Twitter usage note: “at” and @.

March 22nd, 2014

So here’s a little Twitter usage peeve of mine. It has to do with the way some people mistakenly drop the word “at” in tweets when it would precede the @ sign.

If you don’t use Twitter, feel free to skip this one; if you do use Twitter, take a look and tell me what you think. I run into this issue all the time, and it consistently wrong-foots me as a reader.


Twitter uses the @ sign to prefix a username (also called a “handle”); for example, my username is @Twalk. You can start a tweet with a username, which means that you’re directing a public tweet at a specific user, like this:

@johndoe Great running into you & your family last night at the park. We should get a cup of coffee soon!

Because of a quirk in the way Twitter treats public replies, the only people who will see that tweet in their Twitter streams are Twitter users who follow me AND follow @johndoe.

But let’s say I want to publicize something my friend is doing. If I want to get around that quirk in Twitter, I can reference him somewhere else in the tweet, like this:

Everybody check out the new site @johndoe just launched — really cool! [link to site]

Experienced Twitter users drop in handles all the time when they want to call attention to another Twitter account, whether that’s a person, a business, an event, or whatever. So you might see this:

Great to run into @johndoe and @janedoe at the dog park last night. Their kids have grown up *fast*.

The problem arises when the tweeter mistakenly thinks that the @ at the beginning of a Twitter handle can do double duty as the word “at” in the syntax of the sentence:

Great to have dinner @johndoe and @janedoe’s place last night. It had been too long!

How do you read that message? I mean, read it out loud — what’s your voiceover?


Maybe you differ from me, which is fine. But for me the voiceover is this:

“Great to have dinner John Doe and Jane Doe’s place last night. It had been too long!”

Here’s why: in MANY, MANY cases, the “@” connected to a handle goes entirely un-noted. When I run into Twitter friends, for example at South by Southwest, they DON’T say, “Hey, it’s at-T-walk!” They just don’t. They say, “Hey, it’s T-walk!” When I read a tweet like the second example above, I don’t read it as “Everybody check out the new site at-John-Doe just launched…” but as “Everybody check out the new site John Doe just launched…”

Short version: the @ becomes a visual marker that indicates you’re referencing a Twitter entity — not a part of the English syntax of the sentence.

More good examples:

  • I’m glad @WholeFoods labels GMOs in food — but I think they shouldn’t even carry those products.
  • If you need serious UX help, @AnnettePriest is the best. That’s just a fact.
  • Can’t wait for @SXSW this year.

In each of these cases, the @ makes perfect sense from the standpoint of Twitter functionality: Whole Foods, my friend Annette, and anyone looking for South by Southwest-oriented tweets will see these tweets. And in each of these cases, you DON’T pronounce the @. It has no function in the sentence in terms of English syntax. Which is why it wrong-foots me when I come across bad examples like these:

  • I could happily spend my entire Saturday morning @WholeFoods.
  • Joining a few friends @AnnettePriest’s place for dinner. Related: Annette is an amazing cook.
  • I saw so many old friends @SXSW this year — like a family reunion!

In these tweets, the @ is trying to do double duty . . . and it fails. I have to reread it, even if only for half a second, to make sense of it.

The Moral of the Story

Putting “at” in front of “@” in a tweet is not redundant when English syntax calls for it. On the contrary, it keeps your reader from stumbling across your words.

Yes, Twitter is a conversational medium, and there’s no need to be a great stickler for the Queen’s English or MLA style there. But you DO want to be understood . . . and omitting that crucial “at” when it’s needed makes you a little harder to understand.

So please don’t drop it.


[Addendum a couple of hours later: the landscape may change if Twitter does away with @ replies altogether -- which, in my view, would be a mistake.\]

The Social Media Are Not So New.

March 21st, 2014

[This is a reprint of a post I initially wrote in December of 2008. I haven't done a thing to it yet, thus the broken image links, etc.]

Students walking the pier at St. Andrews,
where I studied the Reformation in a former life.

[Note: This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Austin Social Media Breakfast held on 2 December 2008.]

~ ~ ~

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the mid-90s I took a master’s degree in European history, and because I was going for the glamor, I focused on the Reformation — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, all that.

Little did I know that my study of the social upheaval of the 16th century would come in handy today for understanding the social media of the 21st century. And little did you know that I would be here to explain the connection to you.

Lucky us!

So, in the next 15 minutes I hope my painless little history lesson will I’ll convince you that our oh-so-new social media are very much like the media that have gone before, not because the 16th century enjoyed good WiFi connections, but because people tend to use the media available to them for much the same human purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Commonplace: Lessing

March 16th, 2014


“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now.
The conditions are always impossible.”

–Doris Lessing

How It Began

March 9th, 2014


They had a long discussion about it. Dana was adamant about the prohibitive level of physical costs — the energy required to convert matter for transmission. Carver fell silent and sat that way for a long time, looking out the window. Dana knew better than to interrupt.

