meaningful & tiny URLs

the TinyURL service is a good idea indeed. As they say:

“Are you sick of posting URLs in emails only to have it break when sent causing the recipient to have to cut and paste it back together? Then you’ve come to the right place. By entering in a URL in the text field below, we will create a tiny URL that will not break in email postings and never expires.”

I found it useful in emails and other digital communications, so many times I can’t count them. 5 minutes ago, however, I was on the sofa, reading “Mental Models” by Indi Young; the book is full of links to online resources, and the links adopt the TinyURL style:, where the Xs are either letters or numbers.

Here’s the problem: I can’t remember the URL. It’s difficult to learn and keep active such a random information. In my boring lectures about working memory and Long term memory I always mention experiments where people need to learn some random chunk of letters. And it’s obvious how these chunks are much more difficult to learn, if compared to words / acronyms that actually mean something. and it’s what I keep saying when I need to give advices on URL strategies: keep it short and meaningful. But meaningful above all.

The solution? I don’t know, or maybe I do: what about if I could personalize this 6-letters code? Or the code could be an existing word, generated automatically. I know, I’m going completely random and I’m not considering all the possible difficulties: there would be the need for MORE than 6 letters, in order to increase the number of meaningful choices; there would be cases when all the possibilities are taken. Moreover, the keyword I select is meaningful for me and just for me: it could mean NOTHING to my buddies.

Hold on… now that I consider the problem at a broader level, there is the massive topic of how it’s possible to integrate digital and “physical” sources of knowledge. It’s something we faced last year, during a project for a Publishing firm. Without relying on futuristic, cutting-edge technology (e.g. one eBook reader per person,…), I think the challenge is actually to design the book in a way that URLs are easily markable, retrievable, readable, typeable, ….

Any other idea / comment on it?


3 responses to “meaningful & tiny URLs

  1. I also raised an eyebrow at using TinyURLs in the book. Namely, I was worried that one day it might come to pass that the TinyURL database doesn’t exist anymore (or maybe the server would be down). How would readers get to the info? The the root of the URL is the publisher’s site in almost all cases. ( There is a constant for this particular book, too. (books/mental-models) If we could just establish These two parts of the equation in shorthand, then we could get on to the meat of the URL, the variable part, and make it much smaller. For instances like the book, this would work.

    For instances like pointing to a photo on Flickr, we’re back to long chains of numbers again, which calls into question integrating digital references into non-clickable media, as you mention. I keep wanting to use telephone numbers as an analogy for this, but they’ve actually gone the opposite direction: from something that had a little meaning (WHItehall 7212), to something we could memorize or scribble down after just hearing it, to something that we store digitally and never even look at. So that’s not a good analogy, but maybe it will get us thinking.

  2. Thanks Indi, the phone number example made me think a bit during, and I’m trying now to make my reasoning clear; please correct me if I’m wrong, in any point.

    From the “syntax” point of view, the way to contact a person could be represented as:
    1- Semantically relevant information – with the help of an operator (

    ), where the person should tell the operator the name and the location of the recipient;
    2- (semi-) abstract code: the classical phone number, that mixes together meaningful codes (e.g. area codes) with other figures a person can’t immediately assign a sense; I remember my first phone number was: 0583-491457 with the first part being the town code, the second part was almost completely random (as far as I know) .
    3- (semi-) semantic code: the phone number is partially transformed in a word, and should become easier to remember; the first example I found around is: 1-800-YellowPages (instead of 1-800-935-5697).

    In the case of URLs, we moved away from semi-abstract codes (###.###.###.###), to get some semantically-valid codification ( Tiny URLs in my opinion create the risk of removing the meaning, with relevant exceptions, due to their usage (I’ll try to explain it below).

    From the “memory/use” point of view, as a matter of facts, phone number disappeared as they become nested into the device used to contact people (the address book on my mobile allows me to call a person almost without viewing a single number). Moreover, I can text/email phone numbers to my friends and they can save them without even looking at the figures (just adding the record to their address book); I can do a lot of things with these records, if I’m skilled enough (well, there is much to improve yet ^_^). To extend the categorization above, these devices help us passing from a code to information.
    But, what was the step before? At the moment “business cards” is what comes to my mind! Business cards contain a person’s codes (phone numbers, …) and enrich them with relevant information (job role,…). As business cards became digital, they created the potential for the passage from “enriched code” to “information”.

    When speaking about tinyURLs in a book, as in this case, what I feel is missing is not only the possibility to re-use it in a distant future, but also a “business card” for the URL itself, that could help you to find it and use it in a totally different situation.

    Well, the more I think about it, the more it becomes more complex. For example, I’m not considering enough the role played by the support the data are fixed, and I should consider more real cases of usage. I hope it’s clear and interesting ^_^
    I’d love to have more time to analyze it with an “actor-network” approach, and I’m sure somebody has done it.

  3. Pingback: Mental Models Workshop! « Brown paper roll

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