New microsyntax for Twitter: three pointers and the slasher

Slash balloons

Image based on Kevin Van Aelst’s original.
Update: These basic “tags” have been christened “slashtags” by Chris Blow. They are also now supported in Atebit’s popular Twitter client Tweetie 2 on the iPhone.

Since it’s apparently all the rage to design your own features for Twitter now, I figured I’d build on my success with the hashtag and crank out a few more.

All of these are simple conventions for adding more standard metadata to a post in a specific, uniform way.

The Slasher

First, I’ve decided to migrate from encapsulating my metadata in parentheses to using a slash delimiter (“/”), which, for shits and giggles, we’ll call “the slasher”. This saves you ONE character, but hey, those singletons add up!

Now, the pointers. “Pointers” are short words with different intentions. A group of pointers should typically be prefixed by ONE slasher character. You can daisy-chain multiple pointer phrases together, padded on both sides with one whitespace character. There should be NO space following the slasher. Hashtags should be appended to the very end of a tweet, except when they are part of the content of the message itself and indicate some proper name or abbreviation. Normal words that would be part of the content of a tweet anyway SHOULD NOT be hashed.

If this doesn’t make sense yet, don’t worry, just read on.


Let’s start with via, the first “pointer”.

The concept is simple and already widely used: sometimes you want to give credit to someone (as part of the pay-it-forward link economy) for something they said or linked to, without quoting them verbatim (which is what RT or “retweeting” is for, in my estimation and use). Now, a lot of people already use the “via” keyword — in fact, it’s a setting in Tweetie, and looks like this in practice:

Tweetie with via in parens

My proposal is simple, but would look like this instead (note that there’s still no colon):

Tweetie with /via

Saves you one character when used with the slasher delimiter and doesn’t look half bad.


Next is cc — or “carbon copy” — not Creative Commons! Of course, if you ever used email this one should be obvious. The job of the CC is to indicate someone you want to direct a tweet at.

I follow 1600 people — and it’s highly unlikely I’m going to see everyone’s tweets — and I don’t really make an effort to do so. In the off-chance someone specifically wants to get my attention, they can just CC me, like I CC’d my friend Lauren in this tweet:

Twitter / Chris Messina: It's like TripIt for ships ...

You’ll notice how, using the slash notation, you’re able to serially string together several pointer phrases: i.e. “/via @cshirky cc @laurendarby“.


The last one I’ll mention is by. As you can imagine, the “by” syntax is similar to “via” and “RT”, but not quite the same. It’s more like the cite or blockquote HTML tags in that they provide a simple way to attribute authorship for a longer-form piece — i.e. not from a status update or spoken utterance (that’s what RT and OH are for respectively).

Here, I’m quoting a passage by Dominiek ter Heide (@dominiek) that I took from a blog post that he wrote:

Twitter / Chris Messina: "Activity is the new oil + ...

So, why bother writing these up? Well, I never expect that anyone will follow my lead, but if they do, I’d like to spell out what I’m doing so they can more or less get it right. It seemed to work with hashtags, and these ideas proposed here are even simpler. Now, you might not expect that, one, two, or three characters in tweets would make that much difference, but when you’re taking about a payload that maxes out at 140, each scintilla must carry its own significance. As such, there is value in coordinating our language, and providing some basic guidelines that emerge based on behavior — so that we can encode more meaning into these little blips of communication.

I’ve started tweeting using these patterns and invite you to do so as well when it makes sense. If you have your own ideas for microsyntax, Stowe Boyd started a wiki a while back to document them, so feel free to contribute your own or improve or use the ones already proposed!

62 thoughts on “New microsyntax for Twitter: three pointers and the slasher”

  1. Interesting idea Chris – you’re proposing more semantic tagging. So is /by a direct quotation? Also, what if you want to CC multiple people? Perhaps /cc @factoryjoe+@scobeleizer+@arrington ?

  2. I’m all for it. Anything to save me those extra characters, which really do add up, especially referencing longer usernames in tweets. The cc idea is my fave.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. I have to say, I disagree. The more microsyntax you add to Twitter, the less room there is for actual data. Hashtags have made Twitter a worse place, not a better one (proof: trending topics don’t need to be hashtags). Same goes for all this RT and via nonsense — just link to something and describe why you’re linking to it using Human language. Surely sharing the information behind a link is far more important than getting credit for sharing the link, right?

