Manners and ettiquette in the age of social media are sticky business. We boldly go where no pixel has gone before and, like all new endeavours, for a time things are, well, awkward. (Yes, I’m talking about Facebook). Netiquette is simpler on Twitter.

Except that, for the uninitiated, the virgins or the timid, it looks like a giant mess with random mutterings, declarations, banal observations and links everywhere. But there are rules, social mores, and etiquette. Here’s what’s what.

Follow with wild abandon

Unlike Facebook which requires reciprocity in friendship, you can follow anyone you like on Twitter and they don’t need to give permission or follow you back. There are still a few Twitter users with locked accounts, but this is rare.

So get on and follow with wild abandon – with 218.3 million active users (according to Tech Crunch) that shouldn’t be difficult. Pay attention to the ‘who to follow’ suggestions on the left side under your profile. And yes, you can also –

Harvesting friends

Harvesting new online friends from existing friends is a very common, though less admitted, practice, particularly when starting a new social media account.

To harvest friends, find a friend on Twitter whose opinions you respect and view who they follow. Should your good opinion of them still stand strong after viewing who they follow, you can go ahead and follow who your friend’s follow.

It’s not polite to admit to doing this, not unless you are actually good friends IRL (in real life).

Introduce yourself (without introducing yourself)

For those still struggling with trying to understand online communication within the confines off offline communication, it’s about to get even weirder – you don’t have to formally introduce yourself to someone on Twitter to start a conversation. In fact, introducing yourself will highlight your virginal status and, much like losing your virginity, the chatter will be somewhat awkward.

So how do you start talking? You start by listening. After a while, you’ll see that some Tweets are thinly-veiled open-ended statements that are crafted to encourage comment or response. So go ahead. Chat.

Start with @ and the user’s name (such as @brook_mccarthy) or you can put the name in the middle of your tweet, as if you were using it naturally in conversation. It’s perfectly acceptable to talk to someone on Twitter that you don’t know. How else would anyone meet anyone?

Don’t be weird

This is a totally serious and equally obscure point to talk about because awkward weirdness is hard to define. The best advice I can give to avoid weirdness is to act natural (okay, so maybe it’s not natural for you to talk to strangers online, but trust me, it’ll become natural with practice). Don’t try to adopt a persona that doesn’t fit. You’ll look like one of those dudes whose sleeves and pants are too short.

Be natural. Be normal. Don’t gush if you’re chatting to someone famous. If you want to compliment someone, use choice details to demonstrate that you’re familiar with what they do. Demonstrate your intelligence, point of view and unique insight. Listen first, then respond. But do respond. Don’t be shy.

Don’t just push out links

Twitter has always been a great source of curated information – it’s always been normal and acceptable to share your blog posts, articles or others’ blogs and articles on Twitter. However, too many businesses set-up an automated system that tweets out every new blog post or sends Facebook updates automatically to Twitter and figure they have it sorted.

Pushing your content out onto Twitter is not a good strategy and it’s squandering what Twitter does best – build networks and relationships. You need to make time for chat. Yes, you can do this in front of the TV, while taking a taxi or sitting on the loo (don’t announce this). Relationships are not about constantly sharing information. You need conversations.

Ask for help

It’s totally appropriate to ask for what you’re seeking – far better to make your agenda clear than to be some weird guy sniffing around all obscure and shady-like.

Ask questions. Use a hashtag in front of what you’re seeking so that you can join the conversation about that very thing. For example, if you’re seeking advice on branding, use the hashtag #branding so that people who are also using or following this hashtag are more likely to see your Tweet (they’ll do this by clicking on the hashtag itself to see all Tweets, or by clicking ‘Discover #’ in the top left to search for trends and hashtags there).

If you don’t ask, you won’t get. I’ve found suppliers for my face-to-face courses goodies bag by putting open-ended tweets out, as well as brand spanky new friendships IRL (in real life) and business-to-business collaborations.

Don’t over-hash it

Hashtags give your Tweets far more reach than they would otherwise have by making it easy for people interested in the same things to see each other’s tweets. But they can be abused.

Try to stick to no more than three hashtags per Tweet. You don’t have to use any at all if you like though if you’re putting out a call to action related to your business offerings, you’ll probably want to use at least one.

An over-hashed tweet looks like spam. And people don’t like spam. Yes, it’ll possibly help to grow large following on sites like Instagram (where you’re not restricted to the 140 characters of tweets) by stuffing in every hashtag that has any minor relevance to your pictures, but 140 characters isn’t much. So keep it clean.

Take it offline

Another thing that social media virgins don’t always get – social media is not meant to replace face-to-face relationships. Each are an extension of the other. As the internet-famous saying goes “Because of Facebook, I realise I don’t really like my friends. Because of Twitter, I like friends that I’ve never met”. Yes, this originated on Twitter, surprise, surprise.

When the time is right, you can (you should!) meet friends IRL that you met through Twitter. You can do this one-to-one or through a meet-up. All over the world, groups are coming together in meet-ups. They already know each other and they’re already friends – they’ve just never met face-to-face before.

Twitter is a fantastic networking tool. Dream about running a retreat in Bhutan (or is it just me)? The first step in any big business plan can be Twitter – doing anything new requires a leap of faith, knowledge, expertise and experience – all things that someone on Twitter likely has already.

Reach out and meet people who know things, do things or live in places that you have plans for. In an leap of faith, you need an ally. Twitter is full of them.

Say ‘hi!’ on Twitter. I won’t bite.