Twitter is one of the world’s leading sources of news and trending thought, but it’s frequently misunderstood. It’s often dinged as the least-intuitive social network and it is often the last to be adopted by business users. Newbies to social media are apprehensive about embracing the platform for business: Communicating in 140 characters or less is a challenge to even the pithiest among us. And Twitter — with its handles and hashtags, acronyms and abbreviations — is cryptic to first-time users. For the uninitiated, learning to use Twitter is not unlike drinking from a fire hose of information.

But once you learn the story behind its peculiarities, Twitter begins to make sense. Here are three things you need to understand about Twitter:

Twitter got its start as an SMS messaging platform.

When Jack Dorsey (along with Biz Stone and Evan Williams) dreamt up Twitter in 2006, he envisioned an Short Message Service (SMS)-based platform. In fact, Twitter is still an SMS platform.

When SMS messaging was developed by Friendhelm Hillebrand in 1984, he set the character limit at 160. The cofounders of Twitter wanted to work within that framework. So, they reserved 20 characters for a username in each tweet, leaving 140 characters for users to state their thoughts.

Twitter’s ability to be accessed by SMS networks makes it one of the most democratic of all social networks, and it is certainly the only social network that comes close to crossing the digital divide. Such an open platform is exceptionally resistant to censorship, which explains why Twitter has become instrumental to political protests worldwide. Simply put, Twitter’s brevity is a global public good.

Could Twitter give up on SMS and allow users more than 140 characters? Absolutely, but the constraint inspires creativity and succinct expression. Twitter users have come to love it.

Hashtags have a history in tech, but Twitter made them indispensable.

Twitter hit it big at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. Shortly after, user @chrismessina suggested using the pound sign (known as the hash mark to speakers of the Queen’s English) to aggregate groups. Twitter initially rejected his proposition.

Messina’s idea didn’t come out of thin air. The pound sign has been used in techie circles since at least the 1970s. It was used in programming the PDP-11 and also in Bell Labs’ C programming language. In the late 1990s, the pound sign was used to help discover groups and topics in Internet Relay Chat (IRC). It was this IRC iteration that inspired Messina.

But Messina had to advocate for his vision. After Twitter rejected the hashtag as too geeky to catch on, he sent a private message to a journalist covering a forest fire in San Diego. Messina suggested using #sandiegofire to track tweets related to the fire, and the hashtag was born.

Now, of course, the hashtag can be found all over social networks, on talk shows and even in music. It’s a cultural phenomenon, but it started as a way to sort content on Twitter. And it wasn’t quite enough.

It took one more innovation, this time from Twitter itself, to make the stream of information it provided digestible to the general public.

Twitter lists let you take a sip from the fire hose.

The first decision most new users make is who to follow. All of the world’s leading news sources and thought leaders are on Twitter. It’s also full of people who you may know (or would like to know), hilarious parody accounts and interesting information that you had no idea you needed before you discovered it. It doesn’t take long to fill up your timeline.

But how do you keep track of it all? The secret is lists!

Twitter lists were introduced in 2009. Want to see tweets from a list of the world’s most innovative companies, as decided by Fast Company? Here you go. Want to see all tweets from official accounts run by NBA teams? Yeah, you can do that. Want to see a list of all tweets from Colliers International offices and practice groups? Ahem.

By allowing Twitter users to sort other users as they like, the list function solves the usability puzzle. Building lists can be time-consuming but are oh-so-rewarding. Lists can be public or private, and there are plenty of third-party apps to help assemble and edit them. Here’s a guide to get you started on the basics from Twitter.

Bottom line: You are missing out if you aren’t using Twitter.

Twitter allows you to get the latest news on commercial real estate, hear from CRE thought leaders and keep tabs on the industry’s largest entities in a single site. It also gives you the chance to broadcast your own thoughts and make connections with potential clients and colleagues.

Don’t be put off by Twitter, even if it seems strange at first. As you can see, Twitter’s interface makes sense after all.

Tony White has spent decades exploring discourse within online communities, and he writes about social media and digital innovations in real estate. Send him tips or questions at or via Twitter