Over on her LiveJournal, Seanan McGuire talks about people using the “@” symbol in front of her Twitter alias when they talk about her on Twitter and then being surprised that she might respond, despite the fact that “@”-ing someone’s Twitter name explicitly means that your comment will show up in their reply feed — i.e., that you’re directly letting them know you are discussing them. The basic gist of Seanan’s piece, as I understand it, is that “@”-ing someone is the same as inviting them to participate in the conversation; if you didn’t want to have them in the conversation, you shouldn’t have issued the invitation.
I think Seanan’s basically correct about this. Quasi-public individuals, like authors, should accept that people are going to talk about them and their work online, and that by and large those conversations don’t need the subject of the discussion to pop in and add their own two cents. They should exercise good judgment, in short, admittedly something that authors are not always good at. But if someone is going out of their way to make sure the person knows they are being discussed, using a mechanism that they know is designed to connect that person to the discussion, then it’s disingenuous of them to then act surprised when the subject of the discussion shows up.
(I feel the same way when people title a blog post “An Open Letter to [Insert Name]” and then get huffy when [Insert Name] shows up or otherwise responds. Dude, what did you expect? You posted an open letter to them. Surely you understand that an open letter to some person is actually still a letter to that person? You don’t? Well, surprise! File that one under “words have actual meanings.”)
The way I’ve set up my Twitter client, and because I have a large ego, I pretty much see every reference to my name. My general rule of thumb is to not comment to the people talking about me without the “@” sign, since it’s about me but not to me. I might respond when I think it’s appropriate, but to be honest it rarely is. When people use the “@” sign, I assume they meant for me to see the comment, and I feel free to respond.
I don’t respond to every “@” message, because then I wouldn’t have much other time left in my day, but I could. If the fact of my responding annoyed someone, at the very best, I would slot them into the “people who don’t really understand how to work the Twitters” and then mute them henceforth so I no longer have to see them use Twitter incorrectly. Which I assume would make both of us happy (they are likewise free to mute or block me, which I suspect will have the same happy outcome).
In short, if you’re on Twitter, don’t “@” me (or indeed anyone) if you don’t want to accept the possibility that we might respond. We might, and it’s perfectly correct for us to exercise that option. If you don’t want me to talk back to you, don’t talk to me to begin with. Because if you do, I just might. Thanks.