Greg Hewgill (ghewgill) wrote,
Greg Hewgill
ghewgill

a proposal for twitter

Twitter seems to have taken on the role of global news delivery and meme transmission vector. At least that's what I understand; although I have a twitter account I post only rarely, and I don't seem to follow the kinds of people who are hooked into the global news delivery machine. Or perhaps I'm not very good at keeping up with the people I do follow. Anyway, that's not quite what this post is about.

A common pattern for twitter posts seems to be something like the following:

[@otheruserid] [short description] [url] [#hashtags]

The different components can of course appear in any order. I would like to draw your attention to the [url] part.

Since Twitter only permits posting 140 characters of text, one must be conservative or even stingy in the allocation of character count. With another user addressed (the @ syntax), and one or maybe two hashtags (the # syntax), a typical post might be left with 120 characters for the description and the URL. In order to leave room for more than a handful of words, the URL pretty much has to be shortened. There are a plethora of link shortening services available; one of them (bit.ly) recently raised $2 million dollars in funding. Twitter even automatically shortens URLs that you paste into the little 140 character box (letting you go over the limit via paste but not typing). If you paste an URL that is too long, you automatically get a bit.ly shortened link in your post (assuming that fits, I don't know what happens if it doesn't).

Lots has been written about the negative effects of shortening URLs. They're bad for the user experience (one must become proficient with copying and pasting URLs), they're bad for the network infrastructure (they route every associated click through a small number of redirectors), they're bad for usability (you never know just what is behind that innocent-looking bit.ly link), and so on. There must be a better way.

What if twitter were to offer a separate entry field for a URL? This would move the URL out of the 140 character space for typing actual text, and obviate the need for link shortening entirely. Twitter's web interface could show something like:

bit.ly receives $2 million in funding readwriteweb.com

Other non-web twitter clients could show something similar. This presentation has several benefits:

  • Writers have more room for words instead of having to leave room for an URL
  • Readers no longer have to see the collection of random characters that is a shortened link
  • Readers can immediately see what site the link points to (readwriteweb.com in the above example)
  • Twitter receives more information about what people are linking to, because links don't need to be shortened

Twitter probably won't consider this due to their determination to hang on to the simplicity of the single size-limited text entry box. Having two entry boxes on the main page would at least double the (perceived) complexity of using twitter. But wouldn't this be much nicer to use?

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