A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 45: the endangered @

I learn from Mashable and Buzzfeed that Twitter is planning to streamline its user interface so as to downplay the roles of the @-symbol and the ‘#’, or octothorpe.

I am troubled by this.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a “microblogging” service where users post messages restricted to 140 characters or fewer. When replying to a message, the response is automatically prefixed with an @-sign and the original author’s name. For example, if I, as @shadychars, posted this message:

Who doesn’t love the interrobang‽

Were someone to respond — one @orkneydullard, say — upon hitting the reply button they would be presented with a textbox that is pre-populated with the username of the original author. Their reply might look like this:

@shadychars I know! It’s great, isn’t it?

From my limited reading of the Twitter developer documentation, it looks like this “@username” prefix is what a computer programmer would call “syntactic sugar” — a purely aesthetic construct that has no effect on the underlying functionality of the service. Twitter knows who you are when you post a tweet, and it knows who your respondents are; Twitter’s websites and applications can present the conversation to you in a logical, chronologically-ordered fashion with the authors of the various tweets made clear, as an email client might do, without any actual need to belabour the names of the participants.

Twitter also appears to be looking into the use of “hashtags”, where any word prefixed by a ‘#’ permits users to search for other tweets that use the same term simply by clicking or tapping on the term. Each hashtag in a tweet becomes a sort of mini-topic, or grouping mechanism. My guess (although I haven’t seen any screenshots to confirm this) is that once typed in, hashtags will be removed from the 140-character limit and presented as separate buttons or user interface elements.

I can understand the motivation behind the changes: relying on esoteric syntax and symbols is not the best way to engage sceptical would-be users, and freeing up a few characters per message would certainly help those of us who have trouble expressing ourselves concisely. That said, the @-symbol and the octothorpe have always been the shrinking violets of the punctuation world; it took the arrival of Internet email to rehabilitate the ‘@’, and these days the ‘#’ owes its popularity almost entirely to Twitter. What does the future hold if their most prominent booster casts them by the wayside?

In happier news: feast your eyes on the view from Ampersand Mountain!

View from Ampersand Mountain, New York
The picturesque (punctuationesque?) view from the summit of Ampersand Mountain in upstate New York. (Image courtesy of user “Mwanner” on Wikipedia.)

Recently, one of my Google Alerts sent me to an innocuous-looking local news site reporting on a hiking group in the Ticonderoga area of New York state. “Trail Mix”, as the group calls itself, have visited a variety of peaks in the Adirondacks — including one which takes its name from the tortuous meanderings of a nearby creek. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Ampersand Mountain!

6 comments on “Miscellany № 45: the endangered @

  1. Comment posted by Bill M on

    Sure is a beautiful view from atop Ampersand Mountain.

    How did the octothorpe become hashtag? I know since childhood it has been referred to as the pound sign and the number sign, but only recently hashtag.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Bill — the ‘#’ was used to identify “channels”, or topics, in an early Internet chat system called IRC. It moved into Twitter from there. The mark itself is often called the hash here in Britain, and I can only imagine that Twitter users plumped for “hashtag” as a more aesthetically-pleasing term than “poundtag” or “octothorpetag” (!).

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by Glenn on

    The 140 character limit is based on the SMS maximum message size, as I understand it. If they’re still supporting that transportation method, then it probably won’t change.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Glenn — very true! That hadn’t occurred to me. It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the SMS user experience if hashtags and/or @replies are deprecated.

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