All hail the “Grand Pubah” of typographic symbols: the “@”! This thought came to mind the other evening when it occurred to me that this symbol has leapt out of obscurity to common use in the last decade. It has come from the humble origins of the commercial and accounting invoice and risen to be the internet equivalent of “Super Glue”. If you’re reading this, you use the “at” symbol every day to connect. It is the digital equivalent of the Dickensian doorknocker – it even resembles that antiquated device slightly.
It’s become so common it’s sometimes substituted for the very word “at”. From email to Twitter to forums and blogs the “@” symbol is more important than even the almighty period; end of sentence. Considering the abuse grammar takes at my hands and others, I wonder how our English teachers can stand it.
Almost like Elvis, all it took was for one guy to pluck it from obscurity in 1971 and a star was born. Raymond Tomlinson came up with the idea of using it as a way to send email to a specific user on a given machine, thus launching it towards ubiquity. There’s a great article about him here.
We use this symbol today not to price fruit, but to address a person. It is part of our greeting, our handshake it allows us to connect incredible potential. Even when we reach out using technology to thousands or millions of subscribers or followers, this symbol connects us to just one individual. “Role accounts” aside, the “at” symbol should demand our respect because it opens a dialog.
Symbols are powerful and many invoke in us almost primal reactions. I think at this point we are too early on in our use of the “@” symbol to instinctively accord it the respect it deserves. We’ll have to learn to love it more because I see a bright future for it. The “@” symbol may prove more relevant to future generations than the peace symbol has for others. After all, it doesn’t just convey one meaning, but heralds the beginning of an exchange of ideas.
Symbols do a lot of very important things in our society, but no other does what this one does. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for symbols which tell me when to stop or go or when everything is OK. Our modern lives would be impossible without them. Yet as ubiquitous as all these other symbols are, only the “@” symbol signifies such astonishing potential. The staggering potential to connect us to countless others around the globe and allow interaction with them is a lot of potency for one symbol to convey. We should remember that potential when we use it and conduct ourselves accordingly.