[This post was read by Bitly folks, who reached out appreciatively. The thread continues with a follow-up post here.]

Last night huge thunderstorms moved across New Hampshire, and later across Boston. NOAA radarThere was even a tornado watch (the red outline north of Keene, in the radar image on the left, from the NOAA.) So I thought I’d tweet that.

It has been my practice for quite a while, when tweeting, to use the Bit.ly extension in my Chrome browser.

But then came a surprise. The little Bitly image had changed, and the pop-down word balloon, rather than giving me the shortlink I had expected, told me that Bit.ly was improving. I thought, “Oooh, shit.” Because there was nothing wrong with the old Bit.ly. It was simple and straightforward. You could either copy the shortlink from a window, or know it was on your clipboard after you clicked on the “copy” button, and it said “copied.”

The new and improved Bitly looks like this:

WTF? Ya gotta work to get this many things wrong. My personal list, from the top:

  1. I don’t know what a bitmark is and I don’t want to know. I want a shortlink.
  2. My Twitter handle is there, with my face. Why?
  3. Does the blue “x” close the whole thing or just my twitter handle?
  4. Why is it telling me the URL I want shortened? I see that one already. I want the short bit.ly URL.
  5. Why is it telling me the title of the page? I know that too.
  6. Why would I add a note? And to what? Is this a kind of Delicious move? I hardly ever used Delicious because it was too complicated. Now this is too.
  7. Why “Public?”
  8. What’s the “bundle” I would add this to?
  9. “CANCEL” what? Is something already in progress I don’t know about? (In this brief but intense Age of Facebook, when sites and services — e.g. Facebook Connect — silently provide means for advertisers and third parties to follow your scent like a cloud of flies, that’s a good bet.)
  10. What is Save+ for? To what? Why?
  11. What is “Save and share…” and what’s the difference between that and save? Why would I want a shortlink if not to share it on something that requires it, like Twitter?
  12. What are the symbols next to “Public” and “Save and share…”?
  13. And if, as I suspect, the only way I can get to the shortlink is to hit “Save and share…”, why make me go through that extra click — or, for that matter, ford the raging river of kruft above it to get there?

That was as far as I got before I had to go out to an event in the evening; and when I came back the storm (or something) had knocked my ISP’s Net connection off. So this morning, naturally (given all the above), there’s a tsunami of un-likes at https://twitter.com/#!/search/bitly, as well as out in the long-form blogosphere.

In URL Shortener Bitly Announces Big Update (Unfortunately, It Sucks, And Everybody Hates It), Shea Bennett of All Twitter at MediaBistro writes,

Yesterday, URL shortener of choice Bitly, which has generated more than 25 billion shortened links since inception, announced a change to their platform. A big change. New Bitly, they’re calling it.

Great. There’s only one small problem: everybody, and I mean everybody*, hates it.

Why? Because it’s taken what was a really useful and fast service into something that is bloated with unnecessary add-ons and buzzword crap, and made a one-click share into something that now takes at least three clicks, and is really, really confusing.

In the good old days, which we’ll refer to from now on as BNB (Before New Bitly), shortening links on Bitly was a breeze. A pleasure. It was fast, responsive and if you used an extension you could crunch down the URL of any webpage in a matter of seconds. If you had a Bitly account, you could then share that shortened link straight to Twitter via Bitly using the title of your choice.

So simple. So effective. So perfect.

And so gone.

The Bitly announcement is long: too long for a URL-shortening company. But this excerpt compresses the meat of it:

So what’s new? Now you can…

  • Easily save, share and discover links — they’re called bitmarks, like bookmarks.
  • Instantly search your saved bitmarks.
  • Curate groups of bitmarks into bundles and collaborate on bundles with friends.
  • Make any bitmark or bundle private or public.
  • See what friends are sharing across multiple social networks, all in one place.
  • Save and share links from anywhere with our new bitmarklet, Chrome extension and iPhone app.

It doesn’t stop here. We have big plans for bitly, and we want to build this neighborhood with our community. So get in there, start bitmarking and please tell us what you think!

