In the days before its death knell had been rung (about which more later), I paused to reflect on the role that Delicious, the social bookmarking service, had played in my research and teaching over the past several years. Rather than being struck with inspiration, however, I felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to organize my sock drawer. That finished, I turned my attention to a pile of articles that I had ripped from print journals and needed to digitally archive. Only then, when my physical surroundings appeared to be in some semblance of order, could I face the Delicious mess online.
As of early Fall 2010, I had over 2700 bookmarks and nearly 800 tags in Delicious. Some of my tags, including “abu_dhabi” and “focus_groups,” had only one occurrence. Others, like “dava_visualization,” “uban_history,” and “learnin” (sic, sic and sic) were poorly represented, for obvious reasons. “Design_anarchy” (where’d that come from?) also made a one-time appearance. There were 60 or so sites tagged with “libraries,” and another 40-some tagged with its singular sibling, “library.” I had used my top-ranked tag, “media_architecture,” which reflects my primary area of research, nearly 750 times. “Textual_form,” my own way of saying “the form and materiality of mediated texts,” came in second, with 322 occurrences. There were some clear front-runners, but it was that “long tail” that bothered me: the hundreds of tags that had only a single occurrence. When would those tags ever serve their intended purpose: helping me re-locate that website with fantastic information on “Paul_Otlet” or “new_institutionalism”?
The thought of writing publicly about my mostly private, idiosyncratic bookmarking habits made me feel a bit like I had unexpected visitors at the door and I hadn’t vacuumed in weeks. Thus my recent bookmark redd-up, which helped me whittle down my tag count to a still excessive, but nevertheless manageable, 723.
Delicious social bookmarking is indeed palatably easy to manage, but it can get sloppy if you don’t clean up the little spills—the misspellings, the singular/plural duplications, the so-specific-that-you’ll-never-use-them-again tags—every now and then. The service allows you to manage your bookmarks from any web-connected device: your home computer, your work computer, your Smartphone, your iPad, whatever. If I bookmark a site on my laptop (via a convenient Firefox add-on), I can access it from my iPhone via either the Delicious Bookmarks or Yummy app.
Delicious began in 2003 as del.icio.us, whose name was a “domain hack,” a semantic and syntactical play on the .us registry launched the previous year. But the site concept predated the cornball name. Founder Joshua Schachter had developed Memepool, a collection of links, in the late 90s. He then created the Muxway application to attach tags to those links and help organize his collection. Thus “tagging,” which Clay Shirky (2005) defines as “a cooperative infrastructure answer to classification,” was born. Muxway was then relaunched as del.icio.us, which, in 2005, attracted investments from Union Square Ventures, Amazon, Marc Andreessen of Netscape, and Tim O’Reilly, among others. Later that year, de.licio.us was acquired by Yahoo!, and when the site was redesigned in 2008, it lost its cheeky punctuation and became the more seasoned Delicious.
In-between the Yahoo acquisition and the rebranding, I tagged my first de.licio.us bookmark. For the previous near-decade I had tried out a variety of bookmark management strategies. I started off with one huge, messy miscellaneous bookmarks folder, which contained everything from birthday gift ideas to dissertation resources, before I eventually started developing a topical folder taxonomy. Each of the classes I taught had its own bookmark folder, and each semester, when I prepared for a new course, I retrieved links from the relevant folders and pasted them into my syllabi and course websites. There was a lot of duplicated effort in this work. I found multiple bookmarks saved repeatedly to multiple folders simply because the sites they referenced bore some relevance to several classes or topics. My bookmark folders were full of redundancies and dead links, and because all this material was buried so deep in hard-to-access sub-subfolders of my web browser, I simply never got around to cleaning up the mess.
I don’t remember how I discovered Delicious. But I do remember that I had heard about it long before I adopted it for my own use; I think it was the name that kept me from taking it seriously. I eventually realized that Delicious could help to eliminate the frequent ontological crises that accompanied my bookmark filing decisions: “Do I file it in the ‘libraries’ folder, or the ‘archives’ folder, or both?” Delicious also promised to cut much of my redundant web-link-related class preparation efforts, and would enable me to share new, customized lists of resources with students in ways that I hadn’t been able to before (I’ll say more about this in a bit). Shortly after I posted my first-ever link to Delicious (a link to the blog “A Daily Dose of Architecture”), I started the long, gradual process of transforming all my old, filed-away private bookmarks into tagged social bookmarks.
