The Internet has changed many things about life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s changed the way we use English as well.
The origins of Internet slang are varied, ranging from technological meanings that have morphed into verbal shortcuts to references to badly spelled memes to even further and stranger things.
In this article, we’ll discuss one phrase, “Don’t @ me,” pronounced and often spelled “don’t at me.”
What does it mean when someone says “don’t @ me”?
If someone says “don’t @ me,” then, they are saying they do not want to see you tag them.
This phrase has its origins on popular social network Twitter, where the @ sign on the keyboard is used to “tag” someone.
This symbol is pronounced as “at” due to its inclusion in email addresses, where it indicates the email server a person uses.
In essence, if you type an @ sign and someone’s Twitter username, they get a notification containing what you said about them.
The expression has grown beyond Twitter, as the @ symbol can now be used in a similar way on many other social media platforms.
Typically, this is used in a mock-angry way after exaggerating an opinion on something. In this context, it means something like “and I don’t care what you think.”
However, people also use “don’t @ me” in a serious and sincere manner.
Unless you’re absolutely sure the person is joking, it’s best to assume that anyone who says this does not want to be part of a subsequent conversation about a topic.
The @ (at) sign
The key to understanding this particular piece of Internet slang lies with the @ sign.
Interestingly, there isn’t a formal name for this symbol in English. It supposedly dates from Medieval Spanish and Portuguese, where it was used to refer to a specific weight unit called the “arroba,” roughly 25 pounds.
Long history aside, most people today are familiar with this symbol from email addresses, where the @ refers to the email server or provider associated with a specific email account.
You can think of this @ like the street name or house number in the first line of your physical address.
It’s this association with email addresses that gives the @ its meaning of “at” and its common name of the “at sign.”
However, although it’s most familiar from email addresses, the reason @ is in this particular phrase is because of the popular social media platform Twitter.
@ and Twitter
Twitter is a social media platform that’s all about brevity. On the off chance you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea is that you have 280 characters to send a message to somebody else. (For reference, the length of this paragraph is almost exactly 270 characters.)
Twitter launched in 2006 and by 2007 was already immensely popular, with tens of thousands messages sent per day. Today, Twitter users send tens of millions of messages per day using the service, such a large number you may need to take a moment to let it sink in.
All of this brings us to the prominence of the @ sign, one of the early innovations to Twitter. Although today’s character limit per post is 280, the initial limit was 140.
Because that isn’t much room to say anything, early Twitter users needed a way to direct messages at one another without taking up space.
Someone hit upon the idea of putting an @ in front of someone’s username to get their attention, and by 2008 this was an established enough practice that Twitter added support for it, so that typing @ and someone’s username would send them a notification that they had been mentioned by somebody else.
The @ on other platforms
Although @ had its start as a way to “tag” or mention someone on Twitter, this symbol eventually spread to other systems as well.
For instance, @ can now be used to add someone to a post on Facebook and Instagram, as well as most Internet forums and many other social media services.
Some uses of @ in online communication software actually predate Twitter. In these other platforms, the symbol was often used differently, however.
For instance, on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a popular chat platform in the 1990s and early 2000s, the @ sign before someone’s username indicated that they had administrative access to the chat server or room.
These other uses aside, @ is now firmly associated with Twitter and tagging.
Because of its widespread nature and it near-universal understanding online as being a way to add someone to the conversation, @ has essentially made its way into Internet conversations as a way of meaning “contact” or “include.”
“Don’t @ me” or “Don’t at me” is a great example of this, and we can already start to intuit its ultimate meaning.
To @ or not to @
Like any form of conversation, Internet chat and messaging services often create their own rules and etiquette.
This etiquette is especially fraught around use of the @ sign, because Twitter in particular can give people an enormous group of followers.
Whether or not it’s polite to @ somebody will depend on the situation.
For instance, some people will try to generate a lot of interest in their products or services by finding a celebrity and mentioning them in a post, hoping that the celebrity will see it and share it with their thousands of followers.
In some cases this can be acceptable, especially if the product or service will give its profits to a charitable cause the person cares about.
However, a lot of the time today this practice just devolves into spam, with a person mentioning everybody over and over and over.
People can also use the @ sign to harass others. For example, an emotional abuser or stalker might tag their victims using the @ to let them know they are being watched online, as well as in person.
Most of the time, however, people use the @ sign benevolently.
It’s a great way to involve other people in a conversation you think pertains to them, or celebrate their successes if they are too shy to do it on their own.
Like with any type of etiquette, the best thing to do if you’re not sure whether an @ is appropriate is to ask before you do it.
“Don’t @ me”
All this discussion about @ing may seem like a deep dive into obscure Internet habits, but it’s necessary to really understand the nuance of “don’t at me.”
