Delicious re-appraised

Mashable carries a piece on the cult of social bookmarking here.


It’s a thorough, and timely polemic covering some of the less agreeable aspects of social bookmarking. 


Most worryingly it raises the spectre of a bookmarks arms race, instigated by those who treat Delicious as a popularity contest – only a matter of time, I suppose, given how tempestuous relations between search communities and their services can be.


But one quote in particular drew my attention for re-appraisal:


Does the fact that someone bookmarks a site begin to make them an expert in that topic? That is the approach we take when subscribing, following or searching against others bookmarks.


This approach epitomises precisely how *not* to approach social bookmarking as a research tool, imho.  


Before you even try using a social bookmarking service to tap into expertise, you need to appreciate why people save things to look at later in the first instance.


It *could* be because the page in question is particularly authoritative in a given field, or it could just be for no other reason than they liked it. There’s no way to distinguish between ‘need to know’ and ‘nice to know’ in Delicious – perhaps something the developers might have considered for accommodation in the redesign.


Nevertheless, to really tap into expertise in any social bookmarking (or social search) source, you need to know whose actually bookmarking what before you start making assumptions, and start tapping up their tagging. This can be difficult (if not impossible) given there’s no compulsion for people to declare who they are through their Delicious usernames (something else for consideration?).


Nonetheless – the source is riddled with clues.


Beyond the sheer cumulative volume of saves for any popular page, lies a wealth of associated tags and text which can illuminate the quality of a web page and its contents.


The first thing I do when I happen across a Delicious result with a large volume of saves is check the other tags attributed to that source, and any annotations left behind by thoughtful, i.e. *quality* bookmarkers.


Those users of other social search engines might opine that a ‘thumbs down’ , or even a wiki approach offering users a means of amending shoddy tagging may help improve quality here.  But then any searcher familiar with certain topics (Israel, Islam, Northern Ireland etc.) will know that this way madness often lies.


But I digress, its not hard to spot the extent to which people have ‘considered’ any given page in Delicious – the quality of the rest of their tagging should hint at what’s going on behind the scenes – and if it’s been lifted from elsewhere, at least it hints at someone somewhere having had a eureka moment.


But the real benefit social bookmarking and social search in general bring is the joy of serendipity.   Leave your assumptions at the foot of the page and do a bit of browsing, and you might just be surprised by something you didn’t know existed before.


I’m by no means an early adopter – quite the opposite in fact – I’ve prevaricated so long, I’m now sitting on a few hundred links I need to Delicious-ize as a matter of urgency.

But having seen at first hand, both in my regional research training, and in some other feed filtering experiments I’ve been working on, I can only stress just how much potential I think this approach to search has for online journalism.


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