How @replies work on Twitter (and how they might)

Monday, 12 May 2008

I see a lot of confusion around how “at replies”—tweets that start with an @ and then a username—work on Twitter. E.g.:

@Veronica I vote they should be $2.00 each. Cut down on junk mail. Isn’t that the only use of postal mail these days, anyway?
10:59 AM May 09, 2008 from web in reply to Veronica

Starting my update with “@veronica” designates that I’m addressing her, specifically, much as you would in a group conversation. Also like a group conversation, she’s not the only one who can see what I’m saying. If I wanted to “whisper” something instead, I’d start my message with “d veronica”—what we call a “direct message.” (A person must be following you in order for you to direct message them, but not to @reply them.)

As you may know, @replies were not originally part of Twitter. They were embraced by the community first, and then we built them into the system. First, we linked the username (when using the web interface), then we added a replies tab, so you could see replies to you from people you weren’t following. We also added a setting to determine what @replies you see (more about that in a minute). And most recently, we added the “swoosh” to the web interface, so you could more easily reply. Other Twitter clients have also embraced @replies in cool ways.

Today, @replies are a critical part of how Twitter works. However, they’re not perfect. In fact, some people are either loath to use them or annoyed by them (or both). I believe a big reason for this is that’s it’s not obvious exactly how they work. In fact, I talk to even advanced Twitter users on a regular basis whom I end up explaining what the @replies setting does and who see what replies.

@Replies To You
If someone @replies you—note, this means they start a tweet with @yourusername—you will see that in your main timeline if you follow the person. But you’ll see it in your replies tab, whether you follow them or not (unless you’ve blocked them).

In some desktop clients, like Twhirl, you can see @replies to you, along with all the updates from people follow, which is neat.

The Setting
There is an @ Replies setting you can find under Settings / Notices.

This has nothing to do with @replies directed to you. This is about what @replies you see from people you follow. The default—@ replies to the people I’m following—is probably what you have it set on (98% of people do). That means, if you’re following me, but not following @veronica, you wouldn’t see the tweet above (unless you went to my profile).

The beauty of this is that I can feel free to @reply Veronica without worrying about the fact that only a subset of my followers also follow Veronica, so they won’t know what I’m talking about. My followers will only see my update if they follow both of us (if they have their setting on the default).

We’re trying to avoid the situation of you hearing someone answer a question when you didn’t hear the question (for instance). Also, you don’t have to hear answers to the question from people you don’t want to hear from. (If you’re not following them, you won’t see their answer.)

This is the main thing that people are confused about, I’ve found. There are good reasons for this. For one, it didn’t use to work like this. (Since @replies were just normal tweets at one point, all your followers would see all of your, no matter who you were replying to.) Secondly, we don’t explain it very well (thus, the need for this post). And third, some people do have their setting at “all @ replies”—so they see all the replies people they’re following make, even if they’re not following the person being replied to. Many people I’ve talked to have this setting on and don’t realize what it actually does. (Usually, they just want to see @replies directed to them).

1) You should feel free to @reply people and not worry about it being out of context to some of your followers. In general, they won’t see it.

2) If you’re seeing @replies directed to people you don’t follow and don’t want to, check your setting.

3) This is obviously too confusing. We want to make some changes to make it more clear. We could clarify the setting. But my preference is to take out the setting altogether and just make it work like the default. That way, it works the same for everyone. (If you have strong opinions on this, leave a comment.)

Cool Tools
There are a lot of other ways we’d like to enhance this functionality. But for now, Quotably has worked around the opaqueness of conversations on Twitter and aggregates @replies in a useful way. Also, Summize let’s you see all replies to someone.

Tracking You
Another question I get is how to get the equivalent of the Replies tab (@replies to you, especially from people you don’t follow) over SMS. The work-around for this (for some people) is just to Track your name. E.g., I send ‘track ev’ and get a message every time someone mentions @ev. This is not ideal, because Track currently ignores the “@” symbol, so if you have username that is common, you’ll get lots of irrelevant stuff. We plan to fix that. (Also, yes, we will get the replies tab on Soon.)