Twitter has an annoying feature: it auto-shortens URLs. You might think this is useful given the 140 character Tweet limit, but in fact the opposite is often true. In many cases, the URL itself is self-descriptive. Let’s make up an example:
This is hilarious: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/freemanic_paracusia.png
That tweet takes 70 characters, and is self-descriptive. You can tell I’m linking to an XKCD comic, and you even know which one. Despite being well-within the 140 character limit, Twitter changes it to this:
This is hilarious: http://tinyurl.com/5gmpbn
They cut it from 70 to 44 characters…but why? It wasn’t anywhere near the 140 character limit. And what the hell does that Tweet describe? For all you know, I’m Rick-Rolling you. To give my Tweet context, I now have to describe it:
This XKCD comic is hilarious: http://tinyurl.com/5gmpbn
That’s 55 characters, but you still don’t know which comic I’m linking to. I could add more description:
This XKCD Freemanic Paracusia comic is hilarious: http://tinyurl.com/5gmpbn
Which brings us up to 75 characters, longer than the original Tweet with the full URL. (And I might still be Rick-Rolling you.)
Hacking a Workaround
Because Twitter does this automatically, without any explanation, I find myself spending more time on Tweets trying to find workarounds to avoid the URL tampering. I’ve tried posting URLs without “http://”, and that seemed to work for a week or so.
Then I posted this Tweet, and as you can see, they shortened AND BROKE the URL!
One surefire workaround: post an upside down URL. But that won’t render in many Twitter clients, Twhirl for one.
Twitter is mostly just harmless fun, often a waste of time, but I find it enjoyable. Who cares, right? But…my Tweets are MY WORDS. Given that URLs often describe their destination, I choose my words in combination with URLs to say something specific. Cramming a coherent thought down to 140 characters is a challenging and fun exercise, and it is very frustrating when a flawed algorithm changes what I type without asking.
In fact, I think this problem is more profound. Changing what people write without asking permission is in fact a misquotation:
Omission of important context: The context can be important for determining the overall argument the quoted person wanted to make…
I argue that URLs often provide context, and our words — even URLs — should not be changed without permission. I suggest Twitter add a preference option allowing users to enable or disable this feature. Sadly, the broken URL shortening occurs whether you Tweet from the web or a Twitter client.