Should We Embrace the Short URL?

      8 Comments on Should We Embrace the Short URL?

The increasing number of primary and secondary sources made available by various online archives and databases continue to aid researchers and enrich the historical community as a whole.

But they have also created challenges for more conventional forms of resource sharing in a community where print arguably remains the standard.

While websites have generally made a more concerted effort to reduce the length of their root URL (uniform resource locator) in recent years, things like course materials, references, and finding aides have all become bloated with long strings of seemingly random, run-on characters.

Their presence within endnotes and footnotes is particularly disruptive, where a single note already has the potential to snowball into a self-contained realm and acquire something akin to sovereignty as it slowly envelops the page.

This is a problem we share and one that requires our attention for two reasons.

First, it will only compound as more and more sources are made available online. Referring to the physical source is best but not always possible. And while hyperlinks offer an efficient work-around for digital content, they do not translate to print.

Second, unwieldy links hinder the ability of professionals and the public to share findings and sources with themselves and one another. And despite the Internet’s best efforts to level distribution, many people already find run-on references and archival organization intimidating even without links.

Exactly how to solve this problem is unclear.

But let’s look at one possible solution: the URL shortener.

URL shorteners do exactly what they suggest: they replace a long string of seemingly random, run-on characters and crunch them into a much smaller, more memorable link.

They began circulating with the launch of tinyurl.com in 2002 and have come to fill a niche on social networking sites where character limits (i.e. the ‘Twitter effect’) have transformed them into a burgeoning micro-industry.

Among the more popular URL shorteners are stand-alone services, like bit.ly and is.gd, while larger sites like Flickr (flic.kr) and even Google (goo.gl) have already stated to integrate them into their broader platforms.

The popularity of these services is understandable but they are not without criticism. Joshua Schachter offers what is perhaps the most comprehensive critique of URL shorteners; arguing, among other things, that they undermine link integrity (causing linkrot), destabilize security, and enable spam. And he has a point: the current crop of URL shortening services are not built to last.

But here’s where it gets complicated: sites like the Globe and Mail (tgam.ca) and the New York Times (nyturl.com) have started to offer their own short URLs on dedicated databases that are presumably less susceptible to things like linkrot and spam interdiction.

That may very well elevate specific URL shorteners over others but what about shorter URLs in theory?

Perhaps we should start to experiment with a few pilot programs at select databases and universities. Consider, for example, how a shorter URL system could improve access and attract a wider audience to databases like the oldbaileyonline.org.

While the oldbaileyonline.org provides all of the original publication data, that may not be prudent or useful in all circumstances. More directly, the root URL is short and stable but searches invariably lead to complicated, run-away links. Perhaps even something as simple as the Globe and Mail‘s “tgam.ca” (i.e. olgbail.ey/a1b1c1d1) on a dedicated database would suffice.

You must admit, it is rather tempting.

In the meantime, short URLs may not be the best solution — and the increasingly popular URL shorteners services should probably be avoided — but exploring ways to rein in our run-away link problem is certainly a conversation worth having.

8 thoughts on “Should We Embrace the Short URL?

  1. A.J. Rowley Post author

    @Alun Thanks for sharing!

    You know, I suspected there were others out there with similar views on this. And I had no idea that British Archaeology was already printing tinyurl.com links. That’s a bit disconcerting. I wonder why they didn’t just launch their own service… (not very archaeological of them!).

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  3. Brenton

    One problem with shortening URLs is that the service is not centrally controlled or regulated. If tons of groups started using Tiny URLs’s service, what would happen if the service was discontinued for some reason (company folds, perhaps). I think there’s an argument for a government-regulated body that would guarantee the shortened link.

  4. Ian Milligan

    This is a really fascinating blog post and an interesting, pertinent discussion.

    Brenton’s comment made me think of the recent announcement that the American Library of Congress is archiving Twitter tweets – and what a neat source that’ll be for a future historian. Of course, everybody uses URL shortening services for Twitter… and if bit.ly fails, the utility of the archive could be considerably diminished. I guess you’d have to preserve the long URL and hope that you could cross-reference it with the Internet Archive.

  5. A.J. Rowley Post author

    @Brenton I agree.

    Users need some sort of guarantee that the service is going to stick around before they move to adopt it. Government could be a means to that end by helping to provide or even fund a dedicated archive either for general use or very specific databases / user groups.

    For now, I think there’s some urgency to the matter since short URLs seem poised to become something of a normalized fad. It may be more difficult in future to question their use. All the more reason to “co-opt” them, so to speak.

    @Ian Thanks!

    I wonder if the US Library of Congress has enough space in their archive to copy the full link and even the page it leads to — after all, the price of digital storage has fallen significantly in recent years.

    On the other hand, bit.ly (and other popular stand-alone services) are likely to be purchased and absorbed into broader platforms (maybe even Twitter itself). That might raise ownership problems and hinder the LOC’s archival efforts.

  6. Michael Eamon

    A great topic for debate. As with any citation we should make it as easy as possible for the reader to find the source. As a former reference archivist I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decipher for researchers abbreviations made by historians before the Internet Age. I think trying to find the path of least resistance always bites you in the end. Mix in stable vs unstable URLs and it becomes an even more difficult situation. Citing the most complete, stable URL is probably the best practice for now.

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