Classic unix web addresses are incomprehensible to average users. I’m talking about URL’s that are composed of a domain name, followed by a slash, a tlide and your user name. Something like this:
These addresses are incredibly common. Chances are, that if you have a shell account on some unix system somewhere the PUBLIC_HTML folder in your home directory maps to a publicly accessible URL just like that. Hell, you don’t even need a shell account. Any service running on top of a *nix stack that allows you to host more or less complex web pages will be using addresses like that.
Those of us with linux and unix experience know this pattern intuitively. The fun starts when you try to spell out your URL to a complete technological neophyte. Average user has no clue what a tilde is.
Man, I really apologize for using this stupid meme
I’ve been doing this for quite a while now and it almost impossible to give this sort of URL to people in any other form than a clickable link. You just can’t spell it out:
You say “tilde” and you get a blank stare. Swung dash or a wave dash are not much better.
You refer to it as the “squiggle”, “the squiggly line” or “the wavy thing” and they begin to suspect you are just fucking with them.
Really, the only reliable way to tell students what key to press is to say it is to the left of number 1 key on the keyboard and hope they can distinguish left from right. But if they press it, they get the tick-mark so you need to remind them to press it with a Shift key. Which means you sort of have to stop spelling, and get this awkward sentence out:
“Now, press shift, and the key directly to the left of number 1 key on the main keyboard (not the number pad) together”
If everyone is sitting at a keyboard, this may have a chance of working. Still, You will likely find out that some people have funky non-standard keyboard where tilde is done by pressing Fn+Shift+Scroll Lock or something equally stupid. Other people will tune out either the first or the last part of the sentence and either press and hold shift, or insert a tic-mark into the URL. If your students are not sitting at a keyboard, you might as well not even bother. They won’t retain the location of the key, won’t write it down, and will claim they couldn’t access the website later on.
You can’t write it on the board because they won’t be able to copy it properly. You can’t give it to them in a handout because they will just skip that character. Yes, roughly 60% of my students can’t access my webpage given a hard copy of the syllabus. And it’s not just at the begging of the class. I’d be fine if I only had to explain this once at the begging of the semester, but my students just don’t retain this info no matter what I do. I go through this awkward thing every single week and I’m sick of it.
I have been thinking about a solution for this issue for a while now and came up with 3 potential courses of action:
- Host my course related stuff somewhere else
- Buy a cheep domain name
- Use a free subdomain
First alternative is not very attractive. I have this web space provided by the university under a .edu address and I don’t really feel like relocating my files elsewhere and paying for hosting out of my own pocket. So number 1 is out.
Number 2 is a bit better. I looked around for cheap domains and I noticed that .info is essentially worthless. At the time of writing this Godaddy.com was selling .info domains for $0.99. That’s per year folks. I don’t know – that seems dirt cheap to me. I think I could totally swallow 99 cents per year for the sake of convenience.
Then there is number 3, which is just like number 2 but less expensive. The only difference is that I would not get a nice domain name of my own. I would have to settle for a nice subdomain.
In case you didn’t know, there are plenty of services on the web where you can get a subdomain for free. I mean, you you could set this up yourself. Once you buy a domain, you can set up as many c-names as you want, redirecting subdomains to different IP’s or ULR’s. There are sites out there that have pools of reserved domains for that very purpose.
Probably the most popular, and least shady of these is DynDNS. They are probably best known for providing free subdomains for computers with dynamic IP addresses. For example, you might remember my private NetHack server used to be located at luke.kicks-ass.org. That was a dyndns subdomain – I didn’t actually pay for something as silly as that. I simply signed up with them, installed a small updater app and bound my dynamic IP to that address. But they do more than just basic DNS mapping.
Their WebHop service does exactly what we need here. It is a redirect to an existing URL, combined with an optional domain masking.
Only issue here is a small choice of intuitive and easy to remember domain names. Most of them are either hard to remember (well, for people who can’t figure out tilde at least) – like dyndns.com, silly and informal (kicks-ass.com), or cryptic (mine.nu). Not a great selection for a course related site but it might work for you. It worked well for my nethack server for example.
There are dozens of other services like that all over the web. ShortURL is another one, with it’s own pool of silly domains. Once again, I haven’t found anything remotely memorable or usable on their list, but it does not disqualify it as a service.
In fact, just check out the Guide to Free URL Redirection site for a very comprehensive list. Especially look at the Shortest Free Url’s section for a good selection of 3-4 letter domains. Caveat Emptor: some of these sites will inject popups and/or advertising frames when redirecting so be careful.
90% of them are useless to me at this point. At least for this particular school related project. But I’m putting this here because I know someone will be able to use them just like I did for that server. A lot of these domains are great for personal web pages and/or myspace profiles. I actually know few people who created a dyndns accound just so that they could have a kicks-ass.org subdomain.