Donkey Bridges

The ultimate reason behind my last two articles (“URL shortening is bonkers” and “On URLs, keywords, and memorability”) is a very simple use case: Alex (age 10) was playing Roblox on the kids’ computer, a game where you can build virtual environments and items to populate them with. He had made an item (I think it was a T-shirt), and he wanted to show it to me on my computer. What was the easiest way for him to do that?

Because Alex has an email account, but doesn’t use IM yet, the two options were:

  • I log in to Roblox, navigate to Alex’s profile, and look up the item.
  • Alex copies the URL for the item from his browser, and pastes it into an email to me. I open up the email, and click on the link.

Neither of these options is unreasonable, but they both feel unnecessarily cumbersome. Using the site navigation involves me clicking through several screens, and unless Alex is standing next to me looking at my screen, I’m not sure if I’ve got exactly the right item. But using email to pass the link around doesn’t take advantage of the fact that Alex is sitting five meters away from me, and we can just talk. For a younger child without an email account, even the second option would be out of the picture.

What I really wanted was for Alex to just say, “go to roblox.com, and type this simple code.” (With a code that doesn’t look like a cat has just walked over the keyboard.)

Donkeybridges.com is a demonstration of this idea. The site uses Yahoo!’s GeoPlanet API to show information about places (towns, states, countries) worldwide. Each place has its own page, which is identified by a non-obvious ID value in the URL, for example http://donkeybridges.com/place.php?id=2161838 (Guangzhou in China).

Each place also has a “link phrase” associated with it. (I originally called them “resource mnemonics”, but that’s not very catchy.) The link phrase is a combination of two adjective + noun pairs, like “a sticky pen and a funny feather.”

To view a place page, you can go directly to the URL (hard to remember), or you can go to the home page (easy to remember) and enter the link phrase (easy to remember). The idea is that two easy steps are better than one hard one. Not that pasting a URL into your address bar is hard, but ask yourself what you are more likely to remember in ten minutes: “2161838” or “a sticky pen and a funny feather”?

The link phrases are generated from one list with 100 adjectives and one with 100 nouns: A1 + N1 + A2 + N2. This gives a possible 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 = 100 million possible combinations. I picked the adjectives and nouns for the lists because they are simple and vivid, and produce clear mental pictures, which makes the combinations easier to remember.

100 million combinations isn’t enough for a generic URL shortener that may be dealing with billions of links, but it is enough to fit all the WOEIDs (“Where On Earth IDs“) that Yahoo! currently has assigned to places around the world. There is a simple algorithm to turn each WOEID into its matching phrase, and vice versa.

Because places that are adjacent in the real world often have WOEIDs that are very close together, I injected a little trickiness into the algorithm to make sure that consecutive WOEIDs produce very dissimilar phrases. WOEIDs 33556 (Rosevanion in Cornwall) and 33557 (Rosevean, also in Cornwall) map to “a jumping heart and a brown king” and “a fast dress and a wide knife”, respectively. If you’re interested, the source code is on Github.

What are the civilian applications?

You will have observed that the link phrases used on donkeybridges.com have nothing to do with the actual resources (places) they map to. This is a weakness when the resource is strongly physical, like a place, or a book, or an MP3. It can be fun to discover that a place is associated with a funny phrase, but there is no inherent reason why “a broken lion and a laughing cloud” should be more associated with Thurso in Scotland than with Beloha in Madagascar. The phrase is less memorable than it would be if there were a connection.

However, when it comes to identifying abstract resources, such as hotel bookings, appointments on a calendar, or items of virtual clothing, using one nonsensical but otherwise vivid and memorable phrase is as good as any other.

Sending someone a URL via email or IM will remain the quickest and easiest way to point someone at a digital resource most of the time. But link phrases give you a simple (and potentially amusing) analogue alternative when digital communication just doesn’t work out.

Please play around with donkeybridges.com, and let me know what you think.

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