Recent history taught us, if something is simple, makes sense and it is easy to use, it will most likely become a standard. Nowhere else has this more proven to be true than on the Web.
Through the increasing expansion of Twitter, the at-sign (@) has become a standard reference for a sender’s name. It is the first time online, that the @-sign finds public usage outside of email addresses, where the @-sign is used after a name and before a domain name. Never the less, for everything that is posted online, this is going to become the new standard.
At my job we use Yammer. People at my office recently started to use the @-sign as a reference for people, as if it had never been any different. Chances are, this standard will become status quo in a couple of months from now, and other services will seamlessly adapt to the new pattern. I even predict that any online service who doesn’t use it, will be forced to use it, by the people participating in the service. This is one of the memes that is simple enough to actually break through on the lines of mass adoption.
Emerging standards: @ for user names, # for tags
Another change (introduced 2007) was the usage of hashtags (#). This change feels so obvious, it makes me scratch my head why no one had thought about it earlier. Hashtags are the natural semantic reference for tags, another emerging standard on the Web and other online media. Again, I expect more services to adapt to the situation and seamlessly integrate hashtags in their reference-system. And again, if they won’t do it, people will start doing it anyway.
So we have @ for people, # for tags. Is that all we need? Maybe it is. But from my perspective there is one thing missing, and that is the source. But the source has always been the URL, the actual link, you may say. This is true from a technical perspective, and of course, on the Web, hyperlinks are seen as the standard reference to a source. But semantically, they link to something but they don’t automatically refer to it as a source.
Do we really need a semantic reference for source?
Isn’t anyone posting something, the sender (@name), automatically the source of information? True in many cases. Of course if I make a personal statement online, I become the source of that particular bit of information. However, in many other cases I quote someone (often using quotation marks), or I refer to a source, where I found that particular part of information. When I quote Wikipedia in a paper, I put a footnote at the bottom of the page, along with an asterisk sign.
There you have it, the natural usage of asterisks for reference sources. It didn’t start today, it started long time before the Web was born, and long before # stood for hashtags and @ stood for user names.
Traditionally, the asterisk has always been a sign for birth. Look at old public birth-notices, and their counterpart, the public death-notice. The *-sign stands for birth, the †-sign stands for death.
The asterisk as a reference to a source has always been used in books, articles, papers and blog posts. An adaption on Twitter and other Web services would only be a natural continuation of this usage.
To help distinguish the source of information from a person, I propose we start using the following pattern:
Here is a usage example:
I’m interested to hear your opinions. Please leave your comments and start spreading the itiative to broaden the discussion.