsy, you can also filter out specific keywords to find, for example, posts that include the word "lady" but not the word "gaga."
USE KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS: Instead of clicking around with your mouse, you can operate Twitter by using your keyboard. Type a question mark at Twitter's Web interface to pop up a panel with a list of the available keyboard commands. There are nearly 20 listed, including "r'' to retweet a post, or "/'' to jump to the search box. Some of the commands require two keystrokes, like "g p" to go to your profile page.
There are two more commands not listed on that pop-up panel. Typing "s p" will pop up a box to search only posts that include links to photos, and "s v" will initiate a similar search for videos.
CROSS-POST TO FACEBOOK: You have the option to cross-post a Twitter status update to your Wall on Facebook by logging into Facebook and installing the Selective Tweets app. The app will prompt you for your Twitter username. So anytime you end a Twitter update with #fb, that post will also be sent to your Facebook page as long as you're logged into Twitter and Facebook in your browser.
USE TWITTER VIA TEXT MESSAGES: Most smart phones have plenty of free Twitter apps that you can download to send and read Twitter updates on your phone. But you can also use Twitter through SMS messages. Send a photo, and Twitter will upload and link to it. Text users can also follow you without needing a Twitter account of their own by sending a text to 40404 with the message, say, "follow paulboutin."
JUMP TO THE INTERESTING STUFF: Twitter has created two new buttons that appear next to the Home button atop the page: Connect and Discover. Connect is a one-click way to see everyone who is interacting with you on the network. It displays a list of members who have recently followed you, mentioned you, retweeted one of your posts or added one to their Favorites list. Discover tries to figure out your personal interests based on your location, who you follow and what topics are hot, much the way Facebook's Top Stories section tries to guess which status updates you most likely want to read. The company is still improving Discover, so it should gradually get better at picking the right posts.
FIND SOMETHING LONGER TO READ: Does scrolling through one-line status updates feel like listening to dogs bark? For those wanting a more intellectual experience, Twitter users have created an ad hoc hashtag, #longreads, for posts that link to longer articles, engaging blog posts and unusually fascinating PDF documents. Sometimes you can find in-depth information on current events by, say, searching for #longreads or #longreads followed by a specific word.
With the time you'll save with these tricks, you'll be able to grab something a lot longer than 140 characters to read.