Del.icio.us: Social bookmarking phenomenon

By 2001, Joshua Schachter decided he needed to develop a software program to help him organize and manage all the links to Web pages he had collected in previous years.

Bookmarking them on his browser had never really been a useful method for Schachter to keep track of his links.

"You can't have more than 40 or 50 bookmarks. Otherwise, it becomes a huge pain to organize. And I had over 20,000 links," says Schachter, with the quick, to-the-point and intense delivery that characterizes many New Yorkers like himself.

You see, by then, Schachter had for three years been running a Web site called Memepool, a sort of collective blog for people to list links to Web pages they like, along with a short commentary on them.

Suggestions for Web site links poured in to Schachter, who ran Memepool in his spare time with a partner. Schachter would paste the links into a text file.

When he topped 20,000 links in 2001, Schachter developed a single-user application to automate the collection and management of his bookmarks. The program worked so well for him, that in 2003, he rewrote it from scratch as a multiuser system and launched it on the Web for others to use. He called it del.icio.us.

"I got a little help, but mostly I wrote everything myself," says Schachter, who is 31 years old.

He hoped others would find the system as useful as he did. He was right about that. With no formal marketing, today del.icio.us has about 200,000 registered users.

"The growth has been huge, incredible," he says. Along the way, del.icio.us has become the epitome of a phenomenon called social bookmarking.

"A lot of people are saying we're entering a new Web: Web 2.0. They believe a key component of the Web's next generation will be this element of social bookmarking, which is what you'd call a personalized Web," says Allen Weiner, a Gartner Inc. analyst.

Basically, del.icio.us users each have a page on the Web site (http://del.icio.us/) where they keep bookmarks of sites they like. So right off the bat, the service is convenient because users can access their bookmarks from any computer connected to the Internet.

Users are asked to add descriptive tags to each bookmark. For example, a user might label a page about Spain's soccer league with the tags "Spain" and "soccer." By tagging pages, users can classify them and organize them into groups, making it easier to navigate the list of links. Del.icio.us also lets users search their list by keywords, and organize the list chronologically by the date when links were added.

But del.icio.us' real appeal lies beyond being a personal, hosted bookmark manager. This is where the social aspect of the service comes in: Del.icio.us lets users see others' link collections.

If a user finds someone's list compelling, he can subscribe to it and thus be notified when more bookmarks are added to it.

Just like every user has a personal page in del.icio.us, each tag also has a page with a list of all the bookmarks it describes. Users can also subscribe to tag pages, such as "politics" or "music," and be alerted when items are added to them.

Users can subscribe via RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds that are delivered to an external news reader or via del.icio.us' own internal system, in which notifications appear in what is called the user personal inbox.

Moreover, each link contains a list of every user who has bookmarked it, so users can view who has bookmarked a link.

Del.icio.us is structured in a way that compels users to browse others' lists, and discover pages they wouldn't have otherwise found.

In short: Del.icio.us users are an online community, joined by their desire to share links to Web pages they like and find useful.

"People are able to remember things they come across without a lot of wait or effort and share them with other people, generate RSS feeds and let other people see what they are looking at," Schachter says.

After launching del.icio.us in September 2003, and for all of 2004, Schachter ran it in his spare time, while working full time as a quantitative analyst at Morgan Stanley. Then in March of this year, he announced via a del.icio.us discussion group that he had decided to resign from his job and devote himself full time to his pet project.

In April, Schachter announced that he had indeed left his job and that, in order to work full time at del.icio.us, he had accepted outside investors, yielding a minority stake to them.

The group of investors is led by Union Square Ventures and includes Amazon.com Inc., as well as industry luminaries such as Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, former ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) chairwoman Esther Dyson, and Tim O'Reilly, chief executive and founder of the O'Reilly computer book publishing house.

Now comes the next challenge for Schachter -- evolving del.icio.us from the popular side project it has been into a strong online service that appeals to the masses.

At the moment, Schachter and his team aren't worrying too much about marketing or coming up with ways of generating revenue. One thing Schachter is sure of is that there will not be subscription fees for del.icio.us, which is a free service.

Currently, Schachter and the five employees of the small private company based in New York City are intensely focused on revamping del.icio.us' user experience.

"We're working on the user interface and making the stuff more accessible to everybody," he says. "We're transitioning from a product I built without any particular user interface expertise to something developed by people who are better at that."

Focusing on this is the right way to go, says Gartner's Weiner. "A big next step for del.icio.us is certainly to extend its user base, and to grow organically you need a simpler interface -- that is crucial," Weiner says.

Users, then, can expect to see regular improvements to del.icio.us over the coming 12 months, Schachter says. For example, Schachter and his team are working to add privacy features to the service, to let users create groups with whom to share their bookmarks, and likewise limit access to their lists. Today, anyone can see anyone else's list of links.

Since Schachter considers del.icio.us a service that complements blogs, social networks and RSS news aggregators, he says it's likely that partnership deals are on the horizon for del.icio.us, without speculating further.

This makes a lot of sense to Gartner's Weiner, who believes that for social-bookmarking sites to achieve the necessary scale, they will have to become part of broader online services, such as social networks.

"It's important for social-bookmarking services to not only have their own environment but to find a way to go beyond it," Weiner says, adding that del.icio.us can add a lot of value as a complement to other services.

A big question is how easy or complicated it will be to integrate del.icio.us with other platforms, Weiner says.

Although del.icio.us doesn't collect much information from users, signs indicate that a majority are technically savvy. These signs include the topics of interest of the users as expressed by the sites they bookmark, and also the fact that about half of them access del.icio.us using the Firefox browser, which is mostly popular among technically savvy people. Schachter wants to broaden del.icio.us' appeal beyond this core set of users.

Of course, del.icio.us isn't alone in the social-bookmarking market. Competitors include small startups like Furl.com, de.lirio.us, StumbleUpon.com, as well as industry giants such as Ask Jeeves and Yahoo Inc., both of which have introduced services that let users save search results, annotate them and categorize them, and share saved results with other users.

In the meantime, Schachter and his team will continue trying to enhance del.icio.us.

"We'll just make it really, really useful and the rest will happen," he says. "It's a matter of trying to nail the UI [user interface] and architecture more than anything else."

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