  4. @Ankush Narula: /by is intended to be as a direct a quotation as 140 characters would allow, yes.

    For cc’ing multiple people, just put a space between their names — no need for the plus:

    /cc @factoryjoe @scobeleizer @arrington

    @Ben Darlow: I’m sympathetic to your point. A lot of people didn’t like hashtags in the beginning and they probably still don’t. The syntax I’m proposing at least doesn’t seem as obviously ugly as the hashtag mechanism.

    As for not polluting Twitter with more syntax — one goal is to simplify your consumption of content on Twitter — so that you can focus on the content and peripherally consume the meta. By moving the meta to the end of the tweet, I’m trying to get people to move the good stuff to the front and have a consistent, convenient way of saying the things they’re already saying.

    And I should point out, hashtags would never have taken off if people weren’t using them — because people want to be able to organize themselves without the overhead of groups and group moderation. This syntax might lead to new and interesting ways of consuming context through microblogs, so in general, I think adding additional structure that’s easy to use is actually a good thing. But, you’re free to have an alternative perspective.

  5. “The job of the CC is to indicate someone you want to direct a tweet at.”

    I believe that’s what “direct messages” are for. Why add more noise for other users?

    1. Basically a CC is for those cases where you were going to tweet something publicly but wanted to make sure someone sees it (if they’re following their mentions). And, with lists, people no longer need to “follow” you to… “follow” you. That is, they could add you to a list and unfollow you, breaking your ability to direct message them. In any case, sometimes you want to provide a more subtle hint that a message is pointed in someone’s general direction without being directly aimed for them only.

      I don’t use CC that often, but I do find it handy.

  6. I think these ideas are great! They will likely be as successful as the hashtag.

    We also need a /hat-tip or /ht

    This is like /via and /by except /via and /by (as I understand it) refer to the original author of an utterance, while /ht is a nod to someone (a third party) who passes along a tidbit of unstated provenance.

  7. this microsyntax looks nice and somewhat less artificial than the hashtags (even if i like the ‘#’), so +1 for writing down the basics (ah and the case for /cc is very well put)

  8. Chris, how would you handle an RSS feed directly from one site onto twitter? I’ve been moving questions off of for a specific tag filter through an RSS channel, and onto the Twitter stream.

    I front each posted question on twitter with a static default “RT” followed by the question, but this doesn’t seem quite right (it’s not really a re-tweet).

    Given the great article above, I’d be curious to see what you think. Thanks in advance!

  9. I like the / usage described here. I have been using this character | but usually put a space after it.

    Not sure “by” is needed, except to differentiate it from “cc”. You could simply put the slash and the person’s name or Twitter @name.

    Just a quick comment about hashtags — I think they’re necessary. If you are talking about a conference (for example), you’re not going to use the name of the conference in every tweet. “Gosh, speaker B just made a great point about C.” How would they be aggregated without a hashtag? Or you’re commenting on a show you’re watching. “Gee, will character X really do Y?” You need the show’s name as a hashtag.

  10. Lose the slasher, it is useless. Via, cc or by followed by @name is clear enough. KISS!

  11. Love it.

    Idea: implement a Slasher regex against the Tweetstream then track/thank well-formed slashers from @IAmTheSlasher. :)

  12. Chris,

    These are great. I started using immediately and expect they will be the norm w/in 6 months.

    Hopefully it will also be the norm that people lop off a /cc if one is in a tweet they are retweeting. I /cc’d someone today and now they’ve been cc’d so to speak 5 times. ;)

  13. Seems like too much work to remember all of that. it took me long enough to figure out what the heck “OH” stood for and is very confusing when you don’t know.

  14. Seems sensible. If I put /bcc instead of /cc will readers be polite and look away so as not to see the names following?

