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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

The Question Mark at the End

We’ve all found some article that we wanted to share with others, and what simpler way could their be than to just copy the URL from the browser and paste it in an email! Just like this:

Yuck! Well, I’m here to tell you how to solve this hobgoblin by giving you some information about the question mark “at the end.”—the one that I’ve highlighted in black. For that is not a question mark for the title of the article, but rather the gate to server world.

If you look at the above url, you’ll notice a few things you’re likely to recognize. This domain is unusual for not being a “.com” but other than that, the title of the article is pretty clear. You can read it out loud, “At This Vending Machine Swapping is the New Buying.” But see, that’s a title, not a question. That question mark is the end of the URL and the beginning of a bunch of variables that programmers and publishers can use mainly to see where you came from. I was in my mail program when this article popped up, I clicked on the link, and this URL was sent to my browser, letting the good people at Good Magazine know that I arrived on their doorstep from out of an email they sent to me.

But look, copy only the portion up to the question mark and Voila, the URL still functions perfectly:

Some people prefer to automate this process a bit by using URL shortening services such as or or, my favorite,, and I do use them for Twitter. But when sending along an article to a friend, I consider this bad etiquette. In a way, it takes advantage of trust and removes information from the receiver which would otherwise give them a choice to spend their time on your missive or not. Consider the difference here:


Thought you would appreciate this article from Good Magazine:
“At This Vending Machine Swapping is the New Buying”

Check this out:

You see? There’s no context. The second message reads like an imperative. But, people are busy. People may not be more or less likely to go to the link you’ve so generously shared if it’s shortened, but if they put it away for later, chances are they’ll forget it. Instead, the context of the title might be enough to spring something to mind later and they’ll seek it out of their inbox. Besides which, I can’t help but think that courtesy and clarity in email are two things worth striving for.

Publishers!: You should note for yourselves that bad URLs are likely harming your readership. URLs like the first one above often just break in email programs when people try to share them. It’s why URL shortening services exist, but they are not a panacea. Ask your webmaster (are they still called that?) how a reader can land on the site, your URL variables then register with your server, and afterwards direct the reader to a new copy of the page with a nice URL that people can more easily share. It’s not hard to do. (Particularly savvy web masters will use javascript to dynamically update the URL without ever making the reader think they’ve left the page!)

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