In the wake of Yahoo’s purchase of del.icio.us, the developer of Blink (link is to BlinkPro which grew out of the original Blink.com) posts a thoughtful analysis of why his service, despite its multi million dollar cash roll, failed to catch on.
By the time I eventually tried Blinkpro, I was beginning to realize that for every 10 sites I bookmarked, I was only retrieving one or two later. Most grew cobwebs. In other words, my bookmark were (and still are) my junk drawer. I’m sure there are people who with bookmarks, as well as life, who only keep what they absolutely know they are going to use again. They know when and where they’re going to use it so they can categorize the folder with the right label. Me? I’m a packrat. Most of the sites I save are ones that I may want to refer to again, not necessarily those that I know I will. So categorizing those “maybe” sites can be tough.
Mistake: Folders Suck
Our first iteration on using bookmarks to create a shared information library was an extension of the “public folder” concept. We believed that users would not only make their folders public, but also would categorize those folders into a directory structure. We called this the “Public Library” and created a Yahoo-like node structure on which users could post. This could have made sense since categorizing folders would be less work than categorizing individual bookmarks – after all, the folders were already “categories” of a sort.
There were several severe problems with this folder-based approach. First, people are very bad and inconsistent at organizing things. One day etrade.com will go into the “finance” folder and another day it will go into the “favorite links” folder. We were taking this fundamental flaw and squaring it – asking users to use graph their existing categorization onto a second arbitrary structure within the public library. Does my “finance” folder go into the “Business” directory or the “Personal” directory?
Then there was the issue of how deep to go when categorizing folders. If I’ve got a folder of “online brokerages” do I put it in the directory at the level of “Finance” since my folder is in a sense a sub-category of finance, or do I put it within the pre-existing “Finance -> Brokerage” directory? Users were confused, and with good reason.
I’ve said this before, technology can’t be an island unto itself. Technology (or web services) work when they understand natural human behavior. If the technology (or web service) doesn’t move the way the user moves naturally in a given situation, it’s going to be tried once or twice for the novelty of it and then forgotten. Most of us have a core collection of websites that we go to regularly, and the rest just accumulate. We’re glad we saved them when we need them, but rigid filing systems are more trouble to maintain than they’re worth. Truthfully, the only reason why I use categories on this blog is that I don’t have a current “about me” page. Look at my category list and you have a sense of what I like to talk about.
Let’s put it this way…there are those folks who keep their pantry cans in alphabetical order. They’re thankfully rare. But most folks have a junk drawer or a growing tower of paper. That place (or pile) where you throw stuff that can’t quite be categorized but you may need at some point.
I don’t publicize my del.ico.us feed because as public as it is, it’s still private. It’s that messy closet that I don’t show to company. If someone is looking for shiny green widgets and I tagged a site about shiny green widgets and they find my collection that way, fine. I already know we have shiny green widgets in common and I’m not standing right there as they’re digging through my junky closet.
del.icio.us succeeded because it had that nice mix of geekiness that geeks like to talk about, and utility that geeks can convince normal people to use. That last part cannot be taken lightly. If you can convince your mother (or grandmother) to use it and then she comes back a while later and says, “Thank you! I don’t know how I did <blank> before that,” then you have something. Blogs and instant messaging are thriving for similar reasons. It’s not complicated, but it’s not simple until you achieve it and then can look back with an “ah ha!” moment.