National Rail Travel Alert

This is the text of a National Rail travel alert email that I received this morning.

Problems have been reported which may affect your journey between Balham (BAL) and Shepherd’s Bush (SPB)

More details of this disruption can be found here:

To see how this disruption affects your journey and to get alternative options planned for you, please use the Online Journey Planner

Alternatively, for up to date information for your station, use the Live Departure Boards.

Prefer to get in touch by phone? Call TrainTracker on 0871 200 49 50 (10p per min, mobiles higher) or text your journey details to 84950 to use TrainTracker Text

You can manage your alerts by visiting:

Don’t forget, you can also follow us on Twitter or Find us on Facebook for the latest rail travel news

Please do not reply to this email as it is sent from an unmonitored address. If you need to contact us, you can do so here:

Can you spot the obvious idiocy here?

It’s an HTML email. That’s obvious from the links that appear in it. Links to things like the Online Journey Planner and the Live Departure Boards. But there are a couple of links that are written as plain text URLs – ones that you can’t just click on. And one of them is the most important link in the email – the link to the full information about the problems.

In order to read whatever is on the other end of that link, you’d need to copy it and paste it into the location bar in your browser. That’s simple enough, of course, on a desktop computer. But surely one of the important use cases for these alerts is people standing on a platform trying to work out what’s going on with their train – in which case they’d almost certainly be using a smartphone. And copy and paste isn’t the easiest of things to do on a smartphone.

Someone in the National Rail Travel Alerts department is more than a little confused about how URLs in email work.


Web Site Links

Twitter is used a lot for sharing links. In fact that might be one of the main things it’s used for. And because of the nature of a lot of the discussion on Twitter, those links tend to be to either blogs or news sites many of which have a very similar structure. They will have an individual page for each story and a front page which lists the most recent stories. Of course there might also be time-based or category-based archive pages, but those aren’t important for this discussion.

If you find a story on one of these sites that you want to share with people, then the most sensible approach is to link to the individual page for the story. If you just link to the front page of the site then that is going to make sense whilst the story is near the top of that page but as new stories are published, your story will sink down the page and eventually it will vanish off the page completely. At that point anyone trying to follow your link from Twitter is not going to understand what you’re talking about.

The front pages of web sites change regularly. That’s their purpose. The individual story links will always link to their particular story. They’re called “permalinks” for a good reason – they are permanent links to a particular entry on the site.

So if I want to draw your attention to an entry on Tim Ireland’s blog, I’ll link to the individual entry, not to the front page. Perhaps it’s worth looking at those two links in more detail so that you can see the difference.

I’m not trying to be some kind of internet policeman here. I’m not saying that you have to do it my way. I’m just saying that this seems to be a sensible approach and if you carry on linking to the front page of sites then you run the risk of people who discover your link some time after you published it getting confused when it doesn’t show them what it showed when you published the link.

It seems to me that there are three reasons why people wouldn’t make the effort to publish permalinks.

Firstly, they just don’t understand how the internet works and don’t really know what they are doing. That’s ok, of course. We were all beginners once and hopefully this post will go some way towards showing them how things work.

Secondly, they know how it works but they can’t be bothered to go to the extra effort to dig out the real permalink. I mean, often you read these stories on the front page of a site and that’s the address that is sitting in your browser location bar, so that’s the address that you cut and past into Twitter. You might also think that Twitter is a transitory medium and people will only follow your link within a few hours of you publishing it. To these people I can only say that Twitter isn’t transitory and your tweets can potentially be read months or years later. I think that it’s really worth making that little bit more effort in order to make your historical conversations easier to follow.

Finally there might be people who deliberately don’t want to publish links to specific articles as they don’t want to be called on what they linked to at some unknown point in the future. These people have worked out that Twitter isn’t a transitory medium and, instead, they rely on the transitory nature of web site front pages to make their tweets seem transitory. It’s the internet equivalent of the person who gets angry if you try to get him to substantiate an off-the-cuff remark he made half an hour ago. This is a deeply cynical and unhelpful view of the internet and I really hope that no-one reading this fits into this category.

So please make an effort to give permanence to what you say on Twitter. It’s really quite easy to do and it makes a huge difference to the quality of the discussion.