If you’re the particular kind of pretentious arse I am you will have flirted with readings about psychogeography. And you will have entertained the idea that something in the physical shape of buildings and the topography of the city can affect your mood.I think that might also be true of URLs.
Uniform Resource Locators – web addresses to most of us – are the closest the everyday internet user gets to sensing the physical infrastructure of the web. Experienced web developers will look at a URL structure and draw conclusions about the soundness of a site’s construction, in the same way a structural engineer would look at a bridge, but I think the rest of us sense something there too, even without knowing exactly what’s going on. Is that why the web’s been feeling flakier of late, because our URLs are being pasted over with unhelpful facades?
I first really thought about URLs when reading suck.com – the early webziney thing that pioneered so many online writing styles. They were the first to use links and URLs as jokes and meta-commentary and part of the writing, not just as footnotes. When ranting about the commercialisation of the web, for instance, they would link to their own site and acknowledge and defuse their own hypocrisy. That style became common web currency; weaving structure tightly in with content and becoming another part of the web’s psychogeography, such that a site that enjoins you to ‘click here’ just seems less professional, like you’re in a shoddily made building.
And, for a while, domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as when I realised I could buy agoodplaceforacupofteaandathink.com. Surely, I thought, this must already have been snapped up.
And then the URL shorteners arrived. You’ll remember TinyURL, or bit.ly. You’ll have seen t.co all over Twitter. They’re used, obviously enough, for shortening, but also for tracking and measurement and because they obscure your destination, they make malicious intent more feasible. I suspect they’re also affecting the psychogeography; the infrastructure becomes less apparent, the ground feels less solid. And newer generations of browsers on our phones are making this worse; hiding URLs and shepherding us through the internet without letting us see it, like we’re the Queen being led through a building site via a tunnel of velvet curtains.
It’s increasingly apparent that a more digitally literate citizenry would be good for a thousand different reasons. A great way to start would be to make URLs (and web’s psychogeography) visible again, to let people see the infrastructure they’re living in. Perhaps it’s time for some pro-URL sloganising: Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!
Credits: Wired UK