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The power of social tagging for communities and why Delicious matters

By February 2, 2011No Comments

In recent weeks I’ve become re-energised about one of the best web services around, one that – if rumours are to be believed – is about to disappear: Delicious.

For the uninitiated, Delicious is a social bookmarking service that allows you to share your bookmarks with friends and the wider world. You can search through the thousands of items that have been saved by people and find things that are interesting to you. Great. Only not so great. There is a dark cloud hanging over Delicious, because parent firm Yahoo! isn’t going to spend much more time or money on it. While it insists Delicious has a future, it’s one that’ll be outside of Yahoo!

Declaring on the web that you’re not going to support something and intend to offload it is akin to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded room: everyone rushes for the exit – and a few poor folk get trampled in the rush. Yahoo! has tried to calm the rumour-mill with a sensible-sounding blog post, but many people are still wondering what they’ll do to fill a Delicious-sized hole in their lives.

I could at this stage spend a bit of time explaining how you might go about filling that hole – but you may as well just read this post, or go to Quora or have a look here. Instead, I wanted to wallow in the misery that this er… possible demise could bring – and hopefully explain something about why Delicious is so useful.

Tag hospital

In recent weeks I’ve started using Delicious in feeds for Public-i’s Citizenscape. Citizenscape is, in essence, a kind of aggregator designed to bring together a conversation around issues – we call it an online civic space. One of the problems with aggregating content is that it isn’t always identifiable in the way you’d like (or at all). For content to be identifiable – whether it be a blog post, a tweet or a video – it needs to be tagged. Tags are essentially labels that you put on a piece of content. Tagging is important, because it helps you identify one piece of content from another. For example, you’ve got a fair idea that something tagged ‘cheese’ is going to have something to do with… well… cheese. But what if someone has written about Gorgonzola on a blog and has only tagged it with the word ‘Italy’?

Delicious is like a massive, great first-aid centre for the fact that the web isn’t as well tagged as we’d like. If someone bookmarks the Gorgonzola post they can add the ‘Cheese’ tag, thus helping others to find the content. Because Delicious users assign tags to help themselves and their friends find bookmarks you have a veritable feast of well-labelled content that would otherwise limp forlornly around the web looking for a home.

Tag feeds

In Delicious I can create an RSS feed for all the bookmarks that include a specific tag – very easily – which I can use to feed into another website, or into an RSS reader or aggregator, like Citizenscape.

Screenshot showing how you can RSS a feed from Delicious

But the ‘fun’ doesn’t end there: if I’m so inclined, I can dig deeper, filtering the content with another tag. If I want, I can invent a tag, using it to pick up very specific content. This allows me to ‘curate’ a feed myself. In the last few days I’ve begun to tag content in just this way with ‘poolcuts‘. It helps me to keep track of where local swimming  pools are under threat in the UK. It’s my own private tag, but Delicious allows me to explain to other users what it’s there for and why I’ve bothered (if they care!).

Screenshot from Delicious showing how you can explain a tag.

Tagging together

All this makes enormous sense and is tremendously powerful when people are working together – as we’d like them to in Citizenscape. It means communities can create their own tags for content- helping to order the web around their own needs and for their specific benefit. While other examples of social bookmarking exist (see earlier links) there’s nothing that has the social functions of Delicious and that has as big a community already behind it. That’s why it would be a big loss.

I think this puts Delicious into interesting territory. Social tagging (or folksonomy or tagsonomy – the process by which communities rather than individuals define a taxonomy for ordering content) is – in my head at least – a web service, which has benefits that lie outside those it would be easy to extract value for. I guess this might be part of the reason Yahoo! is looking to offload it, but also why so many people are so upset about its threatened future.

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