at-sign.pngI broke news last night on LouisGray.com about Twitter enabling a new API feature, “in_reply_to_status_id”, to allow developers to tie replies to their original reply source. Immediately afterwards Evan Prodromou of Identi.ca added the same functionality to the Laconi.ca source code, making two of the most popular microblogging platforms, Twitter and Identi.ca, along with the already supporting FriendFeed, supportive of threaded comments. Immediately we saw Dave Winer implement a proof of concept example, and YooPlace also implemented it into their own code. Loic Le Meur of Seesmic, the owners of the Twhirl Twitter client responded as well saying he was reading the article and looking into it.

So a big question has become evident now that we can threaded replies. Is the ‘@’ really necessary in your replies to friends on your favorite microblogging service any more? A comment by Steve Gillmor on Identi.ca got me thinking about this earlier, and I think he has a strong point. In fact, I’ve briefly touched the subject before here.

The ‘@’ is mostly a Twitter-invented custom brought to the service by its users with some slight roots in bulletin boards and forums where threading was not possible. Users decided the Twitter service made a great communications tool and began replying to their friends’ posted statuses with the ‘@’ symbol. There was no other way because Twitter wasn’t expecting to be a communications tool. The popular Twitter clients like Twhirl and TweetDeck and even Twitter’s own web-based client started catching on, and separating those posts with usernames prepended by ‘@’ as “replies”. What’s odd is that the only thing they recognize as a reply is if the username is prepended by an ‘@’ – they take no thought as to the actual username itself, which really is the actual substance of who the user was replying to. In fact, FriendFeed users are starting to do this as well since it only has one level of threading and users can’t comment on other users’ comments. (Twitter and Identi.ca are actually one-upping Friendfeed with their recent announcements)

So while the “@”‘s were a custom, they really aren’t necessary to determine if a user is replying to another user. In fact, even today you can use an XMPP tracker like Twitter Spy and Laconica Spy and track your username and get notified when a person mentions your username, exactly the way “@” replies work. It was silly that the “@”‘s were required to be recognized as a reply in the first place.

Now, considering you can now actually track on the back end the entire hierarchy of a conversation via the API “@”‘s are even less necessary as before. I’d like to see the various microblogging clients start to ignore the “@”‘s and allow users to simply type usernames when replying to another individual, assuming threads aren’t in place. Then, once threads start to show in your favorite microblogging clients, even the usernames shouldn’t be necessary.

I’ve mentioned before that IRC works this way and most IRC clients will look at the existing list of users in a room and automatically detect the username and notify the targeted user if the message is directed at that user. Not only that, but the IRC clients actually keep a cached version of the users in a particular room and will even auto-complete usernames if you begin typing in the username and hit “tab”. That’s what I’d like to start seeing microblogging clients do so long as they’re going to be supporting a communications platform, and it should start with Twitter and Identi.ca themselves on their own web interfaces.

Then again, all this may now be moot with threading available. Oh, and don’t even get me started on hashtags. (Those should be handled by the API, not in the content of the message!) I think I’m going to try a new experiment of just not using the “@”‘s like Steve Gillmor does – anyone else want to join me?