  15. I love this. May I suggest another? “/nb” for “nota bene”.

    E.g., when you want to add a comment to a RT, you might append:
    /nb I was thinking the same thing

  16. In the first example for /cc where it follows a /via, did you intend to omit the slash?

    [blah blah] /via @name cc @friend

    Sure it saves another character, but you’re breaking the microsyntax

    1. That’s the intention. And no, it’s not breaking the syntax, since I made it up! ;)

      To better understand the role of the slasher, consider this:

      [meat] / [meta]

      The idea is to separate the metadata from the post content, that’s all. All additional slashes doesn’t increase the amount of meaning — it just crowds the content.

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  18. /nb seemed archaic, so I’ve modified my own convention and am now using /me to demarcate my own notes on a tweet (especially retweets).

  19. Interesting idea Chris – more 3 semantic tagging for Twiitter. I suggest using the mathematical sign “+” for any links. Good luck!

  20. I like your single-slasher mix-of-pointers trick, but I’m having trouble mingling it with commentary. Just spent an unreasonable amount of time crafting this (exactly 140 char!):

    Twitter v. Facebook /by @mjasay (sounds like “rather than do either, they’ll do s’thing else tht neither groks at all”)

    Got a better structural idea?

  21. @Jack: It’s not perfect, but I use /me to add my own commentary (always the with slasher):

    Twitter v. Facebook /by @mjasay /me: sounds like “rather than do either, they’ll do s’thing else tht neither groks at all”

    I mean, you don’t need to be religious about using slashtags — they’re really just a useful way for adding more context to your post, or giving credit/pointing at people. I wouldn’t stress about “doing it wrong” — just focus on communicating clearly! ;)

  22. Though not a ‘tag’ in the conventional sense described above, I’ve written here about what I called the “crashtag.” It’s any bit of text–though now trending towards a single period–prefixed to the @ of a ‘reply.’ The effect, of course, is to publish the conversation to all of ones followers, not just those who follow both parties thereby expanding the ‘conversation-sphere.’ It’s too early for a consensus on the propriety of its use, but it arguably produces a performance-oriented Twitter persona.


  23. By, via, RT, hat-tip… there’s too much variation when it comes to crediting people. A RT is for when you’re tweeting something someone else tweeted, and if you got something through them (usually a link), it’s via, but that takes care of things like quotes and hat-tips. OH is a standard meme, now, so that’s also not going anywhere.

    RT has already been turned into a feature, but ‘via’ is often mis-used (as a RT). The word would have to be clearly defined before it’s ready.

  24. @Michael Kozakewich: while I’m sympathetic with your desire to simplify, I don’t see what you’re suggesting for the case of “forwarding with annotation.” The un-annotated RT was already widely discouraged before Twitter commandeered it for their “un-annotated and masquerading as someone else” feature (which perhaps ought better to be called “channelling” ;-)

    Consider the real-life metaphore: at a party or in a pub, when you want to introduce two friends, you don’t grab them and mash them face to face, you add something: “This is Rick, we went to high-school together” or “Do you know Jenny? She’s VP of marketing and IBM” or “Frank here can put three pool balls in his mouth!”

  25. My concern, a few months ago, was that we should put quotes around RTs and then add whatever afterwards, or do some sort of annotation syntax before annotating with our own remarks. I think the problem is that there’s no real way to annotate in Twitter. We could cram what we can in the remaining space beside someone’s tweet (I say at the end, to avoid an out-of-context phrase preceding the tweet), or we could link to someone else’s RT in our tweet (if Twitter had its own url shortener for tweets, it would be easier), because RTing now seems to be similar to linking to others’ tweets.

    At the moment, tweets have the link
    if it was or such, it would save us twenty characters. Even would save.

    Anyway, Twitter could have a function that allowed us to click ‘Retweet’, give us a whole 140 characters to type an annotation (“I really like this article, but feel that [blah blah issue] should be handled [blah blah matter].”) and then post a link to the RT with the annotation tweet.

    Or something.

    Things being as they are, at this moment, I still see a lot of “I don’t think so. RT @so-and-so I really would like @first-person to kiss a frog,” the beginning of which makes no sense until you realize it’s a RT and read the second half of the tweet.

    I’m an advocate of something like the following, for now:

    RT @so-and-so : “I really would like @first-person to kiss a frog” I don’t think so!

  26. And RT is even less letters & better knowledge transfer than /via.

    Bring Back the RT!

