What it’s like to run the Twitter handle “@message”

Or, why Twitter is hard

1. The Mentions

In retrospect, maybe we should have gone for @themessage,” “@the_message,” or even “@mess_age.” But those were taken, and @messageatmedium just seemed too darn long.

I’m old school when it comes to Twitter handles: the fewer characters, the better. And definitely, no articles if you can help it. It’s “@nytimes,” not @TheNewYorkTimes.

@newyorker is a great magazine; @thenewyorker is an egg. ‘Nuff said.

The @message handle was being squatted on by an inactive, spammy account. Those get periodically shut down and recycled into available usernames. I was pretty sure we could get the handle, and we did. (This involved sending a number of bug reports, and begging. Lots of begging.) I created the account, and sent the first few tweets.

The trouble, in case you haven’t guessed, is that the symbol “@” and the word “message” sits right at the junction of two of Twitter’s core functions, public replies/mentions and direct messages. So it’s hard to distinguish between people who are trying to contact the message, conversations about posts on The Message, and people who are talking about or trying to initiate different kinds of messages.

In short, our notifications are noisy.

A fairly typical stream of messages to @message.

There’s a reason why “@reply” is a person who calls themselves “At Reply,” who mostly retweets mistakes people make that inadvertently use that handle. You see some weird things.

For example, many, many users on Twitter are quite desperately interested in starting conversations with celebrities. A large subset of these users, it turns out, have a less-than-perfect understanding of the mechanics of Twitter.

So some users will type @message and then the celebrity’s handle, with or without an @-sign. Others will type @message and then the celebrity’s name, sometimes including spaces, which may or may not correspond to that person’s Twitter account.

It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that someone will try to “@message” a private citizen on Twitter in the same way celebrities’ fans do. In some cases, these seem to be intended as public messages to these users. In others, they are clearly intended to be private, direct messages.

Sometimes, it is not clear at all whether a private or public message is intended.

To “message someone on Twitter” is a common phrase but not a clearly defined concept.

These users know that they can send messages to other accounts, but they are unclear how precisely this is done. The tweets will often say “I think this is how I contact you,” or something similar. They know they can send messages to other users with buttons, and they know they can send them by typing commands. They just don’t always get it right.

Another common accidental mention/reply for the @message account, and I think an understandable one, is when users want to talk about messages on Twitter. So you’ll see a lot of folks telling their friends, “send me an @message later!” or something similar.

A less common but more intriguing behavior I’ve seen is when folks use the @ symbol as a way to add emphasis to a word or phrase. So you’ll see something like “Thank you to Reverend Jackson for @sharing the @message!” You see this more often with hashtags, where some users infer that the # symbol means #Something #Important, so they’ll throw a pound in front of three or four keywords on every tweet. But it happens with the @ sign as well.

More than anything, it reminds me of unnecessary quotation marks that you see in private writing, but also public signage. This is a comfort to me because it shows that even in contexts outside computing, people come up with their own ideas about what unfamiliar, nonalphanumeric characters mean. They know that they mean something. They know that their use can be a kind of power. They just don’t know the standard ways that this power is applied.

I am avoiding embedding any tweets as examples, and have instead opted to paraphrase, because all of us have worked with software we didn’t totally understand, and we have all tried to get software and services to do things that don’t quite work. For many people, Twitter is only slightly less baffling than the command line. Why does the letter “D” followed by a username work, while “message” or “@message” doesn’t? You could discuss the roots of Twitter in text messaging, but mostly you just have to shrug and say hey, that’s just how it is.

My intent is not to shame the people who have @-messaged The Message,
but to marvel at them.

I ask you, the reader, to trust me when I tell you that the messages we have seen are marvelous indeed.

2. The People

The Message is a little unusual in that at least on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis, no one is really in charge. The standing contributors all edit each other’s stories as well as writing our own.

This is also true of the @message Twitter account. There isn’t a dedicated social media manager or editor, or even one person who really runs it. What we have instead is the handful of people who can remember the password. (As a consequence, most but not all of the tweets sent on the account, through August 2015, have ended up being by me, Quinn Norton, or Jessamyn West.)

Even still, we’ve had to come up with a common understanding on how to use the account. For instance, when we first made it, I started using it to follow people whom I thought were “Message-y” in some ill-defined way. But afterwards, Joanne McNeil pointed out that it was very much my version of Message-y people, with all the biases that entailed, and that it didn’t make sense to play favorites with follows, so to speak.

So (again, as of August 2015), @message only follows the sixteen current and former writer/editors, plus @medium, who pays the bills.

Now imagine how much work it takes to figure out the social media strategy of enormous organizations, with many more stakeholders, and much more public and private scrutiny, to reflect their shared goals and values.

Twitter is hard.

I don’t think most people know how much work, thought, and responsibility goes into acting as the social media voice of a brand or publication, even one as loosely structured as this one. I know I didn’t really know it, even though I’ve covered the industry as a reporter, and for some of my best friends, writing, managing, and strategizing for social media has been their full-time job.

It’s an increasingly important part of any publication on the web, and it’s always changing and moving. Doing it successfully takes more than being good at Twitter, being good at talking to people, coming up with headlines or snappy descriptions, paying attention to traffic and timing, being willing to experiment and learn from it. It’s also depressingly easy to screw up and send the wrong tweet from the wrong account, which I managed to do more than once. Social media is a vocation, and anyone who does it well has my admiration and respect.

(Especially if you also do it on Facebook. Or Snapchat. Or Vine. Or even Instagram. I mean, Twitter is weird, but those places are fucking nuts.)