Business & Finance
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12/20/2004
06:12 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Features
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Review: It's Delightful! It's Del.icio.us!

The del.icio.us bookmarking service is like blogging, wikis and the Web itself in that it's almost impossible to understand until you've played with it a bit. Then you have an "aha!" moment and exclaim, "That's brilliant!"

I've been playing around with del.icio.us for a few weeks now. Del.icio.us bills itself as a community bookmarking service. It's relatively new, with a long way to go until it's mainstream. But it's already pretty useful, and it has a lot of potential.

It's like blogging, wikis and the Web itself in that it's almost impossible to understand until you've played with it yourself. Then you have a "aha!" moment and exclaim, "That's brilliant!"

But let me give a try at explaining it anyway.

The way it works is this: If you see a noteworthy page, you bookmark it on del.icio.us, and write a few keywords describing what it is. The service is free, has no ads, and doesn't ask for any personal information for you to set up an account.

You can see who else has linked to a site you bookmarked, and see what else those people have linked to. Also, you can click on individual keywords, and you can see what sites have been bookmarked with that keyword.

I described del.icio.us to a friend, and one of the first things he said was, "Anyone can see what you bookmark? That sounds like a security problem."

I responded, "Del.icio.us gets around the security problem by having no security whatsoever. Anyone can see what you bookmark."

In other words: If you want other people to think you're all tough and bad and scary, del.icio.us is not the place to bookmark your secret collection of My Little Pony sites.

It's pretty useful as-is, although it's a very bare-bones service, somewhat difficult to figure out. I expect it'll get more popular as its creators make it easier to use and add better documentation

To help you better understand del.icio.us, let me give you an example.

Let's say I bookmark the site I edit, Security Pipeline.

I use a tool called nutr.itio.us to create the link. (Cute name, eh?). Del.iciou.s will show me other bookmarks for the same URL from other people. It'll show me what they wrote as descriptions of the URL. It'll even, through some magical process that I'm not sure I understand, suggest keyword tags to use with the site.

When I create my bookmark for Security Pipeline, I'll use the keywords "security privacy CMP TechWeb MitchWagner Microsoft spam viruses phishing software". (Explanation: CMP Media is the company I work for; it publishes Security Pipeline and this site. The TechWeb Network is the aggregate name for CMP's web sites, including the Pipelines.)

Nutr.itio.us tells me that three other people have already created links to Security Pipeline. They used the keywords: "NewsAndViews/Tech, PrivacyAndSecurity, Security, and security."

Now, when I look at my list of del.icio.us links, I see Security Pipeline at the top, because it's the most recent. It might not be at the top when you follow the link, because since then I will have bookmarked other things.

I'll click on the keyword "security" and find other security links recommended by del.icio.us users.

Del.icio.us is a great idea. It's yet another way to solve two very basic problems that are as old as the Web itself: How do you find good stuff on the Web? And how do you find good pages that are related to the page you're looking at? Google and blogs are two popular means of solving that problem, del.icio.us has the potential to be just as powerful.

What del.icio.us, and blogs have in common is that they all attempt to keep track of what the Web-using population at large considers to be the best pages and sites on any particular subject. Bloggers link to pages that they find interesting, and word spreads about those pages as bloggers read other bloggers' work and comment on each other. Google measures the importance of a page by measuring how many other pages link to that page.

Del.icio.us does have problems. It's not very popular yet, which limits its usefulness. This list of most popular pages on Del.icio.us shows that the top pages only have a couple of hundred bookmarks each. That leads me to believe that del.icio.us has, at most, a few thousand active users.

(The Rands in Repose blog says that the del.icio.us community has tens of thousands of users. Could be. But, still, that's not a lot of users compared with the overall population of the web.)

The lack of popularity of del.icio.us has proven fatal to other social services. It's a Catch-22: If millions of people used the service, it would be cracktastic. But it isn't useful until millions of people use it. So nobody ever does.

But fortunately, del.icio.us doesn't need to be more popular than it is in order to be useful.

You can use it as a simple bookmarking service. Most of us use at least two computers: one at the office, one at home. Del.icio.us allows you to create list of bookmarks that's on the web, so you can access from any machine. It's simple, and it's free.

And you can get a few friends and colleagues together and start building lists of bookmarks, on subjects you're all interested in. Sure, you could share the links by e-mail, but that can be confusing and add to e-mail clutter. Del.icio.us is a nice, central location where you can collect links and access them when you're ready.

So let's say you and your workgroup are doing research on Java. You can all decide to sign up for del.icio.us accounts, and keyword-tag any interesting Java pages with the keyword "java." As I write this, del.icio.us only has three pages with the keyword "java" but if there's three or four of you looking diligently into Java, you can see where you can build up a nice library of Java web resources pretty fast.

To build that library even faster, you might call for contributions on a public weblog.

And maybe there'll be a workgroup thousands of miles away doing the same thing. You'll be completely unknown to each other, but still, you'll be cooperating on learning about Java using del.icio.us.

Another way that del.icio.us is useful, right now: it has many built-in RSS feeds, which makes it easy to distribute del.icio.us bookmarks in all sorts of interesting ways. For instance, you can include a list of del.icio.us links on a public web page. That's what this blog has done; check out the right-hand column, about midway down the page.

Ironically, the original blogs, way back in 1997, were designed as places where the authors could post links to interesting sites they'd found in their daily web travels. Now, blogs have gotten kind of big and bloated for that purpose, and del.icio.us is moving in to fill the gap. It's no coincidence that del.icio.us was developed by Joshua Schachter, who is co-maintainer of Memepool, one of the original and most popular of the early generation of linkblogs. Memepool is still going strong, and it's still the same format: very little original comment, just a bunch of links, with descriptions as brief as possible.

For more on the philosophy of del.icio.us, see the Rands in Repose article I linked to earlier; it has an e-mail interview with Schachter. My favorite quote: "I spend most of my time pressing the buttons in front of the big glowing thing. Occasionally, gunfire is heard."

Hopefully, del.icio.us will grow. It'll never become very popular as long as the user interface is austere as it is, and the documentation needs improving. For now, you figure out how to do things on del.icio.us by trial-and-error, and you figure out the uses for del.icio.us by word-of-mouth or by Googling and (hopefully) finding articles like this one.

I don't mean the preceding as criticism of del.icio.us's developers. They've clearly started out by creating a simple tool, and I expect they plan to make it easier to use later.

I'm interested in learning more about del.icio.us. If you're using it, or if you're one of the developers, or you have developed an add-on or plug-in, or you're Joshua Schacter, drop me a line.

For more information about del.icio.us see—what else?—the del.icio.us tags for the keywords delicious and del.icio.us

And of course, I'll be bookmarking this article in del.icio.us when it goes live.

(Mitch Wagner is news editor of the TechWeb Pipelines, and editor of Security Pipeline.)

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