A Logical AND With @ In A Mainstream World

Irony alert: A lot of this post will be incomprehensible. That’s part of the point.

I get asked to tweet out stuff multiple times a day. These requests generally fit in one of three categories:

  1. 1. Something a company I’m an investor in wants me to tweet.
  2. 2. Something a smart, respected person wants me to tweet.
  3. 3. Something a random person, usually an entrepreneur, who is well intentioned but unknown to me wants me to tweet.

Unless I know something about #3 or are intrigued by the email, I almost never do anything with #3 (other than send a polite email reply that I’m not going to do anything because I don’t know the person.) With #1 and #2, I usually try to do something. When it’s in the form of “here’s a link to a tweet to RT” that’s super easy (and most desirable).

There must have been a social media online course somewhere that told people “email all people you know with big twitter followings and ask them to tweet something out for you. Send them examples for them to tweet, including a link to your product, site, or whatever you are promoting.”

Ok – that’s cool. I’m game to play as long as I think the content is interesting. But the social media online course (or consultant) forgot to explain that starting a tweet with an @ does a very significant thing. Specifically, it scopes the audience to be the logical AND clause of the two sets of twitter followers. Yeah, I know – that’s not English, but that’s part of my point.

Yesterday, someone asked me to tweet out something that said “@ericries has a blah blah blah about http://linktomything.com that’s a powerful explanation”. Now, Eric has a lot of followers. And I do also. But by doing the tweet this way, the only people who would have seen this are the people who follow Eric AND follow me. Not OR. Not +. AND.

Here’s the fun part of the story. When I sent a short email to the very smart person who was asking me to tweet this out that he shouldn’t start a tweet like this since it would be the AND clause of my followers and Eric’s followers, he jokingly responded with “that’s great – that should cover the whole world.” He interpreted my comment not as a “logical AND” but a grammatical AND. And there’s a big difference between the two.

As web apps go completely mainstream, I see this more and more. Minor syntatical things that make sense to nerds like me (e.g. putting an @reply at the beginning of a tweet cause the result set to be the AND clause of followers for you and followers for the @reply) make no sense to normal humans, or marketing people, or academics, or – well – most everyone other than computer scientists, engineers, or logicians.

The punch line, other than don’t use @ at the beginning of a broadcast tweet if you want to get to the widest audience, is that as software people, we have to keep working as hard as we can to make this stuff just work for everyone else. The machines are coming – let’s make sure we do the best possible job with their interface which we still can influence it.

  • I think most folks understand ‘intersection’ or ‘overlap’, which are the terms I use when explaining stuff like this to non-technical / non-math folks.

    • I’ve found that “intersection” doesn’t work for people – only about 50% understand and the other 50% think “intersection” is a logical OR clause.

      “Overlap” works better in my experience.

  • CliffElam

    Funny. My logic courses in college have been very useful. If I hadn’t had two slices of Pepper’s best pizza and three beers with them before class I might have learned even more.


    PS – My son (10th grade) has taken his Game Art Design class assignment to code up a videogame (in a game editor) using logic gates so he can get those all straight in his head. Clearly (a) he’s a lot smarter than I was at that age and (b) school is much cooler than it was when I was there. OTOH, we had dinosaurs and they don’t.

  • Spot on. Thank you.
    The question remains … will people get it?

  • davidthomas8779

    Is the solution that you say “Interestingly, @ericries has a blah blah blah about http://linktomything.com that’s a powerful explanation” and because the @ isn’t the first character it works? There should be a class, but then I’d have to admit that I went to a class about Twitter.

    • Silverborn

      That method works but the twitter convention is to add a “period” in front of the @reply like “.@ericries….” Quick and unobtrusive but also non-obvious.

      • And quickly becoming the standard hack.

  • I begin messages with @ because I think of it like a public DM. I don’t want my followers to have to read something I wrote to a very specific person, unless they also follow that person. I’m not trying to reach a broad audience. I’m trying to talk to one person. You tweeted “never” do this. Poor etiquette, or poor marketing, maybe, but do you really believe it has no use cases?

    • You are correct – if you want to message a particular person but don’t feel like using DM this is a good proxy for it.

      I didn’t say “never begin a message with @” – I said “don’t use @ at the beginning of a broadcast tweet if you want to get to the widest audience”

      Your use case is the correct one.

  • I had no idea, actually. I was wondering why a tweet started with a “.@” the other day.

    • .@ is a clever hack – it’s quickly becoming the standard way to do this.

