There was a time when the @ symbol was practically extinct. It still hung around on keyboards but the only people that used it were merchants (for symbolizing a rate, such as 10 boxes of apples @ $5 each). Even the origin of the symbol is shrouded in mystery. Some say it was a mark made by Latin scholars to replace “ad” while others say it was another way of writing the French word for at, à. No matter which of those stories is true I think we can all agree it’s a horribly inefficient abbreviation.
But the @ symbol found a home again when Ray Tomlinson decided to use it in 1971 for email addresses. Once email gained popularity a few decades later, the @ symbol surged back to the forefront to take its rightful place among the periods and commas of the punctuation elite. Now we use it daily in email addresses, Twitter handles, or as a shortcut to tag people on social media platforms (although even that is being phased out with just the person’s name, at least on Facebook).
The hash mark (# in case you didn’t know the name) also languished in the second or third tier of punctuation marks for decades. For a while it was called the pound sign, although never in Britain where pound is a form of currency even though they’ve converted to the metric system. It was easier than having everyone carry around coins suddenly worth 0.4536 kilograms. In the US it was largely known as the number sign, such as #2 pencils. Because many people in the US, apparently, wouldn’t know that 2 is a number unless you played a game of tic-tac-toe first.
The symbol was used in a variety of computer programming languages but gained traction in the early networking days with Internet Relay Chat. On IRC, the symbol was used to designate different channels of conversation and later was adopted by Twitter and other platforms to identify topics (more on that in the earlier post, Three Legal Risks In The Year Of The Hashtag). The symbol now regularly appears on social media platforms, online videos, and even during TV shows.
If technology and social media can save those two punctuation marks from obscurity, I wonder if some emerging social media issues could also find solutions in seldom used symbols on our current keyboard. Here’s three ideas of solutions that are just a keystroke (and a lot of hard work by platforms) away.
~ Obscuring Location
The tilde (~) has a few standalone uses in math and other sciences but is mostly known for being paired with letters in certain languages to denote nasalization, velarization, or laryngealisation. Don’t feel bad, I had to look them up too. But the one standalone use for the tilde that some people still use is to have it denote “approximately.” As in I have ~$15 in my wallet or this blog post is ~too long.
That approximation could be a useful thing on platforms that include geolocation data. We see more and more platforms including GPS data for postings where you would expect the data (checking into a business or location) and for several where you wouldn’t automatically expect location to be included such as photos and text.
Wouldn’t it be useful to have the tilde obscure our location? If you want your precise location to be included then you just post your content normally. Add one tilde and it tells your general area or neighborhood. Add a second one and it just tells your city. A third tilde would only display your state or small geographic country (shout out to my European readers!). Heck, add enough tildes and it only says your content was posted from Earth (shout out to my Martian readers!). The tilde key could be a simple way to allow for geolocation privacy if platforms try to include that data by default.
| Sharing Data
The pipe symbol or vertical bar ( | ) (and yes I know a few less mature readers are snickering right now) has very few uses outside of mathematics, physics, and computing. But its main computing use could be an interesting application in social media. The bar is known as the pipe symbol because in Unix it can be used to take the output of one process and use it as the input of another. In essence, it allows two unconnected processes to share data.
Social media platforms typically have applications that sit on top of that platform. Figuring out the permission scheme, from allowed activities to information access, is incredibly complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a set of services or applications that we could invoke from anywhere on a platform just by typing the pipe symbol and then where we wanted that data to go?
Instead of having a box on the main Facebook page that allows me to update my status and the need to go visit a specific application to do anything else, I could just use the same box for everything. Want to update my status? Just type away. Want to add an event to my calendar? Start typing the date and info and then hit the pipe key and type calendar. Want to private message someone? Type the message, the pipe, then message and their name. This could be a nice way to control information sharing without having to enable widespread permission for applications (which carries security and legal risks).
The caret symbol (^) is another rarely used character outside of pairing with some letters to denote a circumflex (which is a fine diacritic but, let’s be honest, it’s no laryngealisation). But where we do see it pop up already in social media is to reference the item posted previously. Such as
Awesome Reader: This is the best SoMeLaw blog post ever, I must share it!
Supercool Reader: ^^^ Exactly! I’m sharing it right now!
Facebook has been rolling out reply to comment functionality this year and eventually it will reach everyone. Many people wanted this functionality but it comes with a price–once replies to comments are enabled then the most popular or most replied-to comments rise to the top. It turns replies on a post from a chronological conversation to a collection of comments and responses so some comments may no longer make sense once placed out of order. Perhaps a compromise would be to allow replies to be posted but buried under the original when the caret is used. This would be a true response since it falls under the original, allowing the conversation to continue within that thread, but still keep the order of original comments so that they don’t lose context.
These are just a few ways that platforms could offer us extra, desired functionality and save some poor, unused punctuation marks in the meantime. Any punctuation marks you’d like to save from an untimely death?