How to Organize the Web

Microsoft proposes a simple solution to the problem of information overload: lists.

There are dozens of online tools for organizing information: wikis, social-bookmarking sites such as, and RSS feed readers, among other things. Researchers at Microsoft’s Live Labs, an incubator for new Internet-related technologies founded in 2006, hope that a tool called Listas will distinguish itself by being more general than all the others. Listas launched at the recent Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco and is available for preview online.

Basic principle: Listas, a technology from Microsoft’s Live Labs that’s now available for preview, aims to help users organize all their online data into lists.

Listas is, put simply, about making lists. Users can make their own lists, by either typing in original content or taking clippings from Web pages, or they can read or edit public lists. The lists can include almost any type of content, including images and videos. They can be designated either public or private, and they can be tagged to make them easier to search.

Like other social-networking sites, Listas also allows users to acknowledge each other as “friends.” A user’s lists, lists made by his or her friends, and public lists that the user has linked to are all collected on a single page on the Listas site. Downloading and installing the optional Listas toolbar, which is built to work with Internet Explorer, makes it easy to grab items from other Web pages and add them to lists. Those items might include short bits of text, URLs, or blog posts or product listings with their original structure intact.

“Lists are a fundamental data type across the Web,” says Live Labs product manager Alex Daley. “Whether you look at task managers, blogs, RSS, shopping lists, or wish lists, they share a simple, linear list structure. A great deal of the information we produce and consume across the Web is in this structure.” Similarly, says Daley, the virtue of Listas is its generality: it allows users to organize data in whatever way they want and begin to tease out trends.

Gary Flake, founder and director of Live Labs, says that Listas was born from his sense that his information online was no longer under his control. “There was just an awareness I had that my data was spread out everywhere,” he says, noting that the more involved a person is with online communities, the more severe this problem can be. By using the Listas toolbar, a person can aggregate all of his or her contributions to online communities in a single dashboard, annotate them, and share them with others. Although a similar effect could be achieved without the toolbar, Flake says that he thinks the system will feel incomplete without the ease that the toolbar contributes to the process.

Other companies have tried to address the problem of organizing data with more specific tools. ZingLists, for example, shares some features with Listas, including the ability to make lists private or public. It is intended, however, as a productivity tool, according to its developer, Steve Madsen. The lists on ZingLists take the more traditional form of to-do lists, while Listas’s lists can behave like to-do lists, blogs, or RSS feeds, depending on how users construct them.

IBM’s Lotus Connections, a business product, includes a bookmarking system called Dogear that organizes information with the participation of a networked community. When a user bookmarks a site, up pop tags that other users have added to it, says product manager Suzanne Minassian. Dogear also shows how many others have bookmarked the same site and provides links that can lead users to those people. The result, Minassian says, is that users can find people with shared interests and connect to those people through the system.

Listas’s developers are still working on increasing community involvement with the site, Flake says. “With all