Smart URIs in Comment Forms?

Many blogs have taken to posting notices to remind commenters to use HTML to include URIs in comments rather than simply typing or pasting the full URI out in the comment box.  (For example, read the comment form at Outside the Beltway.  See also a long post on the subject at Balloon Juice.)  This is because most blogs designs feature fixed-width comment areas that “break” if the URI is too long.

Obviously, it’d be best if the commenters did use HTML when posting links, but many won’t, because most Internet users remain HTML-illiterate.  The worst way to handle this problem is to put a hold on posting all comments with a URI included and manually edit each comment to make the links correct.  Another way around the problem is to make the comment form a WYSIWYG box, thus making inserting URIs as painless as possible, but doing so increases server load, especially for highly-trafficked blogs.  A better option, which I’ve been thinking about after a couple months of miniblogging on Twitter, where short URIs are a must, would utilize the shortened URI feature of TinyURL!, Snurl, or similar services.

I got to thinking:  WordPress and Movable Type already convert simple characters to special characters after we post — two hyphens become an em-dash, straight quotes become curly quotes, and so on — so why not have “smart URIs”?  The blogging application could catch the presence of URIs, check their character length, and then automatically convert all URIs over a certain length (e.g. 25 characters) to a shortened URI using an API from one of the short-URI web applications or a custom-built app.  Ideally, the blog would combine these short URIs with a link previewing feature so that no one gets suckered into going to a non-worksafe URI, making the links created truly smart.

If someone has already done this as a plugin, then great.  But it really should be a standard feature of WordPress and Movable Type in the future.

Site Notes

Tonight I played with WordPress.com themes a bit before settling on PressRow and uploading a header image. (The picture above the masthead should be iconic for people who’ve lived in Tianjin without being a photo that “screams China.”) Though many of the themes look great, one annoying thing is that so few of the fixed-width themes available can accommodate medium Flickr images without resizing or partially cropping the pictures. Even Youtube videos feel the pinch on some themes. Now, I’m not super-keen on flexible-width themes, but we really need themes for 800 pixel resolutions these days? A lesser annoyance, but worth mentioning, is that few themes look right when using sidebar widgets — formatting is always a little off.

That said, my choice of theme may be moot, since most of you who read this blog — if you do read it — are probably doing so through a news reader, so any aesthetic changes I make will be transparent to you. Syndication has the potential to replace most direct blog visits, and I’ve already seen some bloggers start to link using syndication links rather than direct blog links, which could diminish cross-blog connectivity. For instance, if I link to a Feedburner RSS link for someone’s blog post, then she will likely see the incoming link from Feedburner, not from me. Traffic remains the same, of course, but, what if, on top of these developments, there were also a universal way to comment blogs without visiting them? If that were the case, why would anyone directly load a URI again? That’s one ultimate direction we may take when we separate form from content.

Webby musings aside, I’ve made another small change to my blog content by adding a second miniblog powered by Fanfou, the Chinese Twitter/Pownce clone. I had initially tried to use the QQ-integrated Taotao but Tencent has annoyingly established a daily quota for registrations and I lack the patience to keep trying. Thankfully, I chose Fanfou after a pointer from a Twitter friend and found it more user-friendly (not to mention better-looking) than Taotao. As some readers will note, my Fanfou miniblog is in (bad) Chinese. Other readers will just see a lot of gibberish in the sidebar. To clean up the RSS a bit, both the Twitter miniblog and the Fanfou miniblog are syndicated through a Yahoo! Pipe* that strips out the name from the beginning of each post. The only drawback to this is that updates are a little slow.

On top of the changes listed above, I also reorganized my tags and categories to strip out some redundancy and clarify things a bit. On a professional WordPress install, the right plugins can make this task easy, but on WordPress.com, editing tags, and, to a lesser extent, editing categories, is a chore. I’m lucky my blogging output has been so light — I had to edit all of my posts manually to clean up the tags and categories. I like WordPress a lot but the lack of built-in tag management has always been a little disappointing.

* Pipes, which allows for all kinds of RSS syndication, is just about the best thing Yahoo! has done in years.