There is currently some discussion about the dangers of URL shorteners. Joshua Schachter points out that shortened URLs damage the web - the ‘hypertext as engine of application state’ part of it. David Weiss points out the security concerns - phishing and a single compromisable point.

In this conversation most people point out that URL shorteners have proliferated because of the popularity of Twitter. Kottke has now proposed that Twitter run a URL shortener of their own. Which seems eminently sensible, given the current state.

I’ve got a different suggestion: Twitter should actually let me use the <a> anchor tag in my tweets. Just like I’ve been doing in HTML for as long as the web has been around. That is, the URL in your tweet should not contribute to the number of characters in your tweet, and it should also not be visible. Instead it should be attached to a word, phrase or perhaps the entire tweet. This should be optional: without markup URLs pasted into tweets should maintain the status quo.

Of course, no other forms of HTML markup should be supported: linking would be enough. The Twitter web site and desktop and custom phone clients would have no problem rendering a link. Only SMS clients would have a problem, and for these perhaps the fallback is to shorten the URL using Twitter’s own URL shortener and insert that into the tweet. SMS clients may not be that common for much longer.

Assuming Twitter allows specific parts of the tweet to be marked up, then I suggest Markdown syntax for the link. This recent tweet would have been typed out as:

I unplugged every landline phone in our office
because of [marketers](http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/04/poisoning-the-well.html) (via @misswired)

Which would have appeared as:

I unplugged every landline phone in our office because of marketers (via @misswired)

Which is what I was actually trying to say.

Of course allowing link markup like this is going to be very popular with spammers. Two counters:

  1. Twitter should include rel="nofollow" on links when rendering — as they already do.

  2. Don’t allow targeted markup like this, instead allow the entire Tweet to be marked up — only one link per tweet. The disadvantage with this is that sometimes I want more than one link, and the appropriate rendering is not obvious.

Both targeted markup and one-link-per-tweet have advantages and disadvantages, I’ll leave it up to Twitter to choose between them. But please, give me back my <a> anchors.