The Unlikely Evolution Of The @ Symbol

Once a bookkeepers’ shorthand, @ has become the fulcrum of our digital identities. How did that happen?

For a moment, let’s not think about the @ symbol in the way we usually think of it, as the fulcrum of an email address, the navel connecting us to our Twitter handles, or even just the weird a hanging out above the 2 key.

Let’s imagine it instead blinking upon a screen. It exists as our focal point in a Metaverse of text. It’s a world with endless layers, the geometries, architectures, and inhabitants of which are likewise described by symbols on our keyboard. And in this world, @ is our avatar: a logogram of power that, once inscribed, represents our identity in an entirely digital world.

This metaphor for the @ symbol may seem exotic, but it isn’t new. Some of the very first computer video games (called roguelikes) used @ to represent the player as he explored rudimentary ASCII dungeons. "This is you, and you are at this location within our cyber world."

More to the point, that’s how we still use it. Popularized and rejuvenated by its insertion before every Twitter handle, the @ symbol today is almost a pronoun. It has a very personal meaning for billions of people across the planet. It’s the symbol that means "digital me."

What makes this such an incredible feat is that before until about 20 years ago, few people had ever used an @ symbol at all, and if they did, they used it in a very different way than they do now.

"If you look at how we use typography, the human brain seems to only have room in its mental character set for a finite number of characters," says Keith Houston, the author of the upcoming book Shady Characters: The Secret Life Of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. "We’re just not willing to slot in new symbols, or change the meaning of old characters. We just don’t have the room."

So unlike words, the definitions of which tend to evolve through usage, the meaning of a symbol or character tends to be put in stasis by the cultural momentum behind it. The @ symbol, however, has done something unique, shrugging off centuries of momentum to evolve multiple times in the span of little more than a single generation.

Part of what made that accomplishment possible was the @ symbol’s obscurity to begin with. Ever since the 1500s, and for hundreds of years after, the only people who used @ were bookkeepers, who used it as a shorthand to show how much they were selling or buying goods for: for example, "3 bottles of wine @ $10 each."

Since these bookkeepers used @ to deal with money, a certain degree of whimsical fondness for the character developed over time. In Danish, the symbol is known as an "elephant’s trunk a"; the French call it an escargot. It’s a streudel in German, a monkey’s tail in Dutch, and a rose in Istanbul. In Italian, it’s named after a huge amphora of wine, a liquid some Italian bookkeepers have been known to show a fondness for.

Even with such cute names to recommend it, though, @ languished in obscurity for three and a half centuries, only ending up on a new invention called the typewriter when salesmen realized that accountants and bookkeepers were buying them in droves.

In 1971, however, a keyboard with a vestigial @ symbol inherited from its typewriter ancestors found itself hooked up to an ARPANET terminal manned by Ray Tomlinson, who was working on a little program he’d come up with in his goofing-off time to send messages from computer to computer. Tomlinson ended up using the @ symbol as the fulcrum of the lever that ultimately ended up lifting the world into the digital age: email.

"It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Tomlinson’s situation choosing anything other than the '@' symbol, but his decision to do so at the time was inspired," explains Houston on his blog. "Firstly, it was extremely unlikely to occur in any computer or user names; secondly, it had no other significant meaning for the operating system on which it would run, and lastly, it read intuitively—user ‘at’ host."

It was as simple as that, but through this one serendipitous accident of typography, @ became the navel of the digital body we now call the Internet. It stopped being a sign for how much something cost and became a symbol of an infinite number of end points on a digital umbilicus: an origin, a destination, or some point—terminating in a human—in the system in-between.

As email matured, and early mass-market Internet services like Prodigy and America Online became popular, @ became even more typographically unique. It stood alone on the keyboard as the one symbol known more for its association with the Internet than for anything else. And as multiple service providers and technology companies grappled with trying to mass-market this new "World Wide Web" to consumers, the @ symbol became the call sign for the dot-com bubble.

"In the late-'90s, the @ symbol actually became generic," Houston argues. "It was like Apple’s 'i’ prefix, or putting 'e’ in front of everything is today."

In fact, it became tacky. A symbol which had been chosen for email by virtue of its clarity, its elegance, and its relative obscurity became just another sticker in the box of cynical marketers looking to disguise analog companies and products for the turn of the millennium. Got something you want to jam to those console cowboys in cyberspace? Just put an "e-" in front of it, slap a dot-com at the end, and replace all the a's with @ symbols. "Eat e-b@n@n@s! Dot com!"

Inevitably, the @ symbol as the internationally recognized logo for anything "cyber" became played out. Laughably so, in fact. Stumble across one of Europe’s remnant "CyberC@fes" today and the default reaction is a sort of bemusement and smirking superiority that we reserve for other quaintly naive cultural relics of the retro-future, like putting "2000" at the end of something or 1950s Popular Mechanics articles on robot housemaids. By the early 2000s, the @ symbol was pretty much dead except as the thing sandwiched in the middle of two halves of an email address.

But then Twitter happened, and the @ symbol reinvented itself yet again—this time purifying itself from a dot-com-era cliché into a rune of Internet identity.

When Twitter first launched in 2006, the service’s modus operandi was to offer a blogging platform tiny enough that it could be done by mobile (dumb) phones. The 140-character limit Twitter imposes upon tweets to this day is a relic from this time, in which any tweet needed to be short enough that it could squeeze inside a 160-character SMS text message. Consequently, Twitter was much more no-frills back then than it is now. In fact, when the service launched, it didn’t even have a reply mechanism. If you wanted to reply to someone’s tweet, you just sort of responded into the ether in any way you hoped might catch another user’s attention.

The @ symbol’s adoption as Twitter’s accepted reply mechanism happened organically, and took about eight months. The first use of an @ reply can be traced to Thanksgiving Day, 2006, when a couple of Yahoo UK programmers named Ben Darlow and Neil Crosby started using it (as they wrote at the time) as a "pseudo-syntax to let a Follower on twitter know that you’re directing a comment at them." Just two months later, the @ reply was the universal Twitter reply mechanism, and now, you can type @ and follow it with the name of pretty much anyone on any social network to direct a reply to them.

As with its use in email, it’s hard to imagine Twitter not using @ to have conversations. But as with email, the decision was inspired. It was relatively easy to type on T9 cell phone keypads, and read intuitively: You were directing a comment "at" someone else. But instead of being used as it is used in email—a symbol used to tell your computer that you want to direct a message to a specific person at a specific location—the @ symbol has now become something much more abstract: a one-character prefix that is used to identify a person’s digital presence on a social network.

Whether on Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter, type @ into almost any social network and you can direct a reply straight to another user. Just as in the earliest computer games, @ now clearly represents people who are inhabiting a digital world. "This is you. You are at here."

"All characters evolve in the way they are used, but the @ symbol’s evolution has been particularly striking," Houston says. "It was mundane for a long time, only to undergo a startling transition during the beginning of the computer revolution that put it at the center of the way we think about the Internet."

But how permanent is this meaning for @, and could it be upended by another revolution that completely changes its meaning for our children and their children?

"The @ symbol is pretty well associated with digital identity now, so it’s hard to see how it could be divorced from that," Houston claims. "These days, revolutions are getting incrementally smaller. The @ symbol has become our emblem for our online selves. I think that meaning is here to stay."

[Illustrations: Doodles via Shutterstock, Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]

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