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    CRASH! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love (Kindle Single)
    by Julian Gough

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    Jude lives in a henhouse with no roof, that he bought for ten million euro, at the height of the Irish property bubble. One day, his mortgage is rated the debt in Europe most likely to default... The political and financial elite of Europe arrive, with a plan: help Jude put a roof on his henhouse, stabilize his debt, and reassure the markets. It all goes horribly wrong.

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    Jude in London
    by Julian Gough

    Shortlisted for both the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, Jude in London is an epic, comic exploration of the bizarre love triangle between language, consciousness, and reality. Which is all very well, if you're into that sort of thing.

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    Jude: Level 1
    by Julian Gough

    Shortlisted for the 2008 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.

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    Juno and Juliet
    by Julian Gough

    My first novel, of which I am very fond. The adventures of teenage twin sisters Juno & Juliet, in their first year away from home. Life, love and literature, in Galway and Tipperary.

     

    "Like Roddy Doyle in an extremely good mood" - The Washington Post

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« Best albums of the noughties? | Main | See the smallest film in the world, on the biggest TV in the world. »
Wednesday
Oct282009

Twitter & Tweets: Who Can Read What (And How And Why To Use The Dot).

I started to use the mighty "." on Twitter today, and immediately got into about 50 confused conversations about it, most of which started "What's with the . thing?" Trying to tweet 50 different bitesized answers did not lessen the confusion, so I thought I'd explain here what I'm doing (or what I think I am doing).

May this post give you the strength to make the dot a good thing, the self-restraint to avoid making it a bad thing, and the wisdom to tell the difference.

See? Many of humanity's problems, incredible as it seems, predate Twitter. (Explosm sell this as a T-shirt! Site seems down, so I've linked to info on the Cyanide & Happiness guys.) 

SOME BACKGROUND ON HOW USERS DRIVE TWITTER'S EVOLUTION

A lot of people, especially new users, are not entirely sure how Twitter works, or who can read what, when and how. This is unsurprising: Because Twitter has evolved so fast, features that didn't even exist a year ago are at the heart of the Twitter conversation now. Users are constantly finding new implications of those new features, and creatively using (& misusing) them, in turn. And those new, user-invented features and workarounds that are popular and useful get turned into new, official features: When I started using Twitter only a few months ago, for example, retweets had to be done by hand, and there was no agreed syntax ("Retweet", "(RT)", "RT:", "Via" and others were all in use.) ...Twitter only installed an official button for retweeting in September this year. (We will get to the meat of the matter after you jump the shark. With its black dot for an eye.)

A lovely blue shark 

SO WHO CAN READ WHAT?

Before we talk about the mighty dot, we need to be clear on how tweets work. As things stand today (and this wasn't true last year, and may not be true next year), this is who can read what. Let's say I send a nice ordinary tweet, like "I am eating the most amazing pickled shark testicles." That tweet
will appear in the stream of everyone who follows me. It also appears in my own stream (where I can read all the incoming tweets from those I follow), and on my own page (where all my tweets are stacked up one after the other.)

But if I reply directly to someone else's tweet, like this: "@sharklover Sorry, I forgot you were a vegetarian. And married to a shark. Whoops." ...then that reply will only appear in the streams of the people who follow BOTH me (@juliangough) and her (@sharklover). Twitter don't make this very clear, and it isn't intuitively obvious, so a huge number of Twitter users assume that everyone who follows them can read all their replies. Not so. However, that last tweet is defined by Twitter as a reply simply because it STARTS with a name, @sharklover. If I hand-crafted a reply like this: "Well listen, @sharklover, obviously I wouldn't have eaten his testicles if I'd known he was your husband" ... then, because it doesn't start with a name, Twitter will treat it as a regular ordinary tweet, and all my followers can see it in their stream, whether they follow @sharklover or not.

 

WHICH IS WHERE THE DOT COMES IN...

Which is, at last, where the dot comes in. Hitting reply is handy: there's the person's name, the cursor is blinking after it, all you have to do is type the message and send. Building your tweet either side of the other person's name, however, just so your reply will be visible to all your followers, is not handy, and can sound really awkward, like a tweeted, 140-character version of stilted Victorian dialogue: "So, @moriarty, we meet again, in the shadow of the Reichenbach Falls..."

 

Of course, most replies are not of general interest and the system, by hiding them from most of your followers, works fine. ("@mum I left @dad drunk in the coal shed.") But sometimes a reply would be of interest to many, or all, of your followers (not just those who follow you and the person you are replying to). For example, I sometimes get asked interesting questions about my novels, or about my old band: I know that a good chunk of my followers are fans who would appreciate seeing my reply. And sometimes you just want to open up the conversation with a reply, and give others a chance to join in. And sometimes you want to start a big fight.

