Reply Targets

This article, part of the writing collection, was published on and last updated on .

Providing a useful context to content written in response to someone else's blog post, tweet, toot, etc. helps a reader to understand the conversational nature of these back-and-forths. What abstractions can we make to the data that holds these reply targets, and how can those abstractions make for a richer reading experience and for a leaner publishing workflow?

Ever since adopting IndieWeb technologies, I have been posting all of my notes and replies onto my website with syndication links to Twitter/Mastodon. Because I write responses to people across a variety of channels, I wanted a means to present the context of the reply in the most meaningful manner, as can be seen on this post.

For example, if I respond to someone on Twitter, the reply target is the URL to the tweet to which I am responding, e.g.

How to present reply context

This URL is exposed on the front end as the context to my reply:

in reply to

But this looks a little unwieldy. There are a handful of things that we can infer from the above URL.

  1. The reply target is on Twitter.
  2. The username of the reply target is dletorey.

With this information, and a little splitting, we can extract the username and present the reply target a little differently:

in reply to @dletorey

This enhancement will work no matter to whom I reply on Twitter. But @dletorey happens to be a very good friend of mine, and I reply to him often.

For people I respond to frequently, I have created a small YAML library that uses the following syntax:

- name: Dave Letorey
  twitter: dletorey
- name: Neil Mather
  twitter: loopdouble

Now, when I am parsing the reply target, I can compare it against the people in my YAML library to pull out their name, if I have it recorded in the library:

in reply to Dave Letorey

The same can be done in the library for replies to non-siloed content, where the reply target is a personal website:

- name: Dave Letorey
  twitter: dletorey
- name: Neil Mather
  twitter: loopdouble

in reply to Dave Letorey

Federated Networks

Things get a little bit more complicated when we consider replies to federated networks, such as Mastodon. The tricky part here is the decentralised aspect of these networks—users on one network can interact with people on other networks. For example, I have an account on and could reply to someone on

So how can I differentiate a Mastodon URL from a Personal Website URL? At the time of writing, there are over 5000 Mastodon instances, and that number is ever-changing, some instances are private, etc. It is not entirely feasible for me to replicate and maintain this list of Mastodon instances, a gross majority of which I will never interact with. Instead, I opted to maintain a finite list of Mastodon instances, populated based on which instances I have already replied to and which instances I may reply to in the future (updated manually as and when I do).

Further Thoughts

This solution works quite well and does not rely on making any network requests to pull in this information, so it can all be parsed and calculated during compilation, deferring the work away from the client.

However, there are some further steps we could make to improve the context of replies, but those steps come with some questions:

For Twitter/Mastodon/Silos:

Do I want my posts to be a reflection of the time they were made? Or should they be a live reflection?

If I responded to John Doe last year, but this year they are called Jane Doe, should my old replies display John or Jane?

Can I pull the name of the person to whom I am responding from the Twitter API?

Mastodon API? Can it be extracted from microformats or clever parsing of the page?

For Personal Websites:

There is a Microformats-2 tool, php-mf2, which I can use to parse the reply target URL and extract parts from the post which enhance the context of my reply:

  • Name of the Person to whom I am responding?
  • Type of the Post to which I am responding?
  • Content of the Post to which I am responding?

6 Responses

  1. 2 Bookmarks
  2. 1 Like
  1. In the linked "this post", the "in reply to" information gets lost between the other meta data like "published on", "tagged under" and "shorturl".
  2. @Anonymous Do you have any ideas how to present this metadata in a way such that information doesn’t get lost?
  3. You should have your posts to be a reflection of the time they were made since every idea and thought we make are viewed during its time period. That’s why posts have date stamps too.