Messages in Twitter (affectionately called “tweets”) are straightforward: You have 140 characters, so just type something. But there are a few special characters that you will need to know, a sort of “Twitter alphabet soup.” The Twitter symbols with special meaning are: @, d, RT and #.
Quite honestly, when I began using Twitter, I thought, “These Twitter symbols are some kind of secret code. They have geek appeal, but there is no way ordinary people will use them.” I thought they would severely limit the potential Twitter audience. But I’m afraid I underestimated the willingness of ordinary folks to use special symbols. Those learning Twitter are likely people who have done terse phone texting and used Internet acronyms like LOL. And after all, there are only four Twitter symbols so far:
@: Talk publicly to another person
Messages starting with the Twitter symbol “@” are called @replies because they reply to someone else’s tweet. Taking my user name “jonmreid” as an example, if you start a message with “@jonmreid”, I will see it on the web interface within @jonmreid in the right column(right under “Home”), even if I don’t follow your tweets.
The @username can also appear elsewhere in a message and that person will see it. This is a recent change to Twitter, and they changed the term from @replies to mentions, but most people still call them @replies. So if you want to call someone’s attention to your message, include @ and their user name somewhere in your message. This is the most used of the Twitter symbols.
Twitter also supports a mechanism to connect one message to another: To reply to a message in the web interface, click the “reply” arrow, . This starts off your message as an @reply to the other person, but more importantly, it keeps track of which message you are replying to. This connection between specific messages is often called “threading” and helps people see the context of the conversation.
Note: If you follow a person’s tweets, their @replies to someone else no longer appear in your timeline unless you also follow the person being replied to. Mentions are still shown, but @replies are not, limiting your ability to pick up conversations around you. My TwiTip post Twitter WAS a Cocktail Party explains this in detail.
d: Talk privately to another person
Messages starting with the Twitter symbol “d” are called Direct Messages because they go directly to that person and to no one else. So if you start a message with “d jonmreid”, I will see it on the web interface within Direct Messages in my inbox.
There’s an important thing to remember about direct messages: You can only send them to someone who is following you. This is Twitter’s way of protecting you from getting private spam. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget this, especially if you receive a direct message; the natural tendency is to reply by the same means. More unfortunate still, Twitter gives you no warning if you try to DM someone who is not following you!
Direct messages are obviously good if you want privacy. But another reason to send a direct message is when a public message would not be beneficial or interesting to others. For example, if we have some back-and-forth, you might conclude with a reply to me, “@jonmreid thanks.” There is no useful information there for other people. I recommend either expanding your message to be meaningful, like “@jonmreid Thanks for the tips on Twitter characters” or taking it private, “d jonmreid thanks.” Choose the right Twitter symbols for the larger world, not just yourself.
RT: Repeat another person’s tweet
When a message begins the Twitter symbol “RT”, that indicates that the person is passing on someone else’s message because they thought it was worth repeating. “Repeating a tweet” is shortened to retweet and represented by RT, followed by the username of the person who wrote the original message.
When you see an RT, it’s a clue that the message may be worth your attention, because somebody thought it was worth passing on. Conversely, when you read a message and think “wow” in some way, pass it on: retweet it.
#: Tag a message with a label
Messages can have arbitrary labels beginning with the “#” Twitter symbol. One of the many names of this symbol is “hash,” so a label like this is called a hashtag. They are a way to categorize messages, allowing you to search for messages with a particular tag. Remember, Twitter messages are public, so the search will cover all messages.
As I wrote in Why Twitter: Conference participation, the presence of such hashtags (in particular the way they united all messages related to a particular conference) was one of the things that helped me realize that Twitter was more than individual blabbing. It creates a collective snapshot of what people are saying about a given topic.
How do you find messages containing a particular hashtag? Use Twitter search.
How do you find the meaning of a tag? Use Tagalus, a dictionary for hashtags. Not everything is in there, though, so sometimes you just have to ask someone.
Twitter symbols are user-created!
What I find fascinating about these special characters is that except for direct messages, the Twitter symbols and their functions were created by Twitter users! This is an important theme: Twitter’s simplicity and openness allow it to be used in ways their creators did not imagine or specify. As a particular idea spreads and becomes used, then the Twitter team may consider how to add support for that functionality (such as ensuring delivery of @replies).
This means that things will change as new usage patterns emerge. Just today I saw tweets indicating that Twitter was experimenting with combining “replies” (@username at the beginning) with “mentions” (@username anywhere else). Some Twitter clients offer functionality not directly available in the web interface, such as the ability to click on a hashtag to do a search.
So as you become familiar with the “alphabet soup” of the Twitter symbols @, d, RT and #, remember that most of it was made up by users. Keep an eye open for other Twitter symbols to emerge over time. And if you don’t know what something is, just ask—you’re bound to get some help. That’s Twitter!
Twitter Practical How-to’s series:
- Twitter Symbols: What Do @, d, RT, # Mean?
- Use a Twitter Client
- What to Tweet (and What Not To)
- Who to follow on Twitter
- I’m Being Followed on Twitter!
More Twitter resources:
- Why Twitter? series
- Before You Sign Up for Twitter series, including How to Choose Good Twitter Names