Twitter Protocols: To @Mention or Not?

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Until now, there’s been a pretty unified take on the use of @mentions on Twitter. It seems most people believe that if you’re going to talk about another Twitter user within the bounds of the mammoth micro-blogging site, you should always ‘tag’ them into your tweet. Determine what their @username is, and refer to the person by that @username. This notifies them that you’re talking about them, and essentially, means you’re not saying anything behind their back.

But in this post I want to look a little deeper into the implications of @mentions, explore the reality (as opposed to just the theory) of how they’re used, and document my own stance, which is different from the norm.


There is absolutely no question whatsoever that Twitter users’ propensity to @mention divides into two contrasting categories: positive mentions, and negative mentions. If you use Twitter’s search function to seek out an influential user’s incoming public messages, you can see a very clear dividing line between the positives and negatives. Search the user’s @username, and you’ll see that by and large, the @mentions are positive. But search the user’s actual name, and you’ll typically see a much, much higher proportion of negative mentions.

In a nutshell, when Twitter users want to say something positive about an individual, they will, for the vast majority of the time, ‘tag them in’ so that the person being talked about is actually notified about what’s been said. But when users want to say something negative about an individual, they are much, much less likely to use an @mention, and they instead tend to mention in a way that will not be notified to the subject of the message.

Human nature, of course. But this is one of the reasons for the notion that ALL talk about another Twitter user should be tagged with an @mention. The wisdom is that it’s unfair to make snide or disparaging comments behind people’s backs, and tagging in the subject not only makes them aware of what’s being said – it also prompts the creator of the message to think more carefully about whether what they’re saying is fair. The knowledge that the person you’re mentioning is actually likely to SEE what you’re saying about them, does generally promote a degree of self-moderation.


But is that all it promotes? I don’t think it is. I think that just as knowing someone is probably NOT going to see what you’ve said about them encourages abandon and perhaps a flippant bravado, knowing someone IS going to see what you’ve said about them encourages false nicety. In many cases, when people do tag other users into a tweet, they end up grovelling, arse-licking – literally changing what they originally intended to say so as to endear themselves to the other user. Neutral wording, which would have been used in a random, offline conversation, can turn unnecessarily superlative, and I actually think a lot of the talk encouraged by the @mention function is highly unnatural.

You have to think about offline conversation to get a real picture of how unnatural the talk can get. If you were talking to a work colleague or a friend, would you expect them to keep referring to Author X’s book as “Author X’s excellent book”? No, they’d just say the book title, or “Author X’s book”. And if you keep this in mind when examining @mentions on Twitter, you quickly start to see how little relation some of the tweets bear to the way people talk in the offline world. “The gorgeous @So-and-so”. “The stunning @Someone-Else”. Do men prefix virtually all women’s names with “the gorgeous” or “the stunning” when talking about them to their friends, colleagues or family in real life? Of course not. They’re just licking arse.

It’s the opposite of trolling, but the distortion is very similar. Just as most Twitter trolls wouldn’t approach a footballer and call him a dickhead in real life, most Twitter approval-seekers wouldn’t allude to celebrities in everyday conversation the way they allude to them in tweets.

It’s also important to consider that some influential people will try to publicity manage the things that are said about them. That can add additional pressure for some commenters to conform with the kind of self-image an influential Twitter user has.


The debate over whether the default on Twitter should be to @mention or not, really comes down to which of the two options makes for the most neutral and balanced comment.

Twitter is always going to want you to @mention, because that makes for heavier and more positive use of the site. But in real life, unless you’re having a direct interaction with someone, the default, natural and neutral position is that the people you’re talking about are NOT there to monitor and potentially try to police what you say about them. Twitter is admittedly a little different, because you’re often making what you say a lot more public than it would be in a bar or on a train. But still, what you say should not be coloured or influenced either way – positive or negative. It should be what you really think. It should not matter whether or not Author X likes what you have to say about his book.


Finally, the element of this I think tips the scales irrevocably into the camp of NOT using @mentions by default, is credibility. If you see a tweet which says something is excellent, wonderful, or any other superlative description, and it contains the username of the subject of that praise, you can’t take it seriously as a recommendation. Ah, you think, they’re just grovelling to gain approval from someone with influence. It doesn’t really mean anything.

But if you see a positive tweet referring to someone without using their Twitter ‘handle’, the comment is much more convincing. You know the tweeter is not using the superlatives to butter someone up. They must be making that comment because they think it’s true. So it’s here that I rest my case. @Mentions are the preserve of the attention-seeker. Stay credible – don’t use them unless you have reason to make actual contact with the subject of your tweet.