Finally Carver spoke: “What if it’s not about conversion into energy?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if it’s just conversion into information?”

Dana paused and looked at the floor. “Encoding.”


Dana’s head shook from side to side in small movements. “The chance of encoding errors…And you’d only be making a copy, not transmitting the original…”

“Fair points. But let’s think it through before we say No. What if we could solve for those things? What would the big steps in the problem be?”

A thousand years before, engineers had thought the same way when they planned the first human missions to Luna (Earth orbit, Earth escape, transit to Luna, Luna orbit,…). Dana and Carver had had those lessons ground into them when they sat under Magister Ludovicus in school: suspending technical disbelief, what would be required to achieve an engineering outcome?

In that spirit, they laid out the main problems:
1. Molecular mapping, with many safeguards for error correction et cetera
2. Replication, ditto
3. Vivacity — how does the replicated version live?
4. Cognition — no good to have a living replication that cannot think
5. Memory — a thinking but amnesiac replication would be worse than worthless…

They both resisted saying what they were thinking — that this was mad, and that if it worked it would be one of the greatest advances in the history of the species.

They were right. Even a thousand years later, even after faster-than-light travel had been pioneered, their example would be studied minutely and heralded by generations of magisters and their students. While being taken for granted by billions of travelers.

But for today, Dana and Carver knew none of that. They simply set to work.

Image by Ivan T.

Unsolicited usage note on “I’ve” versus “I have”

March 8th, 2014

Here’s a usage quirk that I see from time to time — and that always throws me off.

It’s perfectly correct to say something like “I’ve an idea about that,” just as it’s correct to say “I’ve been thinking about that.” In each case “I’ve” contracts “I have,” and in each case the grammar works.

AND YET, saying “I’ve an idea about that” typically wrong-foots the reader. In more than 99 cases out of 100, surely, “I’ve” is followed by another verb, because the “have” hiding in there is a helping verb to designate the grammatical tense — not the standalone verb indicating possession. So the reader’s common expectation for “I’ve” is a phrase like “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’ve already gone…”

Contrast this to “I’m,” in which the hidden “am” is very commonly used either as a helping verb or as the standalone to-be verb. So a phrase like “I’m learning to play chess” (helping verb) is common, but so is “I’m good at chess” (“I’m” precedes a predicate adjective) and “I’m a chess player” (“I’m” precedes a predicate nominative).

Getting back to “I’ve”: in my view, for the sake of clarity, “I have an idea about that” is far superior to “I’ve an idea about that.” And, while we’re at it, “I’ve an idea about that” sounds twee.

All of this applies to “I’d” as well.

Your thoughts?

Writing for a Living

January 17th, 2014

writing master

If you’ve been tuned in for very long, you know that I plan to make my living writing books at some point. Meanwhile, there are the pesky details of helping keep my family in groceries and health insurance and whatnot. This month, though, I’ve made a major step on my path toward being a full-time book writer: I’ve transitioned out of my W-2 job (which I liked) and into full-time freelance and contract work. It’s going great so far, and I enjoy the mix of working with several different clients and editors.

What exactly am I doing? It echoes my “What do you write?” post from last month. Here’s the modified list of what’s taking up my time, in descending order of how much attention it’s getting:

1. Content marketing

I’ll slightly adapt what I wrote in that other post: This has been my bread and butter for years, and contracting in this vein is taking up most of my time right now. Over the years, I’ve written or edited everything from Web site copy to technical papers to sales decks. For three different employers, this has meshed with running their social media outlets as well. My particular niche is enterprise B2B technology content marketing. That means I’m good at learning how to talk about a new type of technology that is sold into big businesses, then translating that into all of the content that helps sell that technology. (If you’re not familiar with this use of the term, “enterprise” here means “sold to great big companies.”)

2. Blogging

Besides writing here, I am taking paid assignments to blog on technology, business, and other topics within my range of expertise. This builds on the blogging I’ve done for past employers and as a sideline. (Here’s a recent example from the Intuit QuickBase blog: “The Cure after Diagnosing a Bad Project Manager.”)

3. Article writing for periodicals

It’s been a few years since I’ve written magazine pieces; it’s possible I’ll publish more of them this year than ever before.

4. Short fiction

My piles of draftwork are slowly taking shape into finished stories. My goal for this year is to submit 30 pieces — a mix of literary and speculative fiction — for publication. (You can see some of my fiction sketches on this very blog.)

5. Long-form nonfiction

As with short fiction, I have reams of notes and draftwork on nonfiction topics. I’d like to have a finished book proposal and an agent by the middle of 2014.

6. Novels

It may be that any novels I finish drafting this year will only ever see the inside of my filing cabinet. That’s fine by me, but I shall finish novel manuscripts this year.

