The @ Symbol

The @ symbol is an all too familiar yet mysterious symbol. Located on a standard keyboard just above the number two, it’s become a standard symbol in the world of technology. Where did it originate and what are its modern applications? In Israel it’s known as the “strudel”, in Holland, a “monkeys tail”, Sweden an “elephant trunk”, Germany the “clinging monkey”, and in English the “at” symbol but among all of these nicknames, the @ symbol has emerged as an important icon in the world of social media that connects people and ideas all across the world [4].

Figure 1: Click on the image to watch a YouTube video about the @ symbol.


The history of this symbol traces back long before the days of Twitter and Facebook. One theory is that medieval monks searching for shortcuts while copying manuscripts used the symbol for shorthand [1]. It then lent itself to commerce meaning “at the rate of”.  Then in 1971 ambiguity of the @ symbol came to a close when computer scientist, Ray Tomlinson, discovered how to connect people who programmed computers with one another, by using @ [2].  The @ symbol had made it’s debut into the world of technology and there it has stayed.

The most common temporary usage of @ is in email addresses. For example, means the user prestigeworldwide located at the domain. Some of the most frequently used email domains include: Gmail, iCloud, Hotmail and Yahoo. Most recently, the @ symbol has adapted to an even more powerful usage, weaving its way into social media, with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The @ symbol allows for easy accessibility through various media platforms and is a form of social media marketing. As social media is increasing in popularity and significance, symbols have become a crucial part of its success. We use the @ sign in social media:

  • to directly capture the attention of someone amongst a group
  • to send a message directly at someone amongst millions of users
  • as a sign of attribution when you “retweet”
  • to suggest a follow to others or something
  • to help users navigate through information to find what’s relevant to them
  • to spread a word because it limits the number of people who can see that message
  • to give credit to an original source.

Besides communicating our thoughts, the @ sign is also a great method for sharing links to all sort of places on the Internet. For example, after a link is tweeted adding “@Name”, it gives credit to the individual who found the link and shared it with you. It creates a chain that links back and credits to the original source. Twitter and Instagram communities have grown accustomed to mentioning brands through “@Brand”, this allows followers to gain easy access to the brand mentioned. The @ is a method of free advertising that is so easily accessible and available to people all over the world.

The @ symbol remains a mainstay of modern communication, its use predominantly used in emails, social media and especially in Twitter. Twitter is a social media platform that has taken the world of the web by storm; in 2011 it had over 500 million registered users including President Obama and Air Canada [3]. Twitter is designed to allow its users to discover the latest news and information about topics they are interested in. Users create an account and choose other users to ‘follow’. When you follow an account, their tweets will appear on your news feed. Twitter uses the @ symbol to connect users to each other. For example, if I wanted to inform the BCIT Twitter account that I think BCIT offers the best marketing program, I would tweet: ‘@BCIT your Marketing program has taught me so much!’. @BCIT would then get a notification that they were tagged and see that I was connecting with them. The @ symbol provides tweeters with a simple way to connect with what’s most important to them.

The use of the @ symbol within the world of Twitter began with its users unbeknownst to the founders. Tweeters started to place the @ symbol in front of a tweet when they were trying to communicate directly at a particular person but its official use only came later when Twitter staff saw its potential.

While it’s predominant social media use is with Twitter, the @ symbol also has a place in the world of Facebook. When Facebook users put @ in front of someone’s name, say in a post, or in the comment of a picture, it will automatically tag that persons Facebook account, creating a link to their page.  Similar to Facebook, Instagram users can put the @ symbol in front of the name of another user; for example if someone wanted to credit someone for a photo, they would say Photo Credit  @PhotographerMan this would then create a link to PhotographerMan’s Instagram account.

Chart 1 - @ Symbol In Social Media 1

Chart 1 – @ Symbol In Social Media 1

What we see has a profound effect on what we do, how we feel and who we are. Our minds react differently to visual stimuli [5]. For example, a graphic description of a circle is much more clear and efficient than a textual description stating “a curved line with every point equal distance from the centre”. This analogy is synonymous to the use of the @ symbol. Symbols are powerful and many invoke in us almost primal reactions [6]. Our use of the @ symbol is becoming so instinctive; and it’s ability to allow interaction between individuals around the world is astounding.

Chart 2 - Uses of the @ Symbol 1

Chart 2 – Uses of the @ Symbol 1

By: Prestige Worldwide, Set J
(Ryan Bruce, Anna Dachuk, Megan Monaghan, Rochelle Nguyen, Kendall Parkinson, Rahul Ram)


[1] Adjmera, Harsh. “Social Media Facts, Figures and Statistics 2013.” Discus. Digital Insight, June 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

[2] Allman, William. “The Accidental History of the @ Symbol.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian Media, Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

[3] Atul. “How Did Twitter Become Popular?” Strat In. Strategy Web, 21 July 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.

[4] Herron, Scott. “A Natural History of the @ Sign: Part One.” A Natural History of the @ Sign. Herodios, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

[5] Picard, Andre. “The History of Twitter.” The Globe and Mail. Thomson Reuters Limited, 20 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.

[6] Neal, Ignile. “History of the ‘at’ Symbol.” At Symbol. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

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