By default, Twitter broadcasts everything to the world, but you can be more selective about who you share with. Learn how to protect your privacy and how to follow other people without needing a Twitter account at all.
In the ongoing debate about whether there's any point to Twitter, Lifehacker is firmly on the yes side. But questions of usefulness aside, one common objection to Twitter is the issue of privacy. Many people who are happy sharing 'status updates' and other information via more controlled mediums like Facebook balk at the thought of their every observation being available to anyone who looks for it, especially now that Twitter has made search easily available.
If you're privacy-minded, that's a valid objection. However, what many people fail to realise is that Twitter does allow you to control who sees your updates if you wish -- a setting you can enable almost as soon as you create an account, though Twitter hardly goes out of its way to make that clear.
After filling out the details on Twitter's signup page, Twitter will ask you to provide email details so it can find other Twitter-using friends. Click on 'Skip this step', and do the same for the next screen (suggesting other random new users you could follow).
Twitter will then put you on its main screen, but resist the urge to type 'Just starting with Twitter'. Instead, click on the Settings button at the top right.
There's a bunch of settings here you might want to play with (most notably, you'll probably want to switch the time zone), but the crucial one for privacy is to tick the 'Protect my updates' box at the bottom of the screen. With this setting enabled, you'll be sent an email each time someone tries to follow you, and you can choose to approve them.
You can also choose to enable this setting after you've created a Twitter account. However, this won't stop tweets (messages) you posted before this setting was enabled from still being visible, and you may have to weed out any followers you already have but don't want by blocking them individually. (If you want to clean up followers, check out previously mentioned Nest Unclutterer
Neither of those are perfect privacy protections -- for instance, there's nothing to stop someone else 'retweeting' your message (just as there's nothing to stop someone copying and pasting from your Facebook account). But they're a good place to start.
Following without joining
If you're keen to protect your Twitter postings, it may be worth asking yourself what you're trying to get from Twitter. It's not uncommon for people to set up Twitter accounts mainly to follow others rather than to share information themselves, but this can backfire. Some Twitter users get miffed that someone thinks they're worth following, but doesn't want to share any information in return.
In this context, it's worth bearing in mind that you can track what others are doing on Twitter (assuming their own updates aren't blocked) without signing up. On the most simple level, this only requires adding their user name to the main Twitter domain. For instance, if you go to
you can track Stephen Fry's latest thoughts. (My father uses this approach to keep track of what his two oldest sons are up to.)
For a more automated approach, you can also add individuals to the RSS feed in your favourite news reader (check out our Hive Five on RSS readers for suggestions if you don't have one set up). Visit the user page (as described above), and there's an RSS feed link in the right hand column. Right-click on this, copy it, and add it to your RSS reader, and you're done.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?