  • What happens if you add 2 @, i.e. ‘@x @y this is awesome’. Does it only go those that follow me AND @x AND @y? Or just to @x being the first one on the tweet.

    And what if you don’t place the @name at the beginning of the tweet, i.e. ‘this is awesome @x @y’, does it still do the AND thing?

    It’s getting complicated. Should I send a tweet to @twitterhelp? Wait. No, only a few people will see the answer. Damn.

    • I have no clue what @x @y does.

      If the @ isn’t the first character, then everyone sees the tweet.

  • If you use the ‘retweet’ functionality provided by twitter, then the retweet is visible to all your followers regardless of whether the retweeted message begins with an ‘@’.

    • Understood – but that’s a totally different case. I was specifically talking about when you originate a tweet.

  • QualityCoding.info

    I was happy today until I read your post. It reminded me how far IT has to go.

    I remember fighting the object-oriented methods fight quite a few years ago. No one wanted to listen then. I doubt they’ll listen to you now. I’ve been working on an ecosystem for medical office solutions for a while. The hardest thing about the project has nothing to do with technical issues. The hardest thing is convincing people to “chose” what’s best. I’ve been explaining why slicing and dicing data to fit a relational storage system causes a loss of information. People look at me like I have two heads. I’ve also been explaining how you don’t need “customizable” data forms. If done properly the data can be used as is, not as predefined.

    Oh well, that fight is getting old. Too tired to continue for today.

    Good luck getting people to see the value of making things simple to use.


    • Oh – be happy. No reason to be sad by this. The machines will eventually take control and it won’t matter anyway, so until then, enjoy!

      • QualityCoding.info

        I won’t be too sad. But, it is aggravating to see people figure out a way to do extra work when it’s not necessary. Like forcing data to be entered in an unnatural way.

        Too many times I’ve seen programmers wanting to write a bunch of code to do something. But instead they could just write one line of code to reuse an object that already does what is needed. Investor money going down the drain writing unnecessary code and testing that code.

        I’m so glad I left programming as a profession. Now when I do write code I actually enjoy it again. What I see as more promising is generating code. When I started using IDEs with form designers I was three times as productive as before. Now with code generation people can again be three times as productive.

        Don’t hire 9 programmers. Hire 3 developers who know how to design correctly and generate most of the code. It’s cheaper and faster… Hey wait… “Do more, faster”.

  • The @ might be strategic. an @ response only to those following both you and Eric, (surely an informed bunch) might break through the noise.

    If I saw this from brad “@EricRies Hey check out this company” Then I am thinking that Brad is telling Eric something interesting…and I want to be a part of that.

    I generally ignore all RT’s anyways.

    I follow both @garyvee and @amyhoy and I saw Gary tweet today “@amyhoy I miss you!”. It was very odd and interesting.

    • Maybe but in most cases where people are asking me to send out broadcast tweets it’s not.

  • DaveJ

    I worked with at least two companies (planet U and Inquisit – you’ll remember the names) that had boolean logical expressions in their products and were targeting them to average joes and janes. Nobody used them or could use them. Further, people are now used to Google, which kind of just “does the right thing.” Really, products probably need to work like Google because that’s what people expect.

    • Google is a great example of just doing it right and figuring out what humans actually want.

  • I still get annoyed that Twitter even implemented this, personally I would like to always see who people I follow are replying to. Scott Hanselman has a nice post that visualizes how this works too, complete with venn diagrams 
    http://www.hanselman.com/blog/SubtleButVeryImportantTwitterTipsAndTechniquesYouShouldKnowCauseNoOneWillTellYou.aspx .

  • Hmm, don’t quite understand, but happy to ask what may be a dumb question.  So we’re speaking about specifically if a tweet is formatted “@xyz @abc this is cool blah blah” it only goes to the overlapping audiences between the two Twitter accounts?

  • Completely. I find myself explaining this to people all the time. I love referring people to this website: http://momthisishowtwitterworks.com

  • TaylorTaylorTaylor

    #3 reminds me of this comic:
    In the sense that its just “hey since I can’t actually create real buzz for my product, can you just spam lots of people for me so it looks like I created buzz?”

    But yeah, I saw it below but the “.@” is the way to go. Definitely not intuitive to regular people.

  • A pet peeve of mine for months. I see a remarkable number of tech execs who screw this up. Been meaning to post about it myself… Now I can link to yours.

    • Think of me as your personal tech support.

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