Twitter @ replies & how I’m changing my live event coverage

Scott Rosenberg (journalist)
If you weren’t already following author Scott Rosenberg on Twitter, as well as me, you would have missed my coverage of his talk last night. Sorry, that won’t happen again. (Image via Wikipedia)

Just yesterday I learned that on Twitter (a social media service I use a lot), if I begin a tweet with an @ reply (such as: @lisawilliams said…), that tweet will only be seen by people who not only follow me but who ALSO follow the Twitter user named after the initial “@”.

You’d think I would have known this already, but every once in a while something major slips by me. Twitter changed how it handles “@ replies” a few months ago — something that caused considerable controversy on the service. It was a controversy I happened to miss. But thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I’m now caught up on the issue and can offer some useful tips.

I’m writing about this issues because it has significant implications for how I’ll be doing live coverage of events via Twitter.

Whenever I’m at an event (such as a conference, talk, or arts event) that I think might also interest some of my Twitter followers, I tend to “live tweet” it — posting frequent updates about what’s being said, what I’m seeing, reactions to what’s happening, etc.

I do this so much, and have gotten pretty good at it, that I have attracted many Twitter followers because of it. So I’ve decided to explore offering live event coverage as a professional service.

BUT: What if only a fraction of my nearly 5,000 Twitter followers have the opportunity to see my live coverage? And what if those people are already, in a sense, part of the “in crowd?”

That’s the situation when I start my live tweets with “@”.

Yeah, big problem. Especially if part of the value I bring to the table with live event coverage service is the size of my Twitter posse.

Fortunately, it’s fixable…

Here’s what I have been doing:

When I live tweet — especially when I’m covering what’s being said at an event — I’ve tended to use a format like this:

@scottros: “I envy journalism students now. You all have the opportunity to publish. Just start publishing now, whatever your passion is.”

…That is, the first thing I do is identify the speaker in a way that people can find and follow that person on Twitter. Then I deliver the quote. This makes sense for reading, but not for how Twitter works now.

Some Twitter users hack around this by inserting characters like “.” or “r [space]” before the @. This is apparently sufficient to trick Twitter into serving those tweets up to all your followers.

It works, but I don’t like it.

I believe in trying to make tweets read as naturally as possible, within that 140-character constraint. It’s challenging, but I’ve come to think of it as an art form. Well, at least a useful writing skill.

In my experience: Being as readable as possible on Twitter counts. It encourages more people to follow you, retweet you, and interact with you.

Too many people use Twitter’s character-count constraint as an excuse to get cryptic or vague in order to save space. The problem is, when people have to think too much (or at all) to decode or interpret what you wrote, you become less interesting. And you’ll only succeed on Twitter if you’re interesting.

My proposed solution:

Here’s what I’m going to try: From now on, when I’m live tweeting and quoting someone, I’ll begin with the quote, and end with the attribution in parentheses. That would only add one character to my current style.

For example, the tweet I shared above would look like this:

“I envy journalism students now. You all have the opportunity to publish. Just start publishing now, whatever your passion is.” (@scottros)

If I live tweet that way, then ALL of my Twitter followers would see the tweet — whether or not they also follow author Scott Rosenberg on Twitter.

What do you think of this approach? Please comment below.

I’ll try this out tonight. I’m attending a book signing, which I’ll be covering for Oakland Local. It’s fun stuff: Local illustrator Chris Lane will be discussing his new book, Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection. (Event details)

Once I try this live-tweeting strategy, I’ll get a sense for whether and how well it really works. But you let me know what you think.

…Yeah, this seems like a minor, picky point of style. However, given how Twitter now works, it would vastly increase the audience for my live event coverage.

I thought other Twitter users might find this info useful as well, especially journalists and others who do live coverage of events or breaking news via Twitter. After all, I can’t be the only avid Twitter user who missed this, right?

…Oh well, maybe I could be, I dunno.

In my own defense, when Twitter made this change back in May, I was at the apex of several major, stressful life changes — including selling my home of 12 years, downsizing my possessions to fit in a single room, and relocating to a new and very different city. I remember seeing the #fixreplies hashtag, but at the time I didn’t have the mental energy to figure out what people were talking about. My bad.

Anyway, I’m very grateful to Alex Howard (@digiphile on Twitter) who kindly pointed out to me this change in how Twitter works last night. I was live-tweeting a talk that Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything and founder of the intriguing new Mediabugs project. Alex liked my coverage, which he only saw because he also follows Scott on Twitter. He wanted more people to be able to see what I was doing, and kindly clued me in about the implications of starting with @.


Alex directed me to his discussion with Leslie Poston about implications of the @ reply change. This is quite thought-provoking and readable. If how people actually connect via social media matters to you, give it a read.

More recently, blogger Patrix covered this issue: Understanding Twitter @Replies Behavior. The comment thread here provides considerable clarification.

Finally, it’s important to understand how Twitter distinguishes between replies and mentions.

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6 thoughts on Twitter @ replies & how I’m changing my live event coverage

  1. Hey, Amy — I never knew about that either! But I’m not crazy about your solution. I assume it’s you talking unless I see something else up front. Putting their name at the end just mixes things up too much — I read something with you in mind, and then realize it’s not you after all. Brain spasm! How about just putting a quotation mark at the beginning? Or maybe sz for “says.” sz@agahran. Or just S. S @agahran. Do you need a space before the @, too?

  2. Well, I indicate that the remark I’m tweeting is a quote, not my own words, by putting it in quotation marks.

    I think putting a standalone ” in front of the @ isn’t any less cryptic than putting a “.” in front of it. Same w/ “sz”. I’m trying to work with standard punctuation as much as possible here. But I’ll consider what you suggested. We’ll see what others have to say.


    – Amy

  3. I’ve thought a lot about this, actually, because I engage in TweetChats and the way the @ symbol is used in those conversations can affect followers who may not want to know what’s happening in a chat. Thinking about that did affect the way I tweet live events. This week I attended a marketing talk and tried weaving the speakers name into a sentence like this: example tweet. I also used the period before the @ symbol at the event, too. I think your solution is a very workable one.

  4. OK, so here’s the thing.

    When you mash a “reply” button in Twitter, or an app like Twhirl, Tweetie, etc., yes, that registers as a real live “reply” and the people who don’t follow the person you’re replying to won’t see it in their stream.

    If you just start a “mention” of, say, @scottros without giving the system some other cue that it’s a reply (like mashing a button), NO WORRIES. It plays in everyone’s stream just like any other “mention.” Otherwise, NO ONE WOULD EVER see any mention of ANYONE they don’t follow on Twitter.

    That’s all.

    No worries.

    Carry on.

  5. I hadn’t realized there was a difference. And, happily, there are some Twitter applications that have figured out how to ignore this restriction. For instance, PeopleBrowsr shows me the ENTIRE tweet stream from my friends, @replies included. I’ve forgotten that Twitter did this dumb thing entirely.

    Except that my readers may not be as lucky. It is annoying to have to remember to add something to the beginning of a reply just so it will definitely appear for everyone.

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