Writing with Bitly

Markets are conversations, they say. So yesterday I had one with MRoth, head of product for , the company whose service changes the other day caused a roar of negative buzz, including some from me, here.

Users were baffled by complexities where simplicities used to be. Roger Ebert lamented an “incomprehensible and catastrophic redesign” and explained in his next tweet, “I want to shorten a link, tweet it, and see how many hits and retweets it got. That’s it. Bit.ly now makes it an ordeal.”

That was my complaint as well. And it was heard. A friend with Bitly connections made one between  and me, and good conversation followed for an hour.

We spent much of that time going over work flows. Turns out Roger’s and mine are not the only kind Bitly enables, or cares about, and that’s a challenge for the company. Compiling, curating and sharing bookmarks (which they now call “bitmarks”) is as important for some users as simply shortening URLs is for others. Bitly combined the two in this re-design, and obviously ran into problems. They are now working hard to solve those.

I won’t go into the particulars MRoth shared, because I didn’t take notes and don’t remember them well enough in any case. What matters is that it’s clear to me that Bitly is reaching out, listening, and doing their best to follow up with changes. “Always make new mistakes,” Esthr says, and they’re making them as fast and well as they can.

I will share something I suggested, however, and that’s to look at the work flows around writing, and not just tweeting and other forms of “social” sharing.

We need more and better tools for writing linky text on the Web. Much as I like and appreciate what WordPress and Drupal do, I’m not fond of either as writing systems, mostly because “content management” isn’t writing, and those are content management systems first, and writing systems second.

As an art and a practice, writing is no less a product of its instruments than are music and painting. We not only need pianos, drums and brushes, but Steinways, Ludwigs and Langnickels. Microsoft doesn’t cut it. (Word produces horrible html.) Adobe had a good early Web writing tool with GoLive, but killed it in favor of Dreamweaver, which is awful. There are plenty of fine text editors, including old standbys (e.g. vi and emacs) that work in command shells. Geeky wizards can do wonders with them, but there should be many other instruments for many other kinds of artists.

Far as I know, the only writer and programmer working on a portfolio of writing and publishing instruments today is , and he’s been on the case for thirty years or more. (I believe I first met Dave at the booth at Comdex in Atlanta in 1982, when the program was available only on the Apple II). One of these days, months or years, writers and publishers are going to appreciate Dave’s pioneering work with outlining, sharing linksflowing news and other arts. I’m sure they do to some extent today (where would we all be without RSS?), but what they see is exceeded by what they don’t. Yet.

The older I get, the earlier it seems. For artist-grade writing and publishing tools, it’s clear to me that we’re at the low narrow left end of the adoption curve: not far past the beginning. That spells opportunity for lots of new development projects and companies, including Bitly.

I think the main thing standing in everybody’s way right now is the belief that writing and publishing need to be “social,” as defined by Facebook and Twitter, rather than by society as a whole, which was plenty social before those companies came along. Also plenty personal. Remember personal computing? We hardly talk about that any more, because it’s a redundancy, like personal phoning, or personal texting. But personal, as an adjective, has taken a back seat while social drives.

Here’s a distinction that might help us get back in the driver’s seat: Publishing is social, but writing is personal. The latter is no less a greenfield today than it was in 1982. The difference is that it’s now as big as the Net.


  1. Dave Winer’s avatar

    Doc, if I publish links through Bitly don’t you think there should be a feed? As far as we know the new Bitly does not provide a feed. So you can’t hook up the flow you create through Bitly anywhere but Bitly. It appears to be a silo, but I’d love to hear this is wrong and they’re providing a feed for each user.

  2. Matthew Rothenberg’s avatar

    Thanks Doc, enjoyed our chat. Our hope is that as we iterate, bitly profile pages and in particular bitly bundles (both of which actually existed on bitly previously) will help enable new forms of low-impact publishing, making it easy for anyone to simultaneously have a homepage for their commentary and also simultaneously publish out to social networks, without having to duplicate effort.

    Dave, we definitely have RSS feeds for any links on a user’s public profile page (for example, mine is bitly.com). We’ll be adding more feeds soon. A bug prevented them from showing up in the META tags for about 24 hours, so perhaps that’s why they were missed. Perhaps worth noting, we’ve also greatly expanded the bitly API with this release, adding API methods to enable members not just to get data in, but to get all of their data out (including stats, etc.). We believe that the more places you can access your bitmarks, the more useful they are to you, which is our ultimate aim. We’re looking forward to seeing all the things people build with it that we could have never imagined ourselves. Documentation for the API is on our new developer site at http://dev.bitly.com.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good question. (That’s what people say when they don’t know the answer.) So let’s find out. Woops, I wrote this comment before I checked the moderation queue, where mroth had an answer.

  4. Rex Hammock’s avatar


    re: “As an art and a practice, writing is no less a product of its instruments than are music and painting. We not only need pianos, drums and brushes, but Steinways, Ludwigs and Langnickels.”

    Recently, I’ve overseen a major project that required me, for the first time in decades, to dive deeply into the world of academic citations, indexing and bibliography. I discovered a world of new writing tools I was not aware existed, but I caught on quickly because they made our task infinitely less time consuming and more comprehensible and organized.

    While there are several such tools in the “annotation” category, the one I chose to use for our team is Zotero — an open source project funded by some big-name foundations.

    The software (actually, a browser plug=in and extensions that work with various word-processing software) reminded me of what you are saying — that writing is not “one” thing, that one set of tools can work for everyone.

    Sometimes a link is enough…other times, an annotated link with notes attached and links to 20 different authors is required.


  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Rex.

    Just downloaded Zotero. We’ll see how it goes. Looks like it will be especially helpful with the next book.

  6. Sean Gillespie’s avatar

    Why is this taking so long? I have been experimenting with different url shorteners including Bitly and while they all have a fancy feature or two, they seem to fail on delivery. Don’t even get me started with su.pr! Business consulting services who are trying to create efficiency for their clients, just want a shortener that works the same each time and on all platforms including tweetdeck. Bitly is winning the battle, but far from winning the war. Bo.lt had a decent interface until they changed it and it fails in tweetdeck… I don’t know, maybe someday…

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Sean, I think the answer is to evolve past the whole problem, which is a result of the calf-cow system, not of long URLs themselves.

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  9. Ronald’s avatar

    @Publishing is social, but writing is personal.
    I wouldn’t make such a line between these processes. Publishing can be very personal, especially if you post some personal things.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ronald, sure. But that was also my point. Or one of them.

  11. Ted Stresen-Reuter’s avatar

    Very astute comments regarding the tools and art of writing. As a middle and high school IT teacher I tell my students that computers allow us to express ourselves like never before and that a mastery of expressing yourself clearly in writing will lead to marvelous places. I teach the usual suspects (Word processing, Presentation software, Video production software) but the tool that seems to be hitting home runs in promoting good writing (for the web) is wiki. I suspect this is because wiki tools take “design” out of the picture (mostly) requiring you to focus on the content. Much like vi and emacs (and others) it can be a bit geeky but after learning just a few wiki codes and concepts students are able to produce engaging and “professional” material that they can easily share with their friends and family. It seems inconceivable that expressing yourself clearly in writing could ever cease to be an important skill but I suppose it could be supplanted by something, I just wonder what that something could be!

    Thanks for all your insights.

    Ted Stresen-Reuter
    (actually signed the manifesto back in the day)

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