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2ofusgoingnowhereThe news that some loser URL shortener is closing down does not prove anything other than that those who promoted it with their links better have gotten something out of the deal already. It’s all part of the usual pony ride that starts with excitement about the possibilities and ends in recriminations about the winners controlling the market. Now Dave Winer is calling for an end to what he calls “at best a temporary workaround for a limit Twitter shouldn’t have.” So here are the facts:

Twitter came out of nowhere and dominated the information space by constraining the canvas to 140 characters. The URL became the application trigger, the wormhole through which we could leap back into the existing macrocosm of blogs, software, and services. URL shorteners then, and now, are the mechanism by which we send data to and from the message bus. Whether these URLs are controlled by a private or public group is entirely inconsequential, because whoever controls the flow of that data has an advantage over everyone else who doesn’t.

Twitter and other apparent control points have both power and limits. Twitter’s power is the constraint of the wormhole; its weakness is the assent of its users and third party developers. If users and apps can move from one to several wormholes, their leverage accelerates dramatically. How can this be accomplished with Twitter’s dominance? By piggybacking URL transforms on top of the gatekeeper’s single point of control. By establishing another (or several) URL transform sites that large or influential numbers of links flows through.

In order to reach that critical mass, the purveyors of these URL transformers must establish credibility in the marketplace of return on investment. In making assessments about technology, it’s vital to assess not only the value of the innovation but its chances of survival in the arc of its moment. In that crucible, arguments against market scale, open versus commercial, and so on are largely moot. Whether some person or some community has “control” is only relevant to whether we think it will be successful in its goals and therefore be a factor in how the network develops.

Let’s say we have two transformers in operation. They both operate in similar fashion, taking Bit.ly links and repackaging them in unique and proprietary ways. The end result: you click on the hybrid links and they uncompress in one, two, or potentially endless permutations. As Adam Bosworth once said about XML, its alleged verbosity is trumped by Moore’s Law. So too are transforms. In effect, the speed of the uber transform server is the gating factor, or put another way, the latency you don’t notice you is not a problem.

So now we have competing uber transformer chains of shortened or otherwise enhanced metadata firehoses. As they develop audiences with interesting characteristics — authority, realtime velocity, reach, etc. — they begin to establish a micro-community power base that can encourage mergers, acquisition by platforms, and the emergence of market standards. It does no good to rail against this or that bigco conspiracy; in a transformer ecology, Twitter or Bit.ly or any one service isolates themselves by not talking to the uber layer. The water will flow around those disruptions, so it’s unprofitable to pursue them.

It’s more likely that Twitter and Borthwick will play along rather than constrict the straw through which the firehose currently flows. Hybrid transforms can quickly cherry pick the valuable streams, as many are using FriendFeed as the uber Twitter API. If URL aggregators emerge now to wrap uber layers across the weaker URL shortener populations, it will be difficult for Bit.ly or Twitter or both to mop up and retain an effective monopoly. Even if it’s only a matter of time before URL shortening is absorbed at the OS level, buying up real estate is certainly a smart strategy if only as a hedge against the eventual consolidation.

But just as the iPhone will continue to overturn the market fundamentals by constraining its application space, so too will those who control the URL transform space continue to drive the realtime expansion. It’s not a religious argument but a pragmatic one, and no amount of pigeonholing or posturing about unfair good old boy arrangements will obscure the opportunity for the hybrid transformers to seed the emerging market. The first one in will be the second, and all we need to break the stranglehold that really doesn’t exist.

  • Paul E. Ester

    Interesting article, looking forward to hearing it discussed on a future Gillmor gang. :)

    • riffic

      Gillmor as usual you write a lot of words but just don’t state the obvious point. Twitter, by ignoring this issue, allows url shortening habits to be adopted by the masses and this needs to stop.

      my, and many others arguments are this: url shortening is dangerous.

      1) it encourages users to click blind links, which may be malicious
      2) spammers or phishers can use these blind links to do not so nice things to users

      If Twitter has no interest in budging from their arbitrarily set 140 character limits, then Twitter must remove URL metadata outside of the message body and into a separate metadata field.

  • Paul E. Ester

    Interesting article, looking forward to hearing it discussed on a future Gillmor gang. :)

    • riffic

      Gillmor as usual you write a lot of words but just don’t state the obvious point. Twitter, by ignoring this issue, allows url shortening habits to be adopted by the masses and this needs to stop.

      my, and many others arguments are this: url shortening is dangerous.

      1) it encourages users to click blind links, which may be malicious
      2) spammers or phishers can use these blind links to do not so nice things to users

      If Twitter has no interest in budging from their arbitrarily set 140 character limits, then Twitter must remove URL metadata outside of the message body and into a separate metadata field.

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  • Really Interested Fascinating Stuff

    That’s really great, interesting stuff, Steve. My only question is: how are you even able to write with your head so far up your own ass? Isn’t it dark in there?

    Looking forward to your next incoherent War-and-Peace-sized post about Twitter.

    • Aronski

      Perhaps you should leave the verbose responses to the qualified…

  • Really Interested Fascinating Stuff

    That’s really great, interesting stuff, Steve. My only question is: how are you even able to write with your head so far up your own ass? Isn’t it dark in there?

    Looking forward to your next incoherent War-and-Peace-sized post about Twitter.

    • Aronski

      Perhaps you should leave the verbose responses to the qualified…

  • http://www.thinksmartsolutions.net Kino

    This is an interesting article. I never understood the whole point of url shorting. Its seems I never get technology until its widely adopted.

  • http://www.thinksmartsolutions.net Kino

    This is an interesting article. I never understood the whole point of url shorting. Its seems I never get technology until its widely adopted.

  • http://blog.stealthmode.com francine hardaway

    I like your idea that URL shortening will be absorbed into the OS. I never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Especially if the OS is the browser or the browser is the OS, yes?

  • http://blog.stealthmode.com francine hardaway

    I like your idea that URL shortening will be absorbed into the OS. I never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Especially if the OS is the browser or the browser is the OS, yes?

  • Aronski

    In the end, someone has to maintain the integrity of the shortened links or these small messages will no longer lead to the rest of universe. It’s great that there are competing services and a given that some will not last, but if we depend on our linking history through these status platforms (uh, if we’re able to access our history through these status platforms beyond a few days), it’s important that the links still work to point us to what we referred to.

    If one or two of the major players grab and make a(n) (open) standard of URL shorteners, it might not be a bad thing. Having a history, a file of the links and the places they pointed wouldn’t be bad either, just in case the service goes up in smoke.

    For those people who have invested time, money and energy into these new communications, it would be dreadful to find that some or all of the links you created (or favorited) lead nowhere.

  • Aronski

    In the end, someone has to maintain the integrity of the shortened links or these small messages will no longer lead to the rest of universe. It’s great that there are competing services and a given that some will not last, but if we depend on our linking history through these status platforms (uh, if we’re able to access our history through these status platforms beyond a few days), it’s important that the links still work to point us to what we referred to.

    If one or two of the major players grab and make a(n) (open) standard of URL shorteners, it might not be a bad thing. Having a history, a file of the links and the places they pointed wouldn’t be bad either, just in case the service goes up in smoke.

    For those people who have invested time, money and energy into these new communications, it would be dreadful to find that some or all of the links you created (or favorited) lead nowhere.

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