I’m not a geek, nor do I have aspirations to become one. The issue of how Twitter @replies (which Twitter defines as “tweets that start with an @ and then a username”) work has simply been bothering me today, and I have failed to find a good explanation in a single source available online. There is a fairly useful guide on the Twitter blog here, but it doesn’t actually address the issue that was bugging me, namely the way that specifically directed replies cannot be filtered adequately when the @username element is not positioned right at the beginning of the message, indeed they are not @replies according to Twitter’s own definition.
Anyway, here is an attempt to explain how this all works. All of my observations are based on the web Twitter interface – I have never used any of the many alternative clients / interfaces that are available (Twhirl, twitterrific, Hahlo, TweetDeck et al), so I’d certainly be interested to receive feedback if you find that they handle any of the following issues differently.
Note: I have consistently used the term @replies in the narrow way it is defined by Twitter above.
1. General Twitter settings
In your Twitter settings, under the tab Notices, you have three options for displaying or suppressing @replies:
a. Show me all @replies: This will include in your feed ALL @replies issued by the people you are following, whoever they are directed at.
b. Show me @replies to the people I’m following: This will show in your feed those @replies that the people you are following send to other people that you are following. This is the default setting and, according to Twitter, the setting that 98% of users use (myself included).
c. Show me no @replies: This should apparently mean that you don’t see any @replies in your feed whatsoever (though this didn’t work when I tried changing it as an experiment).
I can imagine opting for “a” if all my Twitter contacts were interlinked somehow, if I had all the time in the world to read all my followers’ tweets and filter them for relevance myself, if I was trying to find more people to follow of if I was generally a nosier so-and-so than I actually am. Option “c” might in many cases make Twitter seem like a room full of communicationally challenged egocentrics spouting random thoughts (critics will say that is what it is in any case!), so I don’t really see the point of it.
Note: if you visit a person’s profile, you can see all the tweets they have written, including all @replies they have sent, regardless of what setting you have chosen (I think…).
2. The @replies tab
This tab functions as a collection point for all @replies directed at you, and it shows these and nothing else. It’s a quick way of catching up on direct questions or comments you might want to respond to after you’ve been offline for a while. It also differs slightly in content in that it also includes @replies from people who are following you but who you are not following back (and thus whose @replies do not appear in your timeline / feed).
3. But here’s the rub…
If you embed the @username directive inside your tweet, i.e. not having it as the initial element, then the following will happen.
a. The Twitter database will not interpret it as a directed @reply. Thus it will appear in the feeds of all the people who are following you, regardless of whether they are also following said @username, which means it will not be filtered out for those who have selected “b” or “c” above. This is fair enough if you want to talk publicly about or address a comment to @username while having everyone else see it, e.g.
I hereby declare to the world my undying love for @Romeo
Waiting for @godot
or, in an attempt to help a new Twitterer find more contacts,
Welcome to Twitter, @birdbrain
but it can lead to your “filtering” followers catching just part of a conversation out of context. OK, this is no big deal in general, but it might occasionally cause annoyance to someone who wants nothing to do with said @username (e.g. Romeo’s ex, or your ex, for that matter, assuming he/she and Romeo are not on the best terms) or who sees this as a form of “junk tweet” / spamming, especially if you do it too often.
b. As it is not interpreted as an @reply, it will not appear on the @replies tab of the addressee. If this person has a large amount of traffic / people they follow or is not on Twitter very often, this might mean that they fail to see it entirely, unless they use an “external” search client such as Summize (which is now at http://search.twitter.com/), which will scan the entirety of the message for their username (or any other keyword searched for).
A further problem is that Twitter is currently unable to deal adequately with @replies directed at multiple recipients. Let’s say that benjamin wants to ask his contacts flopsy, mopsy and cottontail out for a drink and writes the following tweet:
@flopsy @mopsy @cottontail Fancy a quick carrot juice tonight?
If all three are mutually following each other, then each will receive this tweet in their feed. However, only flopsy will see it on the @replies tab. If they are not following each other and have the default setting “b” enabled, only flopsy will see it in the feed (AND on the replies tab), while the others will miss it entirely, unless they do an external search on their usernames.
So anyway, those are my explanations and grumbles about what I failed to explain in tweets of 140 characters today. As I said above, I’d be interested to find out whether other clients have any better ways of filtering messages and dealing with @username responses that Twitter does not treat as true @replies.