Some notes on the Internet’s fluid, incoherent archives

When my friend Pierre showed me his account at Delicious (then the domain-hacked del.icio.us) some years ago, I was interested by the idea that there was a service out there which would give users the ability to create and to share their own keyword-indexed catalogues of Internet content. I wasn’t interested enough to sign up, mind–I wasn’t even tagging content on my own blog, hey, I’m not sure LiveJournal even offered tags at that point–but the project did appeal to me thanks to my own archivist tendencies.

Delicious uses a non-hierarchical classification system in which users can tag each of their bookmarks with freely chosen index terms (generating a kind of folksonomy). A combined view of everyone’s bookmarks with a given tag is available; for instance, the URL “http://www.delicious.com/tag/wiki” displays all of the most recent links tagged “wiki”. Its collective nature makes it possible to view bookmarks added by other users.

Delicious has a “hotlist” on its home page and “popular” and “recent” pages, which help to make the website a conveyor of Internet memes and trends.

Delicious is one of the most popular social bookmarking services. Many features have contributed to this, including the website’s simple interface, human-readable URL scheme, a novel domain name, a simple REST-like API, and RSS feeds for web syndication.

Use of Delicious is gratis. The source code of the site is not available, but a user can download his or her own data through the site’s API in an XML or JSON format, or export it to a standard Netscape bookmarks format.

All bookmarks posted to Delicious are publicly viewable by default, although users can mark specific bookmarks as private, and imported bookmarks are private by default. The public aspect is emphasized; the site is not focused on storing private (“not shared”) bookmark collections. Delicious linkrolls, tagrolls, network badges, RSS feeds, and the site’s daily blog posting feature can be used to display bookmarks on weblogs.

I found out a couple of days ago that those warm fuzzy feelings persisted when I learned that Yahoo!, Delicious’ owner, planned to “sunset” the service. It turns out that isn’t the case, that Yahoo! is instead going to try to spin it off–maybe, like Google Wave, it will be transferred to a third party–as a consequence of what Techcrunch’s Jon Orlin convincingly calls the Yahoo! conglomerate’s lack of business acumen. As one long-time user wrote, in the era of the “social web” Delicious could easily have become much more important.

[P]eople are just beginning to appreciate the value of passively published user activity data made available for analysis, personalization and more. That could have been you, Delicious.

Tell an everyday person they can put their bookmarks online, making them accessible from any computer via a service like Delicious, and they are often amazed.

Tell them they can then see other bookmarks that other people have tagged with the same categories – and they begin to see another world, a world where the Web is social and interconnected, where we all benefit from the trails of data created by one another’s everyday use of the Web.

[. . . F]rom the trail of data created by the service’ users came so much value. Value that was wide open for analysis, with clean URLs, RSS feeds and pages full of links everywhere you looked.

What the whole Delicious episode suggests to me, apart from highlighting the main lapses of Yahoo!, is the fragility of the indexing systems that people use to generate and maintain structure on the Internet. There is, as yet, no default; there is no way, apart from the uncertain effects of popular pressure, to ensure that online index systems, never mind online archive systems, will remain present indefinitely. The Internet is all about business decisions. The news honestly made me frightened for the future of my five years and 4500 archived photos at Yahoo!’s Flickr service; although Flickr’s going to persist on account of its profitability, the thought of losing my archived visual history horrifies me. I can make backups easily enough–copying everything over to a non-existent Picasa archive linked to my Google account will happen–but don’t multiple archives based on multiple platforms risk creating still greater levels of incoherence on the Internet, links leading to the same items on different platforms without the items necessarily being connected? And how many perfectly good systems, like–I have to say–the surpassed and neglected Delicious will be supplanted by inferiors? I would have hoped that the eventual operating system for the Internet would be smarter than this.

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