  27. (Chris, is it possible to move the ‘Post a Comment’ form above the bazillion twitter comments?)

    Wayan, RT hasn’t gone anywhere. Twitter has added a “Retweet” link, which will do a hard retweet of someone’s tweet, but you can still “RT @so-and-so…” if you want. I’ve seen some of those RTs, lately.
    I don’t think Twitter has ever touched RTs.

    However, apps like Tweetie have historically added their own functionality to Twitter, such as an actual Retweet button, and they should now give people a choice to decide which ‘retweet’ they mean. TweetDeck, for example, asks users which one they mean, with the option of setting that to “do-this-and-don’t-ask-again.”
    (i.e. It’s your fault for relying on those apps)

  28. @Michael Kozakewich: I’ve been meaning to redesign this blog for a while.

    I’ll make sure to separate the tweets from the local comments. Thanks for the suggestion.

  29. I vote that we make RT and /via the same thing. Having RT seems to break the syntax, unless we move it to the end: /rt. As it is, it seems like there are too many ways to give credit when I believe really only one is needed. I understand the differences between RT, via, OH, and by, but there just isn’t enough of a difference or enough of a benefit to justify the complexity. /via can technically mean any of these, and therefore seems the best suited to replace them all.

    That said, I really like the /cc and /me concepts. Great stuff. Very useful.

  30. For some time now I’ve had an idea for “bangtags” that would identify characteristics of linked content such as video or explicit content. I used the exclamation point rather than the hashmark for two reasons: to avoid confusion with coincidental nonstandardized hashtags, and to denote the fact that the tag alerts the reader to some characteristic of the linked content that might be problematic.

    I thought about augmenting the slashtags with this proposal, and decided not to because the slash doesn’t denote caution like the bang does.

    My basic proposal for bangtags is at my website link. What do you think about this idea?

  31. @factoryjoe I like the idea of slashtags, and will start using them.

    I want to find another way to prepend blog comments (since I twitterfeed Cocomments). Prepending the twitter handle works when the blogger is on Twitter. When he/she isn’t — or worse yet, when disambiguation is needed — I need an alternative. Maybe a hashtag is second-best.

  32. The “cc” is highly useful. I don’t usually bother with the pointers, though, when context makes it obvious that I’m doing a CC:

    Pork rinds are the food of the ungodly. /@person1 @person2

    As for the question “why add noise”? I think there are 2 considerations:

    1. You might be making a general tweet, which SHOULD be directed at your entire follower list, but which you want to bring to the attention of particular people who might otherwise not notice it. Nothing wrong with that…i t’s not “noise” any more than if the cc wasn’t there.

    2. For shared public conversations (multiple people who are known to follow each other) there’s an appropriate way to deal with this: start the tweet with an @reply to at least one of those people:

    @person1 will probably agree that pork rinds are the food of the ungodly. /cc @person2

    Should substantially reduce the noise to your follower list as a whole, since they would have to be mutual followers.

  33. I think there are a dozen more important cuts to do on twitter than implementing a rather complicated reference system.

    Long time since I’ve been pushing to make the links shorter. “http://” steals 7 (in words: seven!) characters, “www.” another 4.

    I am very much in favor of combining the search advantages of hashtags with shortening URL.

    ## “http://” + automatically a hashtag
    ### “http://www.” + the same

  34. Some problems I find with Twitter for iPhone: 1. Retweet just does what it says, not allowing you to add a comment. 2. “Quote” tweet puts the original poster’s @sig and the tweet inside quotation marks. Then I have to remove the quotation marks and usually put an RT in front of the @sig, and then add my own two cents at the end with a double slash (“//” – end of line comment syntax from many programming languages). So it ends up looking like this:

    RT @nytimes: Big Problems in Afghanistan // You’re not kidding!

    Do you think there would be a nicer syntax that would give credit to the original source and let me add my own words? “/me” doesn’t seem right to me.

  35. I haven’t come across /by before, I really like the idea though, I think I’ll start using that as it comes up.

  36. Ha I acutally spent some time trying to standardise my twitter pointers; figuring out brackets, colons, location. This is great though and is very similar to what I use on my blog. Will begin using from now on. Let’s hope it catches on. Shame is, most people don’t care though.

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