A fair number of people don't understand exactly how the @ sign works in a Twitter conversation. You can use it in the standard fashion; that is, as a substitute for the word "at." But its true value lies in its use as a way to respond to people, mention them or start a conversation. Let's say your acquaintance Josh (@JoshBuhr on Twitter) tweeted that he just ran 2 miles. To respond, you can now simply hover your cursor over his tweet and click on "reply," which is the single arrow on the bottom left of the tweet box. When you do that, a box will pop up with "reply to @JoshBuhr" already written in it. You type the rest. For example: "reply to @JoshBuhr you wimp! I just ran five." You could also simply tweet, "Hey, @JoshBuhr, you wimp! I just ran five." This is called a "mention." If you send either of these tweets:
- Josh will see it in his home timeline IF he follows you.
- Josh will see it in his notifications tab, plus the mentions tab inside notifications, even if he doesn't follow you.
- Anyone following both you and Josh will see it in their home timeline.
- You will see your tweet on your profile page -- as will anyone in the universe who goes to your profile page, unless you've blocked them. Even people without a Twitter account could Google you to see the tweet.
But what if you don't want the entire Twittersphere (and universe) to be able to read that tweet to Josh? When you opened your account, you were asked whether you wanted to keep your tweets public (the default setting) or private. Most people select public. If you change this setting to private, no one will be able to view your account and its tweets unless you manually approve them[sources: Twitter, Twitter]. You can also elect to send Josh a private, direct message by clicking on your messages tab.
Because people don't always understand every nuance to Twitter, misuses of the @ sign can occur. For example, let's say you wanted to make a snarky tweet to your followers about your soccer coach, Bill Bong -- like whispering about him behind his back. So you tweet, "@BillBong is such an idiot coach! Hate him!" But because you put "@BillBong" in your tweet, it will go into his notifications and mentions tabs. And if Coach Bill is following you? It will also show up in his home timeline. Oops. And, as mentioned, it will be on your profile page.
You can delete a tweet you didn't mean to send, but if others have already retweeted it or quoted it with a comment of their own, the tweet will remain part of their message.
Of course, sometimes people purposely "@" someone on Twitter because they're angry or just plain mean. Or they simply don't care if the person they're slamming finds out. That's not cool. But unfortunately, that's life. Now that know how to properly use the @ symbol, make sure to use it wisely.