New microsyntax for Twitter: three pointers and the slasher

FactoryCity • by Chris Messina


Slash balloons

Image based on Kevin Van Aelst’s original.

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!

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