Filed Under (Geekstuff, Internet, Social Media, Technology) by Sean on June 15th, 2008 at 10:15 am

Since Twitter‘s popularity is ever accelerating, resulting in it almost becoming a utility, not unlike email, I wanted to take a moment to lay out some details about how communication takes place using it. I still find many do not realize how @ replies work and as a result their tweets are not received by their intended audience.

The problem arises when a twitter user tweets about what another twitterer is doing, e.g., “@ted is kicking my ass in Wii Tennis.” Let’s say that @bill is the sender of this tweet. Let’s assume that both @bill and @ted have @sue as a follower. @sue will get the above tweet on her twitter stream, as intended. Let’s also assume that @betty follows @bill, but not @ted. Here is where things get dicey. @betty will not get this tweet on her twitter stream, even though she follows @bill who sent it! It will still appear on the public timeline. The problem is that Twitter assumes that all tweets that begin with @username are intended as a tweet directed at that user. In this case, Twitter assumes that @bill’s tweet above is being sent to @ted, when that is clearly not the intention. An additional unintended consequence is that this tweet will appear in @ted’s replies tab when @ted is logged into twitter through the web.

The lesson to be learned here is to never begin a tweet with a @user unless it is intended as a reply or tweet to that user.

How do we get around this such that we re-frame this tweet so its original intent is realized? Simply insert a word, character or space before the @user as appropriate, or, better yet, exercise those elementary school grammar muscles and rephrase the tweet altogether, e.g., “getting my ass kicked by @ted in Wii tennis.”

There is an exception to the behavior that I’ve outlined above. On your Settings page, there is a Notices tab. Contained within that tab is a section called “@ Replies.” The default setting (and recommended setting if you follow more than a few dozen people) is “@ replies to the people I’m following.” If you select the “all @ replies” setting, then you would get all @ messages from someone you follow even if you don’t follow the user to whom the tweet is addressed. If @betty above had this setting chosen in her settings, she would get @bill’s tweet above in the second paragraph. If @betty followed 400 people, however, and each person sent an average of only 3 tweets per day addressed to people @betty didn’t follow, she would get an additional 1,200 tweets per day! I personally wish Twitter would allow you to set the @ reply settings on a per followee basis. For example, if @betty followed @bill as above, and @bill was a very clever twitterer or A-list twitterati who communicated with followers that @betty would perhaps also be interested in following, then she could optionally select a custom @ reply setting for @bill such that she would see all his tweets, even if they were directed at people she didn’t follow. Likewise, she could decide that she doesn’t want to see @willy’s @ replies if they aren’t directed at her or people she follows.

I hope I’ve accomplished my mission of clearing up how @ replies work in Twitter, and more importantly, compel twitterers to stop starting tweets with @ if they aren’t directed at that person!

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Dr. Ding on June 15th, 2008 at 10:39 am #

Thanks, Sean! A very lucid post. I could have used it when I first joined Twitter and was essentially stumbling around like a drunken sailor, talking to lamposts and such.

Erin on June 15th, 2008 at 11:37 am #

Reading this just gave me a headache. ;)

F. on June 15th, 2008 at 12:24 pm #

Indeed. Good lessons. I choose to turn off the @bob replies, because seriously, I don’t want to be involved in EVERYONE’S conversations, especially with people I don’t follow. I have some massive Twitter users on my list, and I don’t care about their individual conversations. Sure, I’m missing some tweets that way, but I figure, I’m getting what I need to, and the rest is all gravy!

Dave on June 17th, 2008 at 12:15 pm #

@maslowbeer I find it interesting how Twitter’s use of the “@” sign is cropping up in more common places and other sites around the interwebs.

Plurk, Brightkite, etc.

I’m sure they did this on purpose. Just like OpenOffice made many of their UI controls and shortcuts mimic MS Word’s to keep people familiar with the UI.

Sean on June 17th, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

@Dave Indeed you are right. Even though Twitter users actually invented this usage, I’m curious if it predates that from use on blogs, specifically where one commenter is replying to another (as in this comment).

[...] are addressed to multiple people in a chain. These replies also appear to follow the same rules I pointed out in my previous post about Twitter in how @Replies work (alas it still appears most people don’t understand these important points, however). For [...]

Grace Rodriguez on January 19th, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

Thanks for setting me straight, Sean! ;-) It would be nice if Twitter web would just add a “retweet” function, so I wouldn’t have to “replY” then “RT:” Is there a petition circulating for that?
- @gracerodriguez

Sean on January 19th, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

Grace – who knows but several clients like Twitterfox have retweet shortcuts that do just that!

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