Because tagging someone with @ is a way to add them to a conversation, explicit requests to not be tagged are essentially the same as saying “I do not want to talk about this topic.”
At its core, then, “don’t at me” or “don’t @ me” basically mean “Please do not add me to this discussion.”
When its being used in a sincere way, that’s exactly what the person saying this is requesting.
It’s worth noting, as well, that the use of this phrase can extend beyond the specific social media platform being used.
Someone who says not to @ them probably just means they don’t want to hear about the topic at all.
“If you find a typo in my latest novel, please don’t @ me with it.”
Here, the author is literally saying not to tag them with the bad news about errors in a book they’ve written.
Although this would probably mean “on Twitter,” the phrase can also suggest that they just don’t want to hear about errors in their book via email, phone call or any other method as well.
“Ugh. Can you please not @ me here?”
This person is tired of being tagged about a specific topic and is asking others to stop doing it. No matter their reason, they are obviously sick of the conversation so the polite thing to do is to listen to their request.
The connection to “fight me”
With the Internet being the Internet, not everyone is interested in sincere conversation.
“Don’t @ me” can also be used in a joking way, kind of like “fight me,” another phrase often seen on Twitter in a less than serious context.
“Fight me” had its start online around the same time as the @ symbol became used on Twitter as a way to tag people.
Unlike @, though, the likely origin of “fight me” is 4chan, an Internet message board known for its raucous atmosphere and, according to some, toxic culture.
On 4chan and similar message boards, the phrase started as “fight me IRL,” where IRL means “in real life.”
The phrase itself has ties to another, “Come at me, bro,” also used as a very macho way of trying to start a fight with someone.
(This one was made Internet famous from an MTV show called Jersey Shore, where one particularly aggressive character had a habit of using it to try and show how tough he is.)
Initially, these requests to fight were made in anger and as a way to show how serious you were about defending your side of an argument.
“Metal is way better than hard rock.”
“WTF. Fight me IRL.”
Here, two people are arguing about music preferences. In a normal, sensible conversation, they might just agree to disagree.
However, the second poster here has taken major issue with the first statement that heavy metal is the better style of music, and is showing it by attempting to start (or at least pretending to want) a physical fight.
“Fight me” and ironic tough guy posturing
Language changes over time, and context is famously king.
What does this have to do with “don’t @ me”? We’ll get there, but for now let’s just remember that these two rules apply just as well to Internet terminology as they do any other type of language.
These days if you see someone say “fight me,” there are even odds that they’re just goofing around.
Especially on Twitter, the phrase has lost much of its angry connotations and now is used more often to emphasize an opinion in a mock-angry way.
When used in this way, “fight me” is usually appended to a post by the same person stating their opinion, rather than posted as a separate response to it.
The opinion itself could be a serious one, or could equally just be someone stating that they are doing something unusual and they don’t care what other people think.
“Adam West is the best Batman fight me.”
“Eating leftover pizza and ice cream for breakfast fight me.”
Both of these examples show “fight me” used as a parody of tough guy culture.
In the first example, the person writing this obviously has a strong preference for the campy 1960s version of Batman.
The second sentence just draws attention to what might be considered a bad habit and an unhealthy breakfast in a jocular manner.
Here, “fight me” implies that the person is well aware this is not a good idea but does not care what people think.
Notice that there is usually no punctuation added before “fight me,” although the phrase can also be written as a separate sentence as well.
“Don’t @ me” as parody
This detour brings us back to our original topic, “don’t at me” or “don’t @ me.”
Like “fight me,” this phrase can be used to draw attention to a post while pretending you don’t want to hear any counter-arguments.
In this sense, saying “don’t @ me” is akin to a “mic drop,” where someone says something so profound or incontestable that the only possible response is awed silence.
Basically, if someone uses the phrase this way they are implying that their opinion is the only correct one.
Alternately, they may be doing something similar to “fight me,” where they are proudly stating something that polite society says they should probably be ashamed of and don’t really care what other people think.
“Dressing my dog up like a hot dog for Halloween, don’t @ me.”
“Rey is better than Han Solo, don’t @ me.”
These uses of “don’t at me” are similar to the ironic “fight me” examples above.
It’s probably a safe bet that the person posting either of these things is not going to get upset if you actually do tag them in a response.
Although, if they’re really into Star Wars, it’s still a possibility they sincerely believe the second example!
To @ or not to @, part 2
The fact that “don’t @ me” can be used in two distinct ways with opposite meanings can make it a difficult phrase to parse.
The best thing to do if you’re unable to tell when people are joking is to look at other comments about the original post or message.
If other people are responding and the original poster is involved in the discussion, then it’s probably safe for you to join in as well.
If, on the other hand, responses to the original message are met with anger from the original poster, your best bet is to take this phrase at face value and not tag the person at all.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.