But how do you quickly and easily convert the reply into an open message? You can't just type a letter, or letters, directly in front of the name with no space, like this: a@sharklover. That stops it from being treated as a reply by Twitter, sure, but any letters touching the front of the "@" mess up the name, stop it from being searchable, prevent it from appearing in the @replies box of the person you sent it to, and mean it is no longer hyperlinked (that is, you can't click on it and go to their page). So, what, add a letter and a space? A quick abbreviated explanation? It starts to get messy, and distracting. And eat up scarce characters.

But you CAN type non-letters, such as punctuation marks, directly in front of a name, without messing it up and breaking it as a link and all that bad stuff. And the simplest, smallest, least annoying punctuation mark is the full stop. This guy, inside the quotes: "."

So if I send this: ".@sharklover I've always loved you, I've had fins surgically attached also intromittant organs, feels weird having a double penis, marry me", now everybody who follows me can read it. Which may or may not be a good thing, but it's a nice option to have.

 

A WORD OF CAUTION

The dot allows a personal conversation to be overheard by many others, so use it sparingly. Think - is this private remark really going to interest many of my other friends? If not, don't dot. Otherwise you run the risk of being the person at the bar shouting loudly at their friend, in the vain hope of impressing the whole pub. Don't beat yourself up if you overuse it at the start and annoy a few friends. It is natural to get a bit carried away at first (he said, after an entire day's experience). I certainly did. But I had calmed down by teatime, and so should you. A cup of camomile should do it.

 

WHO INVENTED IT?

I've no idea, but I'd love if you could tell me. I first noticed guys like @glinner using the dot recently, I had no idea what it was, and (too shy to ask) worked out what it meant by context. I have noticed that comedians and scriptwriters are prone to use it. (The dot is particularly useful if you are replying to a friend with a cracker of a joke and don't want it wasted.) It just seems to have spontaneously evolved, because it was needed, and may have many mothers and fathers.

 

A FINAL THOUGHT ON DMs (DIRECT MESSAGES)

Oh yeah, while we are at it: there is one other type of tweet. DMs (direct messages) can only be sent to people who are following you, and can only be read by you-the-sender, and the individual you sent it to. But bear in mind, if YOU aren't following THEM, they can't DM you back, which can lead to an embarrassingly public tweet like this: "Sure thing @juliangough I'll DM you an answer to your DM requesting the name of my drug dealer as soon as you follow me." So it's probably best to follow people BEFORE you DM (direct message) them.

 

Also bear in mind that nothing in human cultural history has grown as fast as Twitter, and that this is just a snapshot of the evolving situation in late 2009. It will all change, change utterly, and within a few months this post will seem as quaint as advice on the kind of red flag your servant should be carrying as he walks sixty yards ahead of your self-propelled mechanical vehicle.

 

THE PREHISTORY OF TWITTER

For those interested in the prehistory of Twitter, and how such arcane events as the great #fixreplies revolt of May 2009 shaped the current Twitter universe, here's a couple of links:

The Evolution of Retweeting. This article from August 2009 (only two months ago as I write!) gives a flavour of how users drive the development of Twitter, and of how tentative and confused the developers can feel in the face of such pressure from below. The retweet option they initially planned to build is nothing like the one that they eventually delivered.

The Great #fixreplies Revolt of May 2009. This battle reshaped the modern @replies. A bit like the slaves' rebellion in Spartacus, the revolt failed but left an enduring legacy, and scared the pants off the Emperor (ie this is when the chaps who set up Twitter first realized they were not in fact in total control of it).

The Invention of @replies and @mentions. Back in November 2008, when the world was young, @replies were formally adopted by Twitter. This Twitter blog post now feels like the Magna Carta.

 

Throw in comments, advice, argument below, or attack me frenziedly on Twitter itself (@juliangough). Feel free to link to, copy, or pass this onto friends if you think it's helpful. And be nice to each other out there. Oh, it's all fun and games in the Twitter playground till somebody loses an eye.

 

Meanwhile, to reward you for reading so much stuff about such a small thing, here's a real dot to play with. Focus on it. Now lean forwards, and backwards. Feel the power of the mighty dot! (This probably won't work for you, Momus, or any other visitors with one eye.)

