When is it right to @mention people on Twitter?

Twitter Bird Sketch by Shawn Campbell

As Twitter continues to mature and develop, so has its use and functionality among the 500 million people who use the platform.

When Twitter first hit the scene in 2007, it was used primarily to let others know where you were or what you were thinking in short, text message-sized updates (hence the 140-character limit). But as time has moved on, so has its users and the way they use Twitter to communicate

To @mention or not to @mention?

It was recently pointed out to me me that my use of @mentions when talking about someone (not directly to them) in a less than positive way was ‘intriguing’. I asked why and before they answered pointed me in the direction of this interesting point-of-view from comedian Robin Ince.

In his post, Robin considers the change in behaviour some people experience as soon as they get online. For example, normally shy people suddenly become confident and opinionated whilst others may go from being quiet and polite to noisy and angry at the sight of a provocative blog post, tweet or news article.

But more specifically (and part of the inspiration for this post), Robin also talks about Twitter and the use of the @mention. In his own words:

“The most unpleasant way of using Twitter is not the direct spit in the face, but the “I know you are here, and I am going to demean you without looking in your eye”. This is the “ had a great weekend, only ruined by seeing that unbearably shit @robinince”.

Robin’s post raises some very interesting questions about Twitter etiquette and what behaviour is either right or wrong when communicating (often anonymously) online with others.

Using @mentions as a ‘right to reply’

Whilst I agree with Robin on many of the points he makes, I do not necessarily share his view that @mentioning people in passing (e.g. “Just got back from seeing @johncleese live in London”) is always a bad thing. Whilst I have personally never (and will never) verbally abuse someone – directly or indirectly – on Twitter or any other social networking site, for that matter, I do sometimes say negative things about (high profile) people or companies in passing.

Although many people liken Twitter to real-life social gatherings (e.g. with many people standing around in a room talking with one another), I see it a little differently. Whilst I agree it has its similarities, it also has clear differences.

For example, Robin suggests that instead of @mentioning people in passing, Twitterers should @mention someone direct if they have something to say, e.g. “@johncleese Just got back from seeing you in London. It was great!”. But in my experience (and the majority of other people’s I’m guessing as well) someone like John Cleese probably wouldn’t respond to me if I did this. Whereas if we were in one big room and a spoke directly to him I’m pretty sure he would.

I therefore @mention people in passing in such a way as to give them a ‘right to reply’. For example, if I said something negative, such as the tweet about Chris Moyles (@CHRISDJMOYLES) below (N.B. I didn’t know Nick Grimshaw – or ‘Grimmy’, as I sarcastically refer to him as – had a Twitter handle at the time, otherwise I would have used @grimmers), by @mentioning him he will at least receive this mention by email or on a dashboard like Hootsuite or TweetDeck if he happens to use one. Whereas if I just mentioned him by name (e.g. “I was a fan of Chris Moyles…”) this would give him less opportunity to see what I have said about him in passing.

Chris Moyles @mention tweet


In keeping with the ‘room full of people’ comparison used above, I would see not @mentioning Chris Moyles as talking about him behind his back. Because he’s unlikely to respond to me if I @mention him directly, at least by @mentioning him in passing I’ve given Chris Moyles the chance to respond and come back at me if he disagrees or takes exception with what I’ve said. A discourse is then opened up.

I also believe in @mentioning people when I say good or not so good things about them. I try to keep things consistent so that others know what I think about people and companies, something that isn’t always possible if I @mention someone directly (unless they are following that person as well as me).

Manners still matter whether you’re online or not

But whether you see Twitter as being like real-life or not, good manners and respectfulness should still prevail. Although I can be critical about others on Twitter, I would never be outright rude or abusive. Just as I would hope not to be in real-life.

Whenever I talk to or about people on Twitter, I always think to myself “would I be prepared to say this to their face?”. If so, I go ahead. Otherwise, I’ll give it a second or two and reconsider.