I have become so habituated to referring to people in my tweets as @robcottingham, @morganbrayton, @kk etc. that I’m starting to think of “at” as part of my friends’ names. You know, the way Spanish names often include “de la” or Hebrew names include a “Ben” this or that. I’m anticipating the day, perhaps not too long from now, when we routinely refer to people by their “at” names:
“Hey, are you going to see At-SarahL later?”
“Yeah, we’re going to the movies with At-KimR.”
“OK, well can you tell At-SarahL that she left At-BobLemon’s hat at At-LarissaQ’s house?”
Yes, it could get confusing. But the “at” is more than a Twitter artifact — though heaven knows, Twitter has gotten the @ symbol into particularly heavy use.
E-mail is the ground zero of the “at” symbol: whatever you think your name might be, it isn’t really fixed as a public identity unless you own email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you’re really desperate, email@example.com. Want to tell someone how to find you online? You’re “at” your URL: “We’re at SocialSignal.com”. The entire country of Austria finds itself at .at. And am I the only one who finds it suspicious that the entire iPhone revolution (at least in America) has unfolded at at[&t]?
Our infrastructure has yet to catch up. This summer I almost ordered some monogrammed socks during our trip to Paris, so that they could match the Twitter handle on my shoes (see: above). But the embroidery machine couldn’t do an @ symbol — what the French call an “arobase”. Deal breaker!
For all that we’re embracing “at” as a part of our names, our identities and even our selves, the actual meaning of “at” has never been less relevant. “Where are you at?” is almost purely a metaphor now — a “how are you feeling?” — unless you’re trying to find someone in a crowd or on a street corner by using your cell phones, in which case you are more or less at the same place anyhow. Where are you at? — physically — is a concept that has almost ceased to matter, in a world where it’s often easier to find someone online than down the hall or even in the bed next to you.
Perhaps the at-ification of our names is just the last phase in the de-atting of our lives. In a world where place is irrelevant, “at” becomes a superfluous preposition. Twitter and e-mail are simply providing jobs for some of the @s that would otherwise be out of work in a virtualized world.