~? What ~?

In a conversation the other day with a colleague, I came to the crashing realization that not everyone knows what the ~ (tilde) character is on their keyboards — what it is, how to pronounce it, where to find it, or what it means when used in a shell or URL. I had thought that after ten years of web prominence it had been more or less assimilated into the common consciousness. Now I wonder. Straw poll:

Do you know what the ~ (tilde) character is and does?

View Results

Music: Modest Mouse :: Gravity Rides Everything

12 Replies to “~? What ~?”

  1. PJ, I know this is a totally skewed readership. I do have a lot of non-tech readers, but the proportions are definitely different from, say, a general interest news site. Maybe this was just a cheap excuse to put up a poll. :)

  2. I was somewhere between the first two, I know how to pronounce it, but no idea why its so common in URLs other then some vague association with usernames…

  3. So where’t the part where you answer the question? I know what it is and what it’s called and where it is on the keyboard, but I gather from your post that there’s apparently some significance to its existence and I don’t know what that is.

  4. Funny, I was actually thinking of this last week. I was teaching my wife how to find our family web page on my brothers Linux server he has setup for his band (www.nothingcool.com) in SF. I had to explain to her how to find it on the keyboard and why its there…
    I do not see them on the internet as much as I used to (Maybe its just me).. Obvious reasons of course, due to the growth of networking these days.. Yes, they are still there, but with many users using Domain Names instead of a shared folder on a server. (Remember those days? Ah, memories ;) But I still use them a lot without thinking about it on an OS level there…

  5. Of course, the tilde is also used to call up the “command line” console window in computer games like Quake and such :)

  6. i — When you type:

    cd ~

    Into a shell, you end up in your home directory. Or type

    cd ~/words

    To go to the words subdir of your home, regardless where you are in the system. “~” is unix-ese for “home” . So when the web came along, the same nomenclature was used quite naturally to represent a location on a web server corresponding to the user’s home directory (or rather a “public_html” or similar dir inside the user’s home) . The URL “foo.com/~abe” does not mean that the “abe” dir is in the root of foo.com, but lives wherever the home dirs are.

    Even though its roots are in Unix, the nomenclature is so widespread that even Windows web servers use “~” to represent a users’s home dir as opposed to the web server’s root.

    I don’t think there’s a special etymological significance to the use of the character. Probably some programmer at some point thought “We need an uncommon character to take on a special role” and picked the tilde for god knows what reason.

  7. I have never liked the use of the tilde in URLs. It is an example of a geek shortcut being elevated to the common user. There is nothing intuitive about it, and it is very difficult to explain to the average Joe. I have no objection to geek shortcuts, but why should non-geeks have to deal with them?

    I also don’t like www for similar reasons. It is a naming convention that dates back to a time when ftp, nntp, and www servers had equal footing. I see www’s disappearing from advertising, and I rarely see ~’s in print.

    And http colon slash slash… fuhgetaboutit!

  8. Jeb – I don’t see it as a “geek” thing – lots of symbols are unintuitive if you look at them hard enough. e.g. Nothing about a peace symbol says anything about peace, but you have no trouble recognizing it. What about the letter “R” – what about the shape of that symbol reminds you of the sound rrrr ? Nothing but association. The tilde is just one more arbitrary symbol on your keyboard, no more or less arbitrary than any other symbol. Surely there’s room enough in your head for one more (extremely useful) symbol?

  9. As the person who probably provoked Scot’s original post on this issue, let me add an anecdote about the tilde problem from my days as a newspaper reporter. Back in the mid-1990s I started adding links to my newspaper stories that pointed people to related resources on the Web. But I was told there was no way to put the tilde character into the electronic copy of my story that then went through the pagination system, ultimately to be printed in paper form (I can’t remember now if this was a limitation of the word processing program we were using or of the pagination system – I believe it was both).

    As a result, we had to spell out the phrase “tilde character” in the middle of every URL that was printed in the paper that had such a character in it. I suspect that people a lot of people then didn’t know what “tilde character” referred to, and instead just typed that phrase into the URL – with predictable results.

    This could be viewed as:

    1. An example of how a “geek shortcut” is “very difficult to explain to the average Joe,” as Jeb said in his comment.

    2. Another example of the backwardness of the American newspaper industry.

    I vote for both.

    Paul Grabowicz
    New Media Program Director
    UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

    (and Scot’s alleged “boss,” although the tail most often wags the dog)

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