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URL Shorteners: New Fabric of Society or Hidden Threat?

by Andrea Di Maio  |  November 27, 2009  |  6 Comments

Yesterday I posted about how government 2.0 may be vulnerable to changes in social media platforms and to the fate of many of the tools that make online social networks work.

One of these tools, made increasingly important by the success of Twitter and other microblogging platforms, is URL shorteners. These are web sites that convert very long web addresses into more compact ones.

Although their are mostly used on microblogs, which allow only a very limited number of characters, their use is rapidly expanding in other areas. The most recent one I’ve found is the PDF report on the “State of the eUnion” (a moderately interesting collection of papers on Government 2.0), where the reference list at the end of one article is a long list of shortened URLs.

I have used a few of these shorteners, as I write tweets about my new blog posts or about other stuff I want to share with people. Doing so, I’ve realized how much information you can get about who access the URLs you’ve shortened. These sort of statistics are very useful to understand who is visiting your blog, where they come from, and so forth. But they also raise the issue of whether and how such information may be used by URL shortening sites themselves, as it constitutes a goldmine to understand behaviors and to uncover emerging patterns.

Now, as I suggested in my previous post, if a URL shortening service goes out of business, my posts would no longer be reachable, nor would the articles referred in the book mentioned above. As we build knowledge based on shortened hyperlinks, we are making ourselves (and our collective knowledge) vulnerable to few weak links of the chain. Also, some people may grow uncomfortable with the idea of few organizations being at the junctions of our information society fabric, fearing that they may leverage such information in ways that ultimate constitute a threat to privacy or even democracy.

As a consequence, some will call for government action. I already received a comment to my earlier post praising the initiatives of certain governments – such as the US one – to provide a shortening service (so far available only to government employees).

But do we want government to be at those critical junctions? Are we prepared to give government the discretionary power of analyzing what matters to us, how we link to each other, how we retweet and hence rate our respective views, in return for some greater security that those junctions will be maintained over time? And, if it is not up to government to play this role, should URL shorteners be owned by communities, open-sourced and crowdsourced, so that each of us owns a piece of that fabric?

This is yet another example of how – despite the many articles, documents and plans – we really know very little about how “society 2.0” will evolve, what risks will emerge and what the most appropriate role for government will be.

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Category: web-20-in-government  

Tags: government-20  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
19 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies, open government, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio


Thoughts on URL Shorteners: New Fabric of Society or Hidden Threat?


  1. I think that not only URL shorterners should be provided by government or open communities, twitter is another example of a service that is nearly critical for the way we communicate today. As the DNS is cooperative service in the network level, we have to begin to define which services should be provided in the same way in the social level.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrea DiMaio, Andrés Nin. Andrés Nin said: Quite interesting … RT @AndreaDiMaio: URL Shorteners: New Fabric of Society or Hidden Threat? – http://bit.ly/7AKovn #gov20 […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by AndreaDiMaio: URL Shorteners: New Fabric of Society or Hidden Threat? – http://bit.ly/7AKovn #gov20…

  4. Bob Olwig says:

    I’ve often thought the same especially about these sites going out of business, which a few have.

  5. Giorgio Pauletto says:

    You may have heard of 301Works initiative headed by Stove Boyd. From their blog “The Internet Archive and founding companies announce today [nov 11, 2009] the launch of 301Works.org, a service to archive shortened Universal Resource Locators (URLs). This will enable redirect services to incorporate these shortened URLs when a member company ceases business activities.”
    More info at http://www.301works.org/

  6. Ines Mergel says:

    Very true. Another argument that I also hear a lot when I speak about Government 2.0 with government officials is: We can’t rely on third party providers. We don’t know if Facebook, Twitter or YouTube still exist next year. We can’t afford to “invest” time into a platform that might go out of business.

    Is that something that your clients are concerned about as well?



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