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Bitly

What Libya and Twitter have in common.

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Illustration by Giacomo Gambineri  

Employees: 42
Clicks last month: 7 billion
Lesson: Geopolitics doesn’t matter in tech—until it does.

“I expected that the social web was going to redefine the way traffic moved,” says John Borthwick, creator of URL-shortening service Bitly. “But when it really happens? You’re like, Oh, shit! Because it basically redefined the way people need to think about web pages.”

Short links are convenient for posting to Twitter—condensing unwieldy URLs into something more tweetable, if also a bit harder to parse—but if you’re wondering how an ad hoc auxiliary function to a business whose profitability is an open question could generate around $30 million in funding, you’re right to be skeptical. Like so much on the social web, Bitly’s real business isn’t in what most people see it do but in analyzing the information it harvests from the users it attracts by doing it. Some of Bitly’s navigation data is openly available; anyone can find how many people clicked on a given link, where they were sitting, and when. But working for companies like Amazon and the New York Times, Bitly’s data scientists and engineers have begun to figure out how traffic that moves in swarms, not lines, can aggregate into trends and when a trend is ready to “burst.” The focus is not so much on a publisher’s content but on its audience—and where else that audience might swarm to or from. “We can’t see into tomorrow or next week yet,” explains CEO Mark Josephson, who has shortened his own e-mail address to a single letter. “But we’re getting fairly accurate at saying, ‘In the next several hours, here’s what’s starting to move.’ ”

Bitly started out in 2008 as Bit.ly­—the company registered a Libyan domain name to take advantage of the web convention that gave En­glish-language sites hosted there coincidentally adorable, adverbial URLs. Then, in 2011, the country fell into a not especially adorable civil war. Concerns about a potential service disruption proved unfounded (a big chunk of Libya’s servers are in Europe and the U.S.), but—like Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi, who both abandoned .ly sites developed for their 2012 campaigns—Borthwick thought it best to avoid any political controversy and changed the top website to Bitly.com, preserving Bit.ly as merely a subdomain. By that point, it was one of 20,000 subdomains the company was running.


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