So they want to be Delicious. And they want to play the social game. Or, as Samantha Murphy in Mashable puts it,

Bit.ly — which has more than 25 billion links saved since 2008 and gets about 300 million link-clicks each day — launched a redesign to not only expand its presence but give users more curation power. Among the most notable of the new tools is a profile page and what the company is calling “bitmarks,” which are similar to bookmarks.

I just checked Dave Winer, who, as I expected, weighs in with some words from the wise:

Based on what I see in their new product release it looks like they’re taking a step toward competing with Twitter. But they didn’t do it in an easy to use way. And the new product is not well user-tested. It looks like they barely used it themselves before turning it on for all the users. Oy. Not a good way to pivot.

Here’s some free advice, what I would do if I were them.

  1.  Immediately restore the old interface, exactly as it was before the transition.
  2. Concurrently, issue a roadmap that goes as follows, so everyone knows where this thing is going.
  3. Take a few weeks to incorporate the huge amount of feedback they’ve gotten and streamline the new UI.
  4. Instead of launching it at bitly.com, launch it at newbetaworksserver.com

The list goes on, and it’s exactly what they should do. At the very least, they should take Step #1. It’s the only way to restore faith with users.

Meanwhile, three additional points.

First is that URL shortening has always been a fail in respect to DNS — the Domain Name System, which was invented for ARPANET in 1982, and has matured as into hardened infrastructure over the decades since. (It’s essentially NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, and Anybody can improve it.) On the other hand, URL shortening, as we know it so far, puts resolving the shortened URL in private hands, and those hands can (and will) change. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here with Bitly, and what we tend to see with all private infrastructures that serves public purposes.

Second is that Bitly, like Facebook, Twitter, Google and other advertising-supported businesses with millions (or billions) of users that pay nothing to those companies for the services performed, has a problem that has been familiar to commercial broadcasting since it was born in the 1920s: its consumers and its customers are different populations, and they are financially accountable only to the customers. Not to the consumers. In Bitly’s case its customers, so far, are enterprises that pay to have customized, or branded, short URLs. Could they make their consumers into customers as well, with a freemium model? Possible. I’d recommend it, because it would make the company financially accountable to those users.

Third is that people want their own curation power. The Cloud is a good and necessary form of utility infrastructure. But it’s a vulnerable place to have one’s own digital goods. True, everything, even the physical world, is ephemeral in the long run. But digital ephemera can be wiped out in an instant. We should have at least some sense of control over “what’s mine.” Bitly shortlinks are not really “mine” to begin with. As Yahoo showed with Delicious, commercially curated links are especially vulnerable. And, after this last move, Bitly has given us no new reason to trust them. And many new reasons not to.

So, will I use the new Bitly? Let’s look at what comes up when I hit the “Save and share…” button for Dave’s piece:

This is no less f’d than the other one. Let’s run it down.

  1. Okay, I’ve done the Delicious thing, I guess, if this is saved somewhere. Curation achieved, maybe. Guess I have to go Bitly.com to see. I’ll do that later.
  2. At first I thought the saved link (or whatever) might be under my @ handle on the upper right, but that just brings up a “sign out” option.
  3. I have no intention of connecting to Facebook.
  4. When I click on the blue bar with the checkmark in it, changes happen in the window, but I’m not sure what they are, other than getting un-checked.
  5. I have no intention of emailing it to anybody in this case. And actually, when I email a link, I tend to avoid shortlinks, because they obscure the source. And I’m also not dealing with a 140-character space limit. (Hmm… while we’re on short spaces subject, why not offer texting through SMS?)
  6. Did something get tweeted when I hit the blue bar? I dunno. Checked with Twitter. Nothing there, so guess not.
  7. I see “Shortlink will be appended to tweet,” but does that mean I tweet something if I put it in the box? Guess so, but not sure.
  8. I see the “Copy” next to the almost-illegible shortlink in the blue button. Okay, guess that’s what I should use. But I don’t yet because I want to understand the whole thing first.
  9. What does “NEVERMIND. DON’T SHARE” mean, except as a rebuke? Translated from the passive-aggressive, it says, “You don’t want to play this game? Okay, then fuck off.”
  10. The symbol in the orange “Share to” is barely recognizable as Twitter’s. I think. Not sure. I just clicked on it, and something came up briefly then went away.

