Saturday, August 13, 2011

Twitter: we control your redirects

Starting this morning, Twitter seems to have pre-empted all URL-shortening services in favor of for all Tweets sent through its network. I noticed this not only because all the tweets I follow are infested, but also because Tweets I sent this morning shorted via were re-shortened via

This is not exactly what Twitter said it was doing. The most recent (August 5) posting to the developer blog by (“developer advocate”) Taylor Singletary announced:

Beginning August 15th, when a user tweets or sends a direct message containing a URL 20 characters long or greater (the length of URLs wrapped with, the URL will automatically be converted to a link. We will eventually wrap all links, regardless of length, but until then there's nothing you need to do to support this change. When we're ready to wrap all links, we'll give you plenty of time and make another announcement.
OK, so it’s 2 days early. But more importantly, the 20-character limit means that effectively all links are being rewritten:,, (Note that the “http://” costs everyone 7 characters, whereas “www.” only costs 4)

Interestingly, the tweets are being sent with the, those tweets link to the if you copy the link on the Twitter website, but are being shown using the original URL. So the tweet I sent this morning from @openITstrat looked like this when I sent it:
NYT obit: CCNY prof Daniel McCracken (1930-2011), who wrote best-selling Fortran and Cobol texts (I owned both)
but on my client looks like this:
NYT obit: CCNY prof Daniel McCracken (1930-2011), who wrote best-selling Fortran and Cobol texts (I owned both)
On, it looks like this:
Joel West
NYT obit: CCNY prof Daniel McCracken (1930-2011), who wrote best-selling Fortran and Cobol texts (I owned both)
with the actually a link if you click on it. (Of course, the website tweets are shown in the extra-ugly “New Twitter” that I fought to avoid for months.)

TechCrunch said that this week would include a test of the new service, but this appears to be no longer a test.

As is common for Web 2.0 companies that use indirect monetization (NB: Google, Facebook), Twitter is being disingenuous as to their reasons for eliminating the customer choice and control over URL links. It’s not about saving 2 characters, and it’s really not about URL security. (The fact that they can remap a URL into a and back shows that they can automatically detect what URL is being linked).

After Twitter announced its plans a year ago, Alistair Croll summarized the real reasons in a posting on the O’Reilly site:
Twitter has been open with its data from the start, and widely available APIs have created a huge variety of applications and fast adoption. But by making their platform so open, Twitter has fewer options for monetization.

The one thing they can do that nobody else can -- because they're the message bus -- is to rewrite tweets in transit. That includes hashtags and URLs. Twitter could turn #coffee into #starbucks. They could replace a big URL with a short one. And that gives them tremendous power.

Twitter recently announced a new feature that makes this a reality. The URL shortener -- similar to those from,, and tinyURL -- might seem like a relatively small addition to the company's offering. But it's a massive power shift in the world of analytics because now Twitter can measure engagement wherever it happens, across any browser or app. And unlike other URL shorteners, Twitter can force everyone to use their service simply because they control the platform. Your URLs can be shortened (and their engagement tracked by Twitter) whether you like it or not.
In other words, Twitter wants to control all the web analytics for URLs sent via its service, as a way to increase it monetization to support its planned IPO.

Is there some reason why Twitter can’t just admit to this in an honest way, rather than wrap it in a rhetoric of psuedo-customer concern? Is there a shortage of honesty among Web 2.0 companies? (NB: Facebook, Google, etc.)

People know that free services have to be paid for somehow. Unlike Lt. Kaffee, I can handle the truth and I imagine most customers can too.


Becker said...

Okay so there's nothing we can do to avoid this but will the link tracking and stats we use for still work or will this break that?

Justin Freid said...

The difference between what someone actually tweets and what's displayed on is of particular annoyance to me: sometimes I make references to the URL as it's written and having take over obfuscates the intent of those tweets.
And, besides the oblique way Twitter explains the reasoning behind, they're also confusing the character limit since the http isn't stripped before sending.
Maybe links should be treated as metadata and included the way location or the new, native Twitter photos are.

Joel West said...

Becker: I don't know if both get to use the metrics, or the metrics are lost entirely. I am waiting to hear what has to say.

Justin: I agree that they are obfuscating, and I think the "no choice" approach is wrong. But they have no direct competition so people can’t go elsewhere.

A Dad's Tough Day said...

Thanks for the heads up on the URL shortner. If I had rolled over a link and it didn't match what was in the text I'd be suspicious of a malicious link.

I much prefer they not re-shorten URL's. It can cause a lot more problems then it fixes.

terrinakamura said...

For those of use who use search filters in Tweetdeck to see who has retweeted our links, it basically now makes it impossible to track them...very frustrating.

AtheistExile said...

Yes, we all understand that Facebook, Google+ and Twitter want to make money from their social platforms, so why must they be so duplicitous about it?

Google+, like Facebook, wants to force everybody to use their REAL names. I understand that data is money. Let them POSSESS our real names but why force us to DISPLAY our real names? Why not give us the option of pseudonyms?

There's many legitimate reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym: most importantly for whistle-blowers, political dissidents and social activists who want to make sure our governments and institutions are being honest and accountable. Such people can be harassed, arrested, jailed and/or killed for their activism, so anonymity is essential for them.

The Arab Spring and other movements for human rights and social reforms have been aided or facilitated by major social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter. If these guys (including Google+) want to be major players, and profit from our participation, we should insist they shoulder their social responsibilities. If they need to possess real names, let them. But insist we have the right to pseudonyms!

Beth said...

I wonder what this is going to do to the custom shortened urls :(

Joel West said...

It seems as though the market cap has been cut by a 1/3 or 1/2 with this move. I’m surprised they haven’t said anything yet.

I’m sorry to see them lose this — they were very innovative in helping firms have their custom shorteners.


otinokyad said...

I also just discovered this change by Twitter, but it turns out that has been quietly building traffic since June 2010!!! And by June 2011 it was up to almost 3 million unique visitors. Talk about being under the radar. I had to get over my embarrassment and update a blog post where I wondered why the bottom had fallen out of bitly's traffic. It's all here, complete with graphs of unique user traffic:, or if you're into consummate irony, use this link: