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Where you @?
How Twitter is killing a symbol

07/22/10
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



The following is about tech, but it’s more about language. It’s about how sometimes changes can expand and enhance the way we communicate with each other, but other times they muddy the waters and make interaction just a little more confusing.

For decades, the @ symbol toiled in relative obscurity. Used mostly by accountants to denote thecost of individual widgets when referring to multiples of those widgets — as in, “10 widgets @ $14.95 each” — the humble circly-a thing wouldn’t begin its journey toward omnipresence until 1971.

That’s when programmer Raymond Tomlinson stuck it in the middle of the e-mail address format we all know and love. “Somebody@someplace.com” meant that you could send a message not only to someone on your own system, but to someone on some totally different system, as long as there was a network connection.

Some of the first consumer-oriented Internet service providers, like AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy, didn’t adopt the e-mail standard at first. But once the @ sign made its appearance in their systems, they were truly connected to the rest of the world, not just folks using the same ISP.

When major media started getting hip to the whole Information Superhighway thing, you’d see @ liberally sprinkled into their coverage. “Visit us @ our website!” and such. It wasn’t quite correct, but close enough, and the hype machine eventually moved on to the Next Big Thing.

Which, for the purposes of our story, was Twitter. Oh, evil, evil Twitter.

Originally, putting @ in front of someone’s Twitter username meant you were talking directly to them. Or, you know, “at” them. Slightly rude, perhaps, but when you only have 140 characters to work with, decorum can take a back seat to clarity.

Slowly, though, clarity and consistency got into a little spat, and consistency won out when it really shouldn’t have. It took the form of always putting the @ symbol in front of a username, whether you were talking directly to them or just about them. Instead of @ meaning what it means, “at,” and indicating who you be talking at, it came to mean, “This seemingly random collection of letters represents a person.” Which is not at all what “at” means.

It gets worse. As Twitter does, so does the rest of the Internet, because Twitter is cool and awesome or something. Facebook updates started looking like, “Spent the day with @GroovyFriend and @ThatOtherGuy eating cheese sandwiches.” When has Facebook used @ to designate usernames? That’s right, since NEVER.

It’s not as though Twitter was the first interactive site where people used @ to indicate to whom they were speaking. It’s been a not-uncommon practice on forums all the way back to bulletin board services in the days of 300-baud modems. But Twitter made it official, made it the way to address a fellow user.

In March, the New York Times reported that the Museum of Modern Art had admitted the @ symbol to its architecture and design collection. The inventor of e-mail addresses honored @, the article said, “by giving that once obscure accountancy symbol a new application without distorting its original meaning” (emphasis mine). Its simplicity, elegance and clarity made it not just a typographical character, but freakin’ art.

Its new application has distorted its original meaning. Nice going, Web 2.0.






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