When I clicked on it again, I got this:

I don’t want to try again, because I’m not sure it failed. So I check Twitter, and see this:

Damn! I didn’t want that!

This tweet has no context other than me and Bitly. Worse, it looks like a spam. Or like I’d been phished or hijacked in some way. At no time in the history of my blogging or tweeting have I ever uttered a single URL, let alone a shortened one. Or, if I did, I’m sure the context was clear.

This isn’t even a “copy.” It should say “tweet,” if it were to have any meaning at all. I guess I should have written something in the box above. But would that have worked? I dunno.

So I just went through the routine again, this time hitting the blue button that says COPY in orange. I did that for Dave’s post, and this one after I published it, and the result is this normal-form tweet: https://twitter.com/dsearls/status/207856808012951553

It is also now clear to me that the box is for writing a tweet to which the shortlink will be appended. But usually I don’t like to append links, but to work them into the text of the tweet.

Bottom lines:

  1. As Rebecca Greenfield says in The Atlantic Wire, Bit.ly Isn’t Really a Link Shortener Any More. Too bad.
  2. It still works, but the new routine now takes three clicks rather than two, and is far more complicated. The curation does work,, for now. When I go to Bitly.com, below “Welcome to the new bitly,” I see “1–10 OF 900 BITMARKS.” I can also search them. That’s cool. But I’d rather have something in my own personal cloud. And I’d pay Bitly, or anybody who values my independence, for helping me build that.

Mark these words: The next trend is toward independence for individuals, whether they be users or customers. Yet another new dependency is not what anybody wants. Dependencies like Bitly’s new one are a problem, not a solution. Bitly, Facebook, Google and Twitter making their APIs work together does not solve the dependency problem, any more than federations among plantations makes slaves free.

The end-to-end nature of the Net promised independence in the first place. When client-server became calf-cow in 1995, we sold out that promise, and we’ve been selling it out, more and more, ever since.

Now we need to take it back. Hats off to Bitly for making that abundantly clear.

15 comments

  1. Ike’s avatar

    Doc — that’s just one of the reasons I skipped on bit.ly and run my own link shortener. http://ike4.me runs the YOURLS script, it’s totally secure, I’m the only one making the links, and I can edit them later if a canonical link changes.

    It gives me rudimentary metrics and I can easily create them with bookmarklets.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks Ike. Dave has his own shortener as well. Obviously (at least to some of us) that’s the way to go for full-independence URL shortening. If we’re the ones making the links, and if they do eventually fail, it’s a single point of failure, and it’s on the author of the link.

  3. PaulSweeney’s avatar

    Great post. Yes, how to take something that works really really well (bitly) and turn it into something that doesn’t work really, really well (delicious). I suspect that a product manager saw people saving on either bit.ly OR / AND Delicious and said, hey, we’re competing here…..

  4. Richard Stacy’s avatar

    A few years back, Hugh Macleod has suggested a ‘Hugh’s Law’ that all social networks will descend into a swampy mass of spam. I think there is another law that all social tools end up becoming authoritarian once they smell the money. Bitly and also Facebook (especially Timeline) being case in point.
    http://richardstacy.com/2012/03/09/facebook-timeline-and-the-election-of-vladimir-putin-what-they-share-in-common/

  5. Nate Riggs’s avatar

    Doc – great post on this change. What a stupid business decision this has been by the bit.ly folks.

    I love old bit.ly, but with this new version, I am probably moving elsewhere in a hurry. What’s your take on Google’s URL shortner? Have you ever used? Any cautions or suggestions to others I might look at?

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Nate, my feeling is that URL shortening should be as Ike suggests. Dave too. Personal, that is.