Feel its power

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Reader Comments (4)

I imagine you won't find an answer to the invention of the use of the dot because it was probably thought of simultaneously by more than one person. On the day the #fixreplies episode erupted I was one of the first to complain (the old system of replies having being declared frequently as my favourite feature of twitter) and I saw many discussions of workarounds including the use of the dot (and other characters - the colon was also a popular suggestion that day).

I also wouldn't be surprised if its use even predated #fixreplies because, although it might seem like it would not have been necessary then, it's important to note the difference between what was available then and the workarounds, like the dot, of today.

If you use the dot, effectively converting an official reply to a mid-tweet mention that pretends to be an official reply, you are forcing everybody who follows you to see your tweet. There is no opt out and so you wisely point out it should be used sparingly.

In the previous incarnation of how replies worked it was the receiver who decided if they would see your reply. The default situation was the same as what happens now i.e. you only see the replies of someone you follow if they are to somebody else you follow, but there was an option to select to see all replies of everybody. This was the option I had selected, and loved. Then, as now though, it was possible you might want to ensure all of your followers saw a particular reply so could have forced this by going for a mid-tweet mention.

I frequently had discussions on twitter about the "all replies" option and defined it as changing the twitter stream you saw to a magnificent waterfall. Most people I discussed this with though had no desire to switch to seeing all replies as they thought it would be overwhelming, way too noisy.

When the option to see all replies was taken away I estimate I lost seeing about 90% of tweets I had been seeing. It should be noted though that twitter themselves told us only 3% of us had opted to see all replies so for that reason I myself generally don't go with the dot fix - as in I'm not sure I want to force a reply on people that 97% had previously chosen (albeit by default) not to see. I tend to go with the cumbersome mid-tweet mention when I want all followers to see a particular reply.

Under the old system many celebrities chose to make every single tweet a reply to somebody, thereby connecting very personally with 1 specific person (deliberately making their day if the celebrity was hugely famous) while knowing that all their followers could see their tweet. Once the option to see all replies was removed however I believe I saw the celebrities more au fait with the system change how they tweeted to include simple broadcasts where before they would have used replies.

Also: There is no official retweet button yet. Although one has been available on various twitter clients for some time it's still only in beta on twitter itself and not available on the twitter website for all but a select tiny number of users.
October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEolaí
Amazingly, the optical illusion also works with one eye closed. What a friendly illusion, so inclusive.

Great article, am surprised by the length - especially since "The dot makes replies visible to every follower" is the retweetable version of it all. It's good you try to make Twitter easily graspable (hope I didn't invent that word, but if I did, it needed to be invented anyway. I feel no guilt) to newcomers and outsiders. I still have friends pitying me for using Twitter.

"Pshh", they say. "Twitter...".
October 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrobert
"obviously I wouldn't have eaten his testicles if I'd known he was your husband"
If only all articles about Twitter used such entertaining examples.

Before the rules changed, I unfollowed a few people because their copious @ replies dominated my Twitter stream. (And may the good gods forgive me for that sentence.) It was just too much. I was like the poor fecker in 'Scanners'. But we do miss out on some good stuff unless we either follow everyone, which is both impossible and silly, or visit people's Twitter pages to eavesdrop on their third-party chats. I generally avoid dot-replies unless I feel I'm being particularly helpful or witty, so they're very rare.

But the dot (or punctuation mark of your choice) can also allow you to begin with a name when the Tweet is intended for everyone, e.g. "@[name] [verb]s an [adjective] [noun]: [link]". Sometimes space and legibility aren't conducive to placing the name later in the Tweet.

Robert need feel no guilt: 'graspable' dates to the early nineteenth century ('ungraspable' is even older).
October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStan
As I said to you on Twitter, while this is a well-written piece that raises some valid points - notably about how building a tweet around an @reply makes it look very stilted - I'm not a big fan of using the dot before the @ symbol. I've never done it myself, and likely never will, essentially for the same reasons I don't like building tweets around replies - it looks ugly and feels a little like you're being Buddha on the mountaintop, sending out what is essentially a one-to-one response to everybody.

There's absolutely a time and a place for open replies, and I think for very popular folks like @Glinner et al it's essential to combat the thousands of same questions they receive each and every day. But I personally prefer keeping my replies personal, and I tend to only use mentions if I'm sharing content and trying to then direct it so that one or two people will definitely see it because it's so relevant to their interests. And if I want to send something to everybody in my stream because I've received a lot of the same questions or responses, I'll tend to make it a completely open tweet, and not a reply at all. :)

There are no real rules, here, though - essentially, if it works for you, then it works, like most things on Twitter (and indeed in social media, and life).
October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSheamus

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