There are still hundreds of bookmarks in my Firefox folders that I never moved over to Delicious. But I don’t miss them. I have a new, ongoing housekeeping task to keep me busy: I’m adding “notes” to all of my new and existing bookmarks. It must have been sometime in the summer of 2009 when I realized that my current cataloging system was insufficient; I had been making sure each bookmark had a title and several tags, but after building up my collection for two years I realized that, on first glance, there is only so much information one can glean from a title like “Container List,” tagged with “design,” “archives,” and “research.” I’d have to open up the bookmarked page to figure out what was inside. I recalled archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s explanation of how the Sumerians would enclose clay tokens—the basis of their accounting system—in clay envelopes and impress the token into the envelope before sealing it, so that, in the future, when they pulled that envelope off the shelf, they would know what was inside without having to break it open. I wanted my bookmark labels to work like that: I wanted to know what was inside without having to open the page. I resolved to make sure all of my titles were unique and descriptive and my tag lists were thorough but not excessive, and I decided to fill in the “notes” field not with a slapdash description, but with a fairly serious abstract comprised of condensed quotations from the bookmarked page. This meant that I wouldn’t be casually filing away pages for future reference (if I didn’t read it then, I probably never would!); instead, I’d be spending a few minutes with each page, identifying its main points, figuring out which ideas are most relevant to my own work—which thoughts I’d want to “impress on the envelope”—and giving it a respectable, 1000-character label. Judging from my bookmark history, it seems that by early 2010 I’d bought into the new system.
In his appendix to The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills promotes his own system of professional practices, which cultivate what he calls “intellectual craftsmanship.” He addresses in detail the importance and utility of creating and maintaining a “file” organized into a master list of projects, into which one can then sort notes, references, abstracts, outlines, etc. Of course Mills probably had in mind a massive accordion file or a filing cabinet, which would require that the researcher choose the single most appropriate folder into which she would file away a particular clipping or Call For Papers. Today, thanks to tagging, students can file any piece of data—lecture recordings, class notes, photographed archival material, citations—into multiple thematic or topical areas. And with personal database software like DevonThink and Yojimbo, and note-organization software like Evernote, they can dump all of their intellectual and creative material into one program. Despite the fact that there are these multi-purpose programs that seem to absorb Delicious’s functionality into their super-powered, all-in-one, Swiss Army knife model of information management, I encourage students to consider the unique “intellectual architectures” of the different types of material they’re handling, and the distinctive ways their brains, and their software, process these various formats. Does an all-in-one tool help you think critically about the material you’re filing away?
On all of my course websites, I make available the subset of specific course-tagged resources in my Delicious account. If students contact me to ask specifically about, say, how to take notes in an archive, I send them my “archive” + “methodology” links. If others ask for resources on architectural photography, I can send them my list dedicated to that specific topic. I acknowledge in class that Delicious has worked well for me in collecting and organizing my web resources, but I clarify that I’m not prescribing it for everyone. The platform has particular virtues: it is easy to use, it is cross-platform, and it is social. Granted, I’m not the most social user of social media. But my commitment to “public scholarship” and my desire to model for my students an open and accountable approach to research have led me to post all my publications and course material to my website, maintain an open bibliography on Zotero, and, as you know by now, share my bookmarks via Delicious. I’ve noticed a few people whose tagging habits are uncannily similar to my own; I’ve added these folks to my “network” so I can follow their bookmarking. Although I have the potential to add some of my favorite bookmarkers’ Delicious links to my RSS reader, I haven’t (I can barely manage my RSS feeds as it is!); I am glad, however, that some of those intriguing bookmarkers, like Dan Hill of City of Sound, also post their Delicious links to their blogs. If I were more social, I could send my social bookmarks to people and edit my Delicious networks into “network bundles.” But I don’t feel the need to do so. I’m perfectly happy occasionally peeking over the shoulders of a few interesting bookmarkers and otherwise minding my own business.
I could see these networking functions being useful for student group projects, though. Students could create class and group networks to which each member could contribute links, and if they’re concerned about privacy, they could change the privacy settings so that they’re visible only to themselves. I’ve never required students to make use of social bookmarking platforms, but I’m convinced that encouraging them to do so can cultivate information literacy and some valuable research habits. And like most habits, these don’t develop overnight. It seems to me that Delicious’ value—indeed, the potential pedagogical value of much social learning software—emerges over time, through trial and error, through adaptive use. This is partly why several colleagues who’ve required bookmarking in their courses have found that these assignments don’t necessarily cultivate eager and diligent bookmarkers within the span of a semester. Yet these same colleagues often find that those same students who bookmarked out of obligation—some of whom did so resentfully—in class, are later using the tool voluntarily for their personal projects. Sometimes a tool’s utility most clearly evinces itself when its use is no longer mandated and subject to scrutiny.
And if they stick with it, these students will likely discover, as I did, that a simple bookmark title and tags eventually prove insufficient; to optimize the use of the Delicious “homepage” list as a “finding aid,” à la Schmandt-Besserat’s envelope label, one needs to make use of the “notes” field, too. Filling in the “notes” reinforces the value of abstracting one’s resources as one goes along, to support recall and aid in later recovery. Tagging, too, is an exercise that can gradually reveal one’s intellectual development. As Mills acknowledged in regard to his own “file,” its use “encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth” (199). You might eventually realize, for instance, that your “media_art” tag is too broad, and that you need to dissect it into “media_installation_art,” “net_art,” “locative_media_art,” and so on. Or you might find that all those one-off tags in the “long tail” serve no purpose and need to be purged. Or that your “ebook” and “digital_reader” tags should be merged into a single category. In these social systems, Shirky says, “filtering is done post hoc.”