In all of this, I would be happy to benefit from your well-wishes and your practical advice. If you know someone who might pay me for anything that fits under headings 1 – 4, that would be even better.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!

Image source.

In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

January 8th, 2014


Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

What are you doing to stoke your ambition?

January 3rd, 2014

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions, and of course most of them come to naught. We let ourselves get distracted by life, but more than that, our initial passion about the change wanes. The fire dies down.

What can we do to keep that fire stoked?

Some athletes — I’m thinking of Eddy Merckx, Tom Brady, and Michael Phelps — are famous for keeping chips on their shoulders at all times. Great entrepreneurs are the same way: Jeff Bezos has talked about the “divine discontent” that drives him to keep building Amazon. Their motivation stays high.

The key point here is that the motivation comes from a deep burning WHY inside of them. It’s not primarily about the technicalities of the sport or the business or whatever — it’s about passion.

I have big, big plans for this year. Not resolutions, exactly, because I don’t consider them to be at all in the same category as “floss every day” or “stop cursing” or the like. The things are going to happen. And when I start to slip on them, I go back to my sources of passion.

Some of those sources are petty, to be honest. Merckx could be petty about perceived slights, but it made him a better bicycle racer. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but I will admit that I have a short list in my head labeled “I’ll show them.”

Some of them are a little fearful — leading me to work harder to stave off outcomes I don’t want. I think of the cautionary tales of people I know who have failed for want of ambition and smart, hard work.

The best ones are joyous, tied to big visions of how I want my life to be. Writing books, training hard, enjoying my loved ones, being a source of happiness for others.

This year, I’m honing my skill at going back to that well of motivation. When I start to flag in my work, I pause to rejuvenate that divine discontent, or to put the chip back onto my shoulder. It gets less accidental and more structured each day.

Does my approach make sense for you? What do you do to keep your ambition stoked?

Peter Levi on writing for the screen.

December 27th, 2013

Most poets of my age, or even ten years above, understand and like the cinema. Rather few understand that television is an art form. They’re terrified by the whole notion of television. Therefore they won’t accept that it can be an art form. And yet if what they want is this great audience, why don’t they go and get it? There it is, waiting for them. They could, I mean, be doing something useful that people actually want them to do. I don’t think that any writer could call himself serious if he’s never considered working in films and television.

Peter Levi in The Paris Review, 1979

Get a running start on 2014.

December 26th, 2013

There’s an old saying — I first heard it from Will Smith, if memory serves — that if you stay ready, then you don’t need to get ready.

At the moment, I’m thinking about the contrast between that approach and the many people who will wait until New Year’s Day to launch into their resolutions. You know there are legions of people planning to write a book* in 2014 who are absolutely sure they’re going to start working on it in earnest — 300 words every day! — on January 1. But they’re not laying the groundwork now to support that resolution.

(* In place of “write a book,” insert “start a business,” “get in shape,” “make a career move,” or whatever suits your own life — and appropriately scares you.)

Get Rolling Now

Too many of us deny ourselves a running start on our projects. We dither, waste time with excess research, lose ourselves in the depths of perfectionism, and so on. Especially for creative people (and I’m including, for example, business entrepreneurs), the focus should be on whatever eases the process, yet we often seem to delay progress rather than speed it along.

Probably it ties back to classic psychological issues — fear of failure, fear of success, generalized anxiety, etc. But let’s not waste time teasing those out . . . since that kind of psychologizing tends to be another delay mechanism. Let’s commit, instead, to preaching the message of taking a running start.

Imagine yourself six months or a year or five years from now, when that 2014 resolution has turned into The Great American Novel, your own business, 80 fewer pounds of bodyfat, or whatever it is. Think about how you might share your story of success with someone else, starting with “In hindsight, I gave myself a running start by . . . “

Here are some suggestions for finishing that sentence:

  • . . . adapting a proposal template I found online. I didn’t know how to do a proposal and I was freaking out about it, but that made it much simpler.
  • . . . making a list of the 30 easiest things I could do to get the ball rolling on [Project X]. I just asked for pointers from some friends who had been down the same road, then made a list of all the things that made me think, “Oh, that would be easy enough.” It was a great jump-start for me.
  • . . . clearing out a nice, dedicated workspace for myself to get the work done.
  • . . . lining up a workout buddy and visiting the gym a week ahead of time to talk with the trainers, learn the equipment, and that kind of thing.
  • . . . getting rid of all the junk food in my house the day after Christmas. Just threw it all in a huge garbage bag and carried it out with the torn-up wrapping paper.
  • . . . pulling together all the notes I had made for my novel, organizing them, and re-reading everything. I was able to revise the outline even before New Year’s rolled around.

You get the idea: Jump the gun. Pull your thoughts together now. Start your outline, or expand it. Sketch out some things. Get your materials ready. Edge ahead.

What would you add to the list here? And what are YOU doing to give yourself a running start on 2014?