    I liked the ease and simplicity of the old Bit.ly, and being able to follow the stats. I still use it, though the UI is a huge step backwards. I also have no faith that they’ll be around for the duration; but nothing will, so I suppose that’s not a deciding factor.

    Mostly I wanted with this post to bring up how wrong-headed and annoying changes like this can be. Though this is hardly an unusual one. Twitter’s UI has gone to shit, over and over again. Try digging up a DM there. I find none of the other Twitter services any better, actually. The whole design — depending on one company as a single point of failure, for everything — is inherently flawed, and metastatic. But, because calf-cow is normative, all these companies want is to be bigger and better cows. Google is no exception there, either. Except they run a whole ranch. Walled gardening, out on the range. Holes in the walls, by intent, but still, walls.

    Anyway, Google’s shortener I haven’t tried. Hard as Google tries in some ways to be a Good Guy (e.g. with the Data Liberation Front, Summer of Code, etc.), G+ is yet another centralized service, with all the attendant dependencies and exposures. So it doesn’t attract me.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Richard, agreed.

    Sometimes it’s not about smelling the money (which VCs have wanted them to smell from the start in most cases), but also smelling the crowd. That is, the fellow Web-service crowd. And then doing what the big kids do. So they gotta do social, mobile, big-data, cloud, APIs, yada yada. Some good, some not. In any case, what they did here subordinated their original mission. The new one is … what? That stuff Delicious did, over again, but better, sort of? Not clear.

    Would have made much more sense to me if they forked the service. URL shortening over here, and new stuff over there. But hey, I’m still using them, like I’m still using Twitter. So maybe it’s working, in a way.

    Not my way, though.

  8. Mike Warot’s avatar

    It’s my opinion that links shouldn’t ever be shortened. The purpose of a URL is to locate a resource. If it needs to be 100 characters long, so be it. URLs are almost never actually typed in by humans, if they are… it’s a good idea to make them short to begin with.

    I still have a blog, though I have a facebook account as well. I’m aware of some of the nature of the hooded thug in the middle attack on my social network, but I don’t have the time nor patience to explain it to all my friends.

    It is only though having examples to point to of failure that we can really get our point across in less than a few days of heated discussions.

    Look at how much computer security is hosed, with botnets, and cyber-war, and all sorts of other stuff coming out of the woodwork, just because I still can’t convince people cabsec (capability based security) is necessary for our future.

  9. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Sounds like they screwed up the UI a bit.

    Had the bit.ly folks seen URL-shortening as an end-unto-itself, they would not have changed it. But, like so many other technology makers, they set their sites on larger problems beyond simply technical tricks.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, I agree that URLs shouldn’t be shortened. And it would be great if links were short to begin with.

    A URL is an abstraction of an IP address which is an abstraction of a MAC address. By abstracting the physical, the logical allows much more to be done. The problem with short URLs from commercial services like Bitly is that the top level of the abstraction doesn’t work for the whole world, as the abstractions and conventions under it do. It’s a commercially-provided convenience of limited utility — limited, that is, by the company providing it.

    Anyway, I also believe what Twitter does shouldn’t be locked up in their silo alone. And that there should be more ways for getting “social” than Facebook’s. But we’re stuck in the calf-cow system, and when everybody in the world is a calf to the same cow, ya gotta suckle along with them or be left out. If you’re gonna tweet, and you share links, and some (or most) of the links are long, you’re gonna need a shortener.

    There is a large freedom-loving part of me that sees all this as a road to hell. But I don’t expect this road to say in service forever, so I take it while it lasts.

    And I have hope that in the fullness of time all parts of the world will come to their senses. But not faith. And I’ll be dead for most of that time.

  11. alex de souza’s avatar

    I totally agree to Doc Searls so that URL’s should not be shortened that could create some unpredictable problems.

  12. Jim Spencer’s avatar

    Bit.ly is the New Coke of URL shortners.

  13. PKV Vergleich’s avatar

    Had the bit.ly folks seen URL-shortening as an end-unto-itself, they would not have changed it. But, like so many other technology makers, they set their sites on larger problems beyond simply technical tricks.

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