8 Uses of the @ symbol on Twitter

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Ever wonder how the symbol "˜@' can mean so many different things on Twitter? I did, and spent some time poking around online to find the answers. Having stumbled upon a very well written, informative entry on the subject over on Chicago-based tech guru Len Kendall's blog,
ConstructiveGrumpiness, (or should I say @ConstructiveGrumpiness?), I asked Len to expand on the @natomy of the Twitter "@" Symbol, and these are the eight examples he came up with.

One of the core differentiators between Twitter and other social platforms is its non-reciprocal nature. That reality led to a heavy reliance on the @ symbol. From the early days of Twitter, this symbol has grown to be used in many different ways and will most likely continue to have an expanded purpose as users become more clever with its use. The following are just a few pieces of the current @natomy:

1. Want Attention from a Response

This is the originally intended purpose of the @ symbol in Twitterville. It's meant as a way to specify your response to one or a few members while inside a very cluttered space. Users are able to find messages publicly directed at them in the original Web client, as well as with popular desktop tools such as twhirl or Tweetdeck.

2. Can't DM (Not Being Followed)

As alluded to above, one of the main differentiators (for now) between Twitter and other networks is that you are able to follow another person but they don't have to necessarily follow you. Despite it being an open forum, there are often times when we need talk to someone privately via Twitter, or perhaps say something that isn't relevant to the entire group following you. In this case, we direct message or DM. The reality is that not everyone is going to follow each other back. Some people don't want to follow people outside a certain kind of industry and others don't want to manage so many people. Whatever the case may be, sometimes the only way to get a person's attention may be to @ them publicly asking them to DM or e-mail you.

3. Want to Associate with Someone

Although the intention of the @ is to get someone's attention, often many will @ famous or influential people on the Twitter network to align themselves with that person. Part of them is hoping that the person with a large influence may just @ them back and thus expose them to a large audience as well. The other part of them simply wants to associate themselves with a big name so others will think the person @'ing is somehow connected with the influential figure (and thus also somehow important).

4. Rhetorical

Not far off from the original purpose, sometimes an @ is thrown into the Twittersphere as a completely rhetorical gesture. Example: Person A says something funny. Person B says "@Name is a laugh riot..." Whether or not Person A actually sees the response, others will know they are funny.

5. Recognize/Welcome New Followers (or list favorites)

Twitter is all about making new connections and finding new people to learn from. There are many opportunities for people to recommend others to their network and when doing so they often recommend many at a time. To make it easier for one's followers to click through to recommended tweeters, putting the @ in front of their name will turn their username into a link.

6. Give Credit for a Link, News, Content

Besides communicating our thoughts, Twitter is also a great venue for sharing links to all sorts of places on the web. Sometimes we find links on our own via things like RSS feeds or general browsing, but often we'll see a link tha was tweeted that we think is so great that it needs to be shared with our own network as well. In this situation, after a link is tweeted, adding a "Via @Name" gives credit to the individual who found the link and shared it with you.

7. Mentioning a Brand or Person (The Tweet isn't directed at them)

Big brands and big people are all over Twitter now. Although not really necessary, the Twitter community has grown accustomed to mentioning brands in their @Format vs. just mention "Brand." Partly because this lets followers click easily to the brand in question, but also because there is a small chance the brand will want to somehow respond to comment being made about them.

8. Spammers Trying to Get Your Attention

As mentioned in point two, not everyone has to follow those who follow them. The beauty of that system is that we don't need to be bombarded with communication from parties that we don't want to hear from. Alas, as the popularity of Twitter grows, so does the population of spammers who want to leverage the networks user base. Given the popularity of 3rd party clients, like twhirl, that notify you every time you receive an @ message, spammers have increasingly been able to infiltrate the gated community by setting up automatic scripts to @ you when a certain keyword is mentioned. Try tweeting about a few popular categories like vacations, food, or finance and see what happens.

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In addition to his blog, you can find Len Kendall on Twitter here.

And I'm on Twitter now, too, and can be found here.

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August 17, 2009 - 4:57am
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