Twitter owns @

Here’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon I’ve observed recently: The @ symbol, placed before a word (such as @gourmethotdogs) is beginning to become an instant reference to that username on social network Twitter.

In the same way that the popular early subdomain “www” identifies web sites to the average person without the need for text explaining that it is a web site (or even the http:// part of the URL that specifies the protocol!), we’re starting to see signs and adverts for businesses just identifying their presence on Twitter with their name preceded by @. Essentially, Twitter now owns the @ symbol for the purpose of brand recognition.

What’s even more interesting about this is that the use of the @ symbol was not a Twitter platform feature in the beginning – it was invented by the platform’s users as a way to indicate replies to a user when no such capability existed in the platform.1

This is a great example of collective intelligence, as Tim O’Reilly would call it:

Think of how Wikipedia works, how Amazon harnesses user annotation on its site, the way photo-sharing sites like Flickr are bleeding out into other applications… We’re entering an era in which software learns from its users and all of the users are connected.

— Time Magazine, October 2005

In this case, not only has the software learnt from its users, the users have provided first a branding hook for the software, and later for marketing culture at large.

  1. Twitter blog: Are you Twittering @ Me? []

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