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In 2001, a wonky Wall Street quantitative analyst named Joshua Schachter had a problem. In the late 1990s, he’d started a website called Memepool, which was a simple collection of Web links that he had found interesting, useful, or both. Over time, as Memepool’s users began sending in links they thought the site should feature, Schachter’s personal list of bookmarked Web pages grew to more than 20,000 entries, far more than any folder system could handle. To bring some order to the chaos, Schachter wrote an application called Muxway, which allowed him to manage his links by giving each a short label, or tag–enabling him to call up all the pages that were tagged, say, “Wi-Fi” or “math.”

People continued to view Schachter’s list of interesting links; but now, because of Muxway, those links were organized around tags. Pretty soon, about ten thousand people every day were stopping by. Schachter realized that even with (or perhaps because of) the deluge of information available on the Web, people were still hungry for good links, and they were interested in finding out what others thought was interesting. He also figured that if tagging was helpful to him, it could make storing and finding bookmarks easier for everyone else. So with that in mind, he rewrote Muxway, and in 2003 he launched it as a website called del.icio.us. Within a couple of years, hundreds of thousands of people were using del.icio.us, and it had metamorphosed into a system for organizing not just individuals information but the whole Web. Today it exemplifies the promise of what’s often called Web 2.0–websites and online applications that rely on user participation to achieve their greatest value.

At its core, del.icio.us is a bookmarking system: a place to store all those links that don’t fit in a “Favorites” folder. But it took off because it offers everyone what Muxway had offered Schachter: a way not just to collect links in one place but also to organize them. As people trawled the Web, they could tag interesting pages using whatever words they wanted, and del.icio.us would keep track of them all.

“You bookmark for one of two reasons: either you think you’re going to need that page again somewhere down the road, or you don’t have time to read it now, but you want to read it later,” Schachter says. “The challenge is, once you’ve got all these bookmarks, how do you manage them? The problem were really dealing with is memory and recall, and using technology to make your memory more scalable.”

Schachter deliberately avoided imposing any rules about how people could use tags. He knew it wouldn’t work: “If I went in there and said, Hey, you’re using that tag wrong, people would just tell me to fuck off,” he says. He also knew that letting people use their own tags–instead of choosing them from a menu he provided–would make del.icio.us more likely to be genuinely useful. Each person who uses del.icio.us is effectively coming up with an idiosyncratic system for classifying the Web: an article about, say, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban might be tagged “Mavericks” by one person, “crazy” by another, and “Mavericks” <i>and</i> “crazy” by a third. (Del.icio.us allows users to pin as many tags on a page as they want.) “If you’re trying to tag a page in a way that’ll get you back there someday, you want to use your vocabulary, not someone else’s,” he says.

Though del.icio.us has become a way for users to collectively organize information across the Web, it did not begin as anything so grand. Rather, it emerged as a way to help individuals manage their own information. “For a system to be successful, the users of the system have to perceive that it’s directly valuable to them,” Schachter says. “If you need scale in order to create value, it’s hard to get scale, because there’s little incentive for the first people to use the product. Ideally, the system should be useful for user number one.” This makes del.icio.us different from systems that rely on what economists call “network externalities”–meaning they’re valuable only if lots of people use them. It was hard to get the first person to buy a fax machine, because a fax machine is useless if you’re the only one who has one. But even for the first person to use del.icio.us–Schachter–it worked.
 

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