At Unbearable At-ness of “@”

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.

42 Comments on “At Unbearable At-ness of “@””

  1. I try to only @ people I don’t know who i’m not in a conversation with if I am saying nice things about them and want them to know people are saying nice things about them. usually saying something like “@X’s book is something you’ll like. it does this thing.” And if they want to step in and say something? Awesome! (Often that thing is something like “Y was also very much like that, you might like it too.”

  2. People really believe this? I thought the purpose of @ing someone was to specifically get their attention in hopes they’d respond in some way.

  3. TIL that there are still people that use LiveJournal. The sooner that Twitter’s day passes, the better. But I guess lots of people are enthralled to know when Wil Wheaton is taking a piss.

  4. illmunkeys, as best I can tell, there are some folks who enjoy @ing at people because they enjoy the knowledge that the person will see their witty insult (or what felt like one in their mind), but are surprised to actually get a response. They’re the Twitter equivalent of the crank caller who is stunned when the person they’re pranking has a good comeback.

  5. @scalzi, you appear to have used “being” instead of “begin” in your third-last sentence.

    Autocorrect? Or are you still using a device that renders exactly what you type?

  6. I also use @ as an easy way of letting people in general know that the person I’m talking about is on twitter, and to give them a link that might lead to more info about that person.

    But most of the time I use it to chat, er, at people.

    And in the first case I also like knowing the person I’m referencing might see it, as I’m either enthusing (in the case of most sf authors) or complaining about them (politicians), and really, what’s the point of doing that so they can’t find it?

  7. Chipste, I still use LJ, and love it, but I also use and love Twitter. I don’t really care about people’s use of the bathroom, but in many professions, Twitter’s invaluable as a knowledge-sharing resource, as a conference backchannel, and for all sorts of other purposes. If a network or tool doesn’t work for you, that’s fine, but clearly others get stuff out of them. As someone who still remembers all the folks who hated LJ back in the day, I’m not inclined to complain about what makes other folks happy.

  8. You write beautifully,even when you are talking about the usage of the ‘@ sign,you are still able to make it interesting and worth a read, th@t’s @ll I h@ve to s@y. (sorry I had to do that)

  9. I’m one of those folks that doesn’t know how to operate the Twitters. All the @s and #s kind of freak me out, and fundamentally, I just don’t get the concept. I have a twitter, and I think I even follow Scalzi on it, but I don’t think I’ve actually read it in months, and the number of actual tweets can be counted on one hand.

    But LiveJournal? Really? Is that still a thing?

  10. “@” on twitter means “at” or “hey.” I learn something every day.
    “exercise good judgment .. something that authors are not always good at”
    Tiepoe alertt: “Authors” should be spelted “people.”

  11. I wish more public figures–public officials especially–WOULD respond to open letters. It would show that they’re actually listening to differing views, as opposed to living in an echo chamber.

  12. Day one of going to use twitter – read some stuff on how to use it & read twitter etiquette… Actually that’s the advice I give for all social media. First couple of weeks watch how people are using it before you jump in and start using it. It drives me batty the fuss people make because they haven’t taken any time to learn the tool and culture so they decide to be offended or call bullying due to lack of knowledge which is super easy to find & learn.

  13. I had a television actress respond to a tweet that only had her character’s name in it — not her real name, or her twitter handle, but just the character’s name.

    She called me out and rallied her fans to harass me, so I ended up blocking her. I am only blocking one person on twitter, and it is a actress that is on a major show on one of the major networks. I only have fifty followers, so she’s literally trawling the internet for mentions of her character’s name.

  14. Isn’t potentially attracting the attention of people you don’t actually know personally by @-checking them an integral part of the whole thrill of Twitter? How on earth can people be surprised that this happens? Chatting at people – as a previous poster put it – is the whole point.

    (Still chuffed that our gracious host RTed me earlier this week. The pie was excellent)

  15. I think there’s perfectly valid reasons to use someone’s twitter handle if you’re not attempting to draw them into the conversation; just letting someone else know that said person is on twitter is sometimes nice. I’ve learned about artists’ accounts that way myself. But why be cranked up if they respond?

    Of course I’m assuming you’re being neutral or praising then. I mean, if you’re doing that and slagging them it’s just rude. You’re entitled to your negative opinion of someone’s work but doing something that will insure they see is just jerky.

  16. Wait – “words have actual meanings”? Didn’t you study philosophy at the U of Chicago? Did you miss the class on Derrida? ;-)

    For myself, I just couldn’t talk that talk in grad school. I kept wanting to ask questions like, “If words have no intrinsic meaning, why should I pay YOU to teach ME?” Maybe I was wrong, but I didn’t think they’d have appreciated the humor.