Mills suggests that such conceptual reevaluation has the potential to “stimulat[e] the . . . imagination”: “On the most concrete level, the re-arranging of the file,” or one’s tags, “is one way to invite imagination. You simply dump out the heretofore disconnected folders, mixing up their contents, and then re-sort them” (212). Furthermore, “[a]n attitude of playfulness toward the phrases and words with which various issues are defined often loosens up the imagination. Look up synonyms for each of your key terms . . . in order to know the full range of their connotations. This simple habit will prod you to elaborate the terms of the problem and hence to define them . . . more precisely.” Even the act of tag housekeeping, which I just attempted, puts you into close contact with your tags and forces you to reflect on their utility. Just recently, after who knows how many years of overlooking it, I discovered the “rename tags” function, which allows me change all 40+ of my “library” tags to “libraries” with a few keystrokes. Even this simple act of handling the tags made me question their value as intellectual structures.
Although there is tremendous social potential for Delicious, I find its publicity (i.e., the fact that it allows bookmarkers to make their lists publicly accessible) to be more compelling than its sociality. Schachter noted that Delicious’ value isn’t determined by its sociality; “network externalities”—value that’s dependent on the number of people using a system—won’t make or break the system. “Ideally, the system should be useful for number one,” he said (quoted in Surowiecki). Its social utility is second priority. I’d argue that we step back from overblown proclamations regarding the “folksonomy’s” potential to generate “collective intelligence” that will overturn traditional ontological classifications, a claim I’ve read in many a graduate-student paper (Shirky, Vander Wal), and instead consider what Delicious and similar platforms can teach “number one.” As Henry Jenkins warns, we cannot assume that young people, even undergraduate and graduate students, “are actively reflecting on their media experiences and can thus articulate what they learn from their participation” (12). Referencing Squire’s studies, he notes that students who played the empire-building computer game Civilization III in a history class “lacked a vocabulary to critique how the game itself constructed history, and they had difficulty imagining how other games might represent the same historical processes in different terms;” they “were not yet learning how to read games as texts, constructed with their own aesthetic norms, genre conventions, ideological biases, and codes of representation” (15). Delicious is commonly regarded as an organizer of texts, not a coded, ideological text itself. We should be promoting both individual and, when used in group projects, collective critical reflection on how, or whether, Delicious’s contributors constitute a “folk” committed to the creation of a social “taxonomy.” We should encourage students to consider how Delicious organizes information, how it sources materials, how its design affects its functionality and informs the types of content fed into it, what codes structure its layout and performance, and how other systems—CiteULike, Diigo, etc.—might perform the same functions differently (see Kahle).
This comparison of similar platforms is much more than an intellectual exercise; it is a necessary strategy for self- (and data-) preservation. On the very day I received a copyedited version of this essay, Yahoo! announced that that it was “sunset”-ing (i.e., phasing out) Delicious, along with AltaVista, Yahoo! Buzz, and some other properties. Those who had invested years and thousands of bookmarks in Delicious scrambled to identify appropriate alternatives. I searched frantically for a platform that would allow me to import my bookmarks and tags, as well as those all-important notes. After a period of acute despair over the fate of not only my own and my colleagues’ bookmarks, but also this essay, I came to realize that exporting bookmarks to a new platform would be relatively painless. All my data would survive; I would simply have to take some time to acclimate myself to a new system. I recalled Mills: this was another of those moments of rearrangement (granted, involuntary) that had the potential to “loosen up the imagination.” It was an opportunity for us Delicious users to reconsider the categories and architectures of our “files,” and to use that process to gain insight into our own ”intellectual progress and growth.” Would we search for a replacement social bookmarking service, or would we try integrating our bookmarks into a more robust program like Diigo, which would allow us to integrate citation management with annotation, and to make both activities social?
Adaptability is an inherent and integral part of digital learning—indeed, all learning. It requires that we accept the inevitability of change and, yes, even obsolescence; that we acknowledge the potential capriciousness of commercial platforms and start-ups; and that we regard these experiences not as obstacles or dead-ends to be avoided, but as inevitable components of any learning process that we need not work around, but work with. Whether Delicious perishes or survives, as-is or in renovated form, the consideration of alternatives allows us identify what makes Delicious Delicious, and how its intellectual architectures scaffold and structure the way we think.
Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation, 2007.
Kahle, David. “Designing Open Educational Technology.” Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge. Ed. Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 27-45.
Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. 1959. New York: Oxford, 2000.
Shirky, Clay. “Clay Shirky on Institutions vs. Collaboration.” TED Talks. July 2005. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_on_institutions_versus_collaboration.html/.
Shirky, Clay. “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags.” Shirky.com. n.d. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.htm/.
Surowiecki, James. “Innovator of the Year: Joshua Schachter, 32.” Technology Review. 8 September 2006. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.technologyreview.com/web/17474/page1/.
Vander Wal, Thomas. “Folksonomy.” Vanderwal.net. 2 February 2007. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.vanderwal.net/folksonomy.html/.
 See < http://www.citeulike.org/>.
 See < http://www.diigo.com/>.