I’m talking about you, not to you.

So you might have noticed that I use Twitter a lot.

For those of you who don’t, it’s a way of staying in touch while on the move. Bite-sized chunks of content, 140 characters per tweet.

Originally, there was no way to “call out” to another user, and your messages would just be broadcast to everyone following you. If you wanted to speak to someone privately, you’d send a Direct Message (DM) – so if you tweet “D piersb Hello Piers!” then only you and I will be able to see that message.

What a DM doesn’t allow, of course, is for you to speak about me to everyone in a way that identifies me as the person in the conversation in a unique way. People soon picked up on this, though, and invented a solution: the @ tag (pronounced at tag).

An @ tag is basically your Twitter username with an ampersat in front of it. Thus, @piersb is my @ tag. So if I was speaking about you, I’d use your @ tag, naming you as a unique individual (because each Twitter username is unique), and meaning that everyone following my twitterstream would know who I was talking about.

@ tags caught on because they’re unique identifiers. Soon they became so useful that Twitter upgraded its clients in order to pull out your @ tags into a mention stream. So when anyone is speaking about or to you in public, you’d know about it and be able to join in the conversation.

Now, the problem with this is if I want to talk about you without it necessarily popping up in your mention stream. This happens a lot on Twitter with people working in TV. If you want to say that my show is terrible, then you might say “I hate @piersb’s writing! It sucks and he is the suckinator!” The @ tag uniquely identifies me, but unfortunately also brings it to my attention by dropping it straight into my mention stream.

It’s the equivalent of every pub conversation about you anywhere in the world suddenly being piped into your living room through a giant set of speakers. Uncomfortable, and not very nice.

So I’d like to propose a solution. The & tag (pronounced and tag). It’s exactly the same as an @ tag – it uniquely identifies you in the conversation, but doesn’t automatically announce the fact that you’re being talked about. Because you’re uniquely identified, anyone who wants to go and check out your twitterstream can, but without you being automatically notified of anyone talking about you.

The @ tag keeps its original purpose of alerting you to a conversation involving you, while the & tag means that people can speak about you behind your back. (Obviously, if you want to hear what people are saying about you, you’d simply search on your & tag – but you wouldn’t have to be told about it if you didn’t want to.)

So if you want to talk about me on Twitter, I’ll be there at &piersb.

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