    Back to your main point … Thanks for this timely post, John! Tomorrow I’m leading a meeting that will include social media / online networking, and you’ve given me a nice illustration.

  17. My nom-de-net is the name of a famous French philosopher who is centuries dead. I have noticed that people have a tendency to use @name to attribute quotes. I periodically get notices that someone is quoting him.

  18. I never @ someone unless I’d like them to respond. Sometimes I’d be amazed if they did, but I’m always prepared for it. Today I’ve been tweeting @yahoomail, because they’ve reduced functionality AGAIN and at this point only laziness is keeping me from getting a new email provider. If they respond to any of my tweets that would be fine, but I don’t expect they’ll bother…especially since they have no intention of addressing or even acknowledging my concerns.

    notmiriam, that’s appalling. It’s like the Author’s Big Mistake (responding angrily to a negative review). What a stupid actress.

  19. Twitter is a publicity channel for some people. Many actors are conscious of their public identity; I believe some of them have assistants who keep track of what is being said about them. Unlike other social networks that require approval as “friends”, Twitter is entirely public. It’s surprising that people treat Twitter as a private conversation that only their immediate friends can see.

  20. I’m sad that this post even needed to be written. Then again, I { insert impressive allusions to Twitter/’Net cred here notwithstanding the follower count in the low hundreds } which probably makes me a bit jaded.

    The panoply of ways that people find to break the Internet never ceases to amaze me.

  21. As one often confused by the ways of Twitter, I’ve heard that referring to someone who is on Twitter without using their @ name (which at least some people call subtweeting) can be considered talking about that person behind their back, but in public, and also rude. Which I guess would, together with the discussion here, lead right back to the very sensible policy of not publicly saying negative things about someone unless you feel willing and able to defend those things to that person and their friends.

  22. Honestly, when I make the conscious decision to @-check someone (whether that’s you, Seanan, whatever friend, celebrity, or political personage), it’s done with the intent and hope that the @-ed party will join the conversation… this is obviously your (their) decision to make, as your time and attention is a finite resource, but, speaking as a fan of you as a human being (as opposed to a fan of you as an author), I’m fairly chuffed when we get to have those micro-conversations… even if it’s just us making Steve Brust’s and Chris Kluwe’s heads explode with our terrible punnery.


  23. Livejournal is its own special place. I still prefer it for many types of thing. I do post more on G+ than LJ these days, but only for random rambling and talking about technical stuff where a wide audience will get it. LJ is for friends.

  24. @SpeakerBoehner has yet to respond to any of my tweets that note I’m discussing him. I wonder why…

  25. Adam Lipkin – I used to have a LJ. It’s probably still out there. I liked it fine 15 years ago. Looks like it hasn’t changed much.

    People are welcome to Twitter away, and I agree that it can be used productively. Most people use it stupidly (IMO), so not having it gives me a productive advantage. I waste plenty of time, but not with Twitter.

  26. I feel a little weird talking about people on twitter without @ing them. My tweets are public, so they can find it anyway. For me, @ing them is just a way of acknowledging that yes, I am talking about them in a public place, and I should be mindful of the fact that they might be in earshot.

    If I don’t want to converse with someone, I shouldn’t talk about them where they can hear it.

    There are times that’s gotten weird. I ended up in a discussion with a founder of a startup I was talking about the other day, and I didn’t expect that to happen. But hey, I @-ed his company. So.

    If I want to subtweet about something or someone, I’m going to do it properly. And if they find it anyway, well. Talking about people in public sometimes has that effect.

  27. If I don’t want to converse with someone, I shouldn’t talk about them where they can hear it.

    I should amend this to say “or block/mute/ignore” them. Because, you know. Sometimes I’ll get into it with someone before I realize they’re just interested in slinging rhetorical turds. Just because someone wants to converse with me/you/whoever doesn’t oblige any of us to converse with them–freedom of speech is not a guarantee of being heard or listened to.

    But I draw a distinction between “nope, don’t want to talk to you” and “how dare you butt into this conversation I started about you where you could hear it?”

  28. Speaking of weird characters and how the internet savvy should interpret them, in 2009 a Dutch judge ruled that a website owner should SEO his pages in such a way that the Google abstract of his site no longer read “Zwartepoorte … is bankrupt”. The man had been bragging to the judge about his SEO skills and the judge concluded that if he really was that good, it would be irresponsible of him to keep suggesting that a certain company had gone bankrupt.

