e-tat / digital wasteland

Friday, February 17, 2006

What's a permalink?

Over the last few days I've had to fiddle with my Firefox config, so, in addition to a slip in attribution, I decided I would look into options for finding permalinks, copying URLS, and pasting them.

Turns out things aren't quite as straightforward as I'd hoped. Permalinks are not just a matter of pasting a URL into a comments field. The URL has to be in a particular format. In addition there are the questions of how to copy, format and paste the URL.

First, permalink is a reference to a format, not the fact of copying and pasting a link, nor even to the idea of acknowledging sources. Permalinks come in a variety of formats, such as this one used with Word Press: http://<site-specific prefix>/<4 digit year>/<2 digit month>/<2 digit date>/<article name>/, but some are quite a bit different to this.

Here's the nub:
Permalinks typically consist of a string of characters which represent the date and time of posting, and some (system dependent) identifier (which includes a base URL, and often identifies the author, subscriber, or department which initially authored the item). Crucially, if an item is changed, renamed, or moved, its permalink remains unaltered. If an item is deleted altogether, its permalink cannot be reused.(via)

The point here is the permanence of the URL, in which the format is secondary.
For example, if you look at the URL for this page, you'll see it's in permalink format, but is slightly unusual because it's got '#comments' tacked on at the end. So if I were to simply copy the URL and post it somewhere, the link brings me to the post page, but at the top of the comments rather than the top of the post. That's a trivial thing to deal with, given that Pete's posts conform to a permalink format, whereas the vast number of webpages will be in some 'chaotic' format, which defeats the secondary aim of 'permanent' access.

The issue here is whether the URL is in a stable format, which is not something I have control over - unless I copy the page to my own archive and link to the copy. Not a great scenario for interactive things like blogs..

Second, my Firefox context menu (right-click) doesn't include a 'copy URL' function. I'm not sure why. Maybe there's some extension I need to get. So even when the URL is in the correct format I have to mouse over to the address bar to copy the link. Again, not a big deal, but it would be sweet to have a function that did it from the context menu or keyboard.

Third, once I've got a clipboard copy of a correctly formatted URL, I need to tag it with HTML, by embedding the URL in a (<a href="">via</a>) tag. This is actually the most time consuming and annoying part, particularly when trying to use the small (~300px) comment fields in many blogs: the link itself is usually wider than the field, which means it's easy to make formatting mistakes. So if anyone were to develop an extension or context menu function that simply added the URL to the 'via' tag shown above, it would ease the entire process and probably facilitate a lot more acknowledgement of sources.

Another thing to keep in mind is that unformatted URLs can take up a lot of space, and can even distort the blog they've been posted to. So it's a matter of etiquette to keep the link short, either by using TinyURL or by using the HTML tagged format as above. So there are two good reasons for this step of putting the link in an HTML format. But if it's time-consuming and error-prone, how many people are going to bother? Easier to leave the link unattributed.

Fourth, I need to paste the thing. If I were simply dropping unformatted URLs into a comments field it would be trivial. But if I'm trying to be considerate and doing the HTML tagging, then it's a question of editing the tag, then copying and pasting it.

That's it. Four steps, but how many individual actions? How many mouse clicks, how many routines or applications to open for cutting, pasting, editing, cutting and pasting again?

It looks to me like it's worth putting into script or extension form. But do I have a clue about what's involved? It's not straightforward. I haven't come across an extension-builder, a wizard that'll do the job for me. Handcrafting links is also not straightforward. And there's the issue of whether the URL is truly permanent or not, or whether permalink has two meanings: one for the format and one for the practice of acknowledging sources.


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