How Twitter Replies Work

Twitter is a fantastic medium for communicating one-on-one or en masse, but how that communication works (or doesn’t) is sometimes confusing. I think the thing that trips people up more than anything else is the reply function; when you @username somebody. When people want to reply directly to just one person, they often share the tweet with everybody who follows them.  Conversely, when they want to mention another user on Twitter but share it with everybody, they often only send their message to that person. So how are you supposed to understand this syntax? How do Twitter replies work?

It all comes down to this: if your tweet starts with a username (e.g. @mattsingley) then it will only be seen by that person and anybody who follows both you and them. If your tweets starts with any character or symbol other than the @ symbol, it will be potentially* seen by everybody that follows you, whether or not they also follow the person mentioned.

This can be confusing, so let me show you a couple of examples.

Example 1: Direct Reply

In the tweet above, you’ll see that I started with @ and Adam’s username. Since there is nothing else before the @ symbol, only Adam and those who follow me AND Adam will see this in their timeline. Note that they can still go directly to my Twitter page, look through my history of tweets and see this. Starting a tweet with @ doesn’t block this tweet from public viewing (that is what Direct Messages are for), but it won’t be included in timelines as people look at their feed on their desktop or mobile. This method is my favorite aspect of Twitter; the conversation. You can tweet back and forth with a person (or several people) without overwhelming every person that follows you with your personal conversation. 

Examaple 2: Username Mention

This tweet is different from the first tweet in that it has a period before the @ symbol in the tweet.  This means that everybody that follows me will potentially see this, whether or not they also follow Adam.  Don’t get hung up on the period, I only use that because it’s subtle and doesn’t visually take away from the sentence. It could be a quotation mark, a comma or even a full word. The point that you need to understand is that something has to come before the @ symbol in the tweet. A lot of people like to start with a word so it feels like it is part of the comment.  For example, when griping about a brand online, people love to start with “Hey”. They’ll tweet “Hey @gianttelco, just wanted to let you know your customer service is terrible…”.  A note here: just mentioning a user later in your Tweet doesn’t mean you have to put a “.” at the start of your tweet. It’s not necessary as long as your tweet starts with anything other than a @username.

Summary: if you want to have a conversation with just one person, start your tweet with their username, making sure that the @ symbol in their name is the very first character you use.  If you want to mention another Twitter user, but be sure that those that follow you see it, put any symbol (like a period) at the beginning of the tweet before their user name.

*”Potentially seen by everybody that follows you” means that it isn’t guaranteed to be seen by everybody.  In fact, the very nature of Twitter insures that most people that follow you won’t see your tweet unless they happen to be logged in when you post your tweet.  Remember that Twitter is chronological (for now, that will change soon) and unlike Facebook, doesn’t sort tweet with an algorithm. If you have an important tweet that really should be seen my a lot of people, post it a few times throughout the course of the day, or spend money on a promoted campaign


By Matt Singley

Personal: husband to Alison, father to four amazing kids. I used to live a fast but enjoyable life in Los Angeles, now I have chickens on acreage in Charlotte, North Carolina. Just a bit different. I'm an advocate for cycling as much as you can and eating as cleanly as you can afford. Professional: I'm the CEO of Singley + Mackie, a creative digital agency that serves well-known lifestyle and entertainment companies around the world. Clients include Microsoft, Samsung, Hulu, YP and others. If you want to find the more-professional me, go to