The Monkey Tail is @ the Paradigm Shift

Commercial At

While I was going through the twitter round up, I couldn’t help but notice that the semantics used to address other tweeps include the @ symbol.  That got me thinking about how the @ symbol shows up not only on some web services, but also email, blog comments, and even in the Getting Things Done methodology.  I also recalled someone saying that the German name translated to “monkey tail” instead of the widely used “commercial at.”  After some research, I discovered where the ubiquitous nature of the @ symbol symbol fits and where it potentially could grow.

To get a good handle on the @ symbol, we need to look back and see where it came from.  Not much is known of the exact time it showed up, but different theories all point to the @ symbol used to represent something more efficiently.  An Italian merchant used it to give it a name for a certain quantity of jar stuff.  Another story is that monks used it to combine the word at to one letter.  How verifiable each origin is seem irrelevant.  The point is that the @ symbol makes things more efficient.

The @ key showed up on the typewriter then IBM keyboard.  It’s called commercial at because of what accounting institutions use it for.  It’s in the ASCII set.  What’s even crazier are the names.  A monkey tail and elephant trunk and the like.  Some countries call it another animal.    There’s always some lore for the @ symbol.  There is a special meaning between languages.

The @ symbol took on another meaning in 1972 when Ray Tomlinson used it for the very first email address.  He was looking for something to point a message to a machine.  Since the @ symbol literally meant at or commercial at, it seemed like a logical placement.  So he fired up some code and thus began the use of the @ symbol in electronic communications.

Today we see the @ symbol used in a couple of different communication contexts.  We of course use it for the email address.  But now we can use it for comment replies in message boards.  We can use it when we designate a user on a machine.  In some other cases, it can be used to address others individually in email messages to groups.  More importantly we can see its use blowing up on Twitter.

When I mentioned contexts, it opened the door to the @ symbol’s use in the Getting Things Done methodology.  David Allen created GTD as a task management/productivity system.  Part of what he preaches is the use of a Next Action list.  With each list you can group actions to locations and other objects.  The system is agile enough to account for multiple lists of actions designated by a noun.  He suggests the @ symbol for these special lists while organizing so it can show up first in the folder listing on a computer.

The great thing is the suggestion also helps marry the @ symbol with the context with which it precedes. Now you can have lists for @Home or @Office or @Phone if you need to call somebody.  While originally it was a listing workaround, now the @ symbol has more an integral role for context definitions on GTD.

We are beginning to see patterns develop at how the @ symbol is taking on a powerful role in communication.  We are seeing the @ symbol used to tie context not only to locations, but also to people.  Where in GTD you have a location, now with Twitter or email addresses you have a person.  The use of the @ symbol is becoming a gray area of distinction between a person and a place.  The  word after the @ symbol is the noun.

Now you can see where the action or verb takes place.  In GTD you have an action to do at a place or context, now you can send a message or ‘tweet’ to a person.  When you’re responding to someone else that drops a comment in a blog post, you are responding @ the user.   When you see a tweet pop up and you are compelled to respond, you type out @ and the user name to respond to their post.  What does this mean?

This paradigm shift of acting on a noun shows the idea of a context is more prevalent than ever.  The lines have blurred between machines and people.  There is a singular unifying context for people now.  Because of that, there is more consistent applications across different media and communication.  What this roots down to is better organization for social organization.  I can email [email protected] or just twitter @guyplace or note in my system to call @gplace in my @Communication list.

The more use that comes from it, the more common it will be.  Even Twitter founder and CEO Ev Williams talked about how the @user response wasn’t in the design of Twitter to begin with but that it naturally bubbled up from the community use.  The paradigm naturally evolves to what we are most comfortable using.  In Twitter Ev saw that and responded by giving it more meaning within the Twitter ecosystem.

Where can this take us in the future?  Perhaps there will be a time where a service will be attached to a user on the domain.  So if you email me at [email protected], you may actually send it as [email protected]   Or if I’m not there it could be forwarded to [email protected], or phone@ or facebook@ or myspace@ and so on and so forth.

My initial thoughts lead me to what the open ID folks are doing (save that for another research post), but I’m not sure if they’ve incorporated this simple,  powerful, and  NATURAL paradigm of using to the @ symbol to address nouns.  Hopefully they will.  But what we can see is that the use of the @ symbol to address nouns will grow stronger and will almost become subconscious.  What great leaps and bounds we have come from a silly little monkey tail.