"URL shortening services have been around for a number of years.
Their original purpose was to prevent cumbersome URLs from getting
fragmented by broken email clients that felt the need to wrap
everything to an 80 column screen.
But it's 2009 now, and this problem
no longer exists. Instead it's been replaced by the SMS-oriented 140 character
constraints of sites like Twitter. (Let's leave aside the fact that any
phone that can run a web browser and thus follow links can also run a
proper client, and doesn't have to hew to the SMS character limit.)
Since TinyURL, there has been a rapid proliferation of shortening services."
The post goes on to explain the many reasons why this has both short and long-term negative consequences for the web. There's also a growing discussion on Techmeme, with good responses from folks like Dave Winer, Jason Kottke and others, on other technical issues around this approach and possible technical solutions to address them.
But taking a step back from the technical pros and cons of shortened URLs, one needs to understand the core merits of Twitter's 140-character limit, necessitated by it's initial focus on SMS text services, that then lead to URL shortening become a necessary mainsream evil. (Search Engine Land has a timely review on the rapidly growing field of companies offering this service).
That 140-character limit meant that publishers of content had to learn how to be brief and to the point in their messages, regardless of how much they wanted to express.
Remember that before Twitter, there had been an explosion of mainstream bloggers, where tens of millions worldwide discovered they could publish globally to their heart's content, at large at no great cost to themselves than their time.
The problem was that this meant that hundreds of millions of potential readers had to read all that stuff and try and glean the essence of all these posts.
This asymmetric reality meant that tons of content would never actually get read. Readers of course had to spend a ton of time trying to wade through this stuff, and even blog reader software didn't quite help other than just collect the ever-growing clutter.
Twitters 140-character limit meant that there was now forced publishers to think about how they could be short and sweet.
And made it far easier for tens of millions to consume tweets much faster, scanning dozens at a glance. They could then decide which tweets were worthy of exploring further by clicking on a URL link, whether it was shortened or not.
When the history books are written on this period, we'll likely have a lot more data and analysis on how this 140-character limit really helped Twitter race ahead of so many competitors so fast.
Note that Facebook in it's recent big change to emulate elements of
Twitter's feed model, chose to go with a 160-character limit, even
though SMS/text messaging has very little to do with how Facebook feeds are
So whatever Twitter does do address the deficiencies of the shortened URLs, it really shouldn't mess with the 140-character limit.