Despite tr.im’s unfortunate-though-tactless closure, I don’t agree that short URL services are a bad idea. Yes, they can be used for nefarious purposes. But so can kitchen knives and your television.
Short URL services still fulfill a very fundamental need: presenting long, complex URLs in a form that will not overflow short messaging systems or break across the myriad of devices and platforms we use. Even in 2009, after plenty of generational operating system revisions, my brother still gripes about the Mac and PC thing when the occasional URL he sends me with Outlook breaks in Mail, or vice versa. Many regular URLs would barely fit in a tweet, let alone leave room to provide context or a good zinger.
There are other solutions to the admittedly important problems of short URL service longevity, lack of viable business models, and the potential for spam. For one, each site or service could provide its own short URLs. In theory, the only reasons those URLs would ever break are: 1) there is a significant architectural change to the site that prevents maintaining those links, or 2) the site goes under and its content disappears anyway. Clink Ecker recently implemented such a system for Ars Technica, so a story like this gets a short URL like arst.ch/5wg. I’m poking around with a similar solution for a couple of sites I hope to launch soon.
Of course, a large company with enough of a stake in tracking social data could buy one of the many existing services, thus staking a claim that at least one service is here to stay. Perhaps this could be another way for Microsoft’s Bing.com to grow some mindshare and make its service more appealing. Google is also an obvious groom here.
Users could also start micro-paying to keep one or two particular services alive. They certainly, certainly could.
Websites, retailers, and the heart in your chest all check out sooner or later. Them’s the cards, and it’s not like short URLs are used for much serious, etched-in-the-stones-of-time linking in the first place. Truth is, tr.im’s evaporation really isn’t that big of a loss in the big picture (and I say this even though it was my favorite so far). URLs already created with tr.im will continue to resolve through at least December 31, 2009, and someone could easily pick it up before then and guarantee the links for even longer.
We should learn a few things from tr.im’s closing, but not damn its brethren. Short URLs are still a good idea and a necessity in today’s bite-sized culture. We just need to think about how to better implement short URLs with reliability and longevity in mind.