    The judgement irked me because everybody knows (don’t they?) that three dots are an ellipsis and signify that something was left out. In other words what Google said in this instance was “Zwartepoorte [something is missing here] is bankrupt”.

    Regardless of whether people understand that @-checking a person means you invite them to a conversation, Twitter is a public site and anything said there (excluding what is said on a private account) is an invitation to a conversation. @-checking just makes it easier to find out who is talking about you.

  29. I’m with the people who not infrequently will include an @ when I am not specifically hoping to draw them into conversation, but instead hoping to point others towards them and their work. If I’m discussing an author it is a good way to let other people check them out without having to hunt down a URL or making others go out and Google. However, I don’t think I’ve ever tried to point people to an author unless it was because I was enjoying their work and wanted to share that fact, so I can’t imagine getting upset if they say something. In fact, I had a nice, short exchange with Seanan a month or so ago when I read and ADORED the egalley of her new Mira Grant book. I was just tweeting to tell others that it is wonderful and point to her, but she responded and, hey, great!

  30. Oddly, in the dawn days of LiveJournal it was intended to be used like Twitter. You were supposed to just leave little messages of what you were up to. At least that was the intent.

    I really hate when people downplay Twitter saying it’s just people talking about their eating or urinary habits. It shows an unfamiliarity with the topic and a certain amount of deliberate ignorance.

    Perhaps we can get General Ludd and Captain Swing to tweet.

  31. I had to explain to some friends what a hashtag was on Friday. Last night I watched an episode of NCIS where the team has to explain to Gibbs what a hashtag is.

  32. I always assumed that using @ was a desperate bid to get attention from the person you were talking about, but I suspect that people that are surprised are only trying to add to their twitter followers by showing up in related searches to those people. On the other hand, those people actively responding would almost certainly add to their twitter followers soooo yeah.

    I’m amazed people can have the technical know-how to use @ and not realize what it does.

  33. For us non-Twitter users this discussion has been enlightening. From context I think the hashtag works something like an HTML meta keyword? Is there a search ability in Twitter that summarizes all uses of a specfic hashtag term?

  34. MVS – yes you can search on terms in Twitter, and using the # helps to find those terms. The results returned update in real time, so if there is a discussion happening that uses that term for following the conversation (e.g. #ScalziWriterChat), you can actively follow the conversation without also following/friending all the people currently engaging in it. At least that’s how it works in the Twitter client I use.

    Other thoughts –
    I know Twitter has a reputation for being some kind of platform for celebrities (hint: only if you are reading their feed!) or can be filled with nonsense about what people are eating (hint: don’t bother following people who post stuff you don’t want to read). For myself, it has replaced the forum (remember those?) where I used to natter throughout the day with several friends in a “public” setting. It’s definitely public unless you choose to set your profile private, so yeah, if you don’t mean to catch the eye of someone you’re discussing, don’t use the @ before their name. I’ve never heard of it being rude to omit that part, that’s a new one to me.

  35. I tend to avoid @-ing people when I talk about their books or whatever else they do on Twitter. I’d feel uncomfortable using their “@”, actually, precisely because it would seem like trying to push what I’m saying to their attention.

    But I also don’t assume that just because I don’t link their twitter name they won’t still see it. I once got into a brief (and awkward, for me) exchange with the two creators of a comic after I made a clumsy criticism of it (by title) on Twitter.

  36. I don’t like talking about people behind their backs, so I’ll occasionally @ people to let them know that “hey, this conversation is happening and it concerns you”. With that comes an expectation that they might decide to jump in and tell either or both parties why they’re wrong.

    I can’t see why people don’t get that.

  37. Thanks Luna for your insight. That’s what I enjoy about Whatever; gaining much better insight — perhaps even nuance — as different participants in the thread share (or inject) their experience. Such an articulate forum!

  38. @#greg vis the Penny arcade link. Sweet, what I’ve done to my security s’ware may have worked! I see a cartoon. Bored now.

  39. Actually, MVS, it’s even simpler than what Luna said. Every hashtag automatically becomes a link to what is effectively a search results page on that hashtag, so you don’t even have to do a search, you just click the link.

  40. I’m in Twitter but not of Twitter, so I learned something new and possibly valuable today. But it struck me that the @ is kinda like magic: you say the name of the god/demon, you’re invoking him and inviting him to show up personally. (A number of computer conventions come from magic, I’ve noticed, maybe giving a special sense to Clarke’s dictum that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; the technology doesn’t even have to be *that* advanced to be sufficiently advanced.) Evidently numerous sorcerer’s apprentice types are playing around with magic and getting whomped? That’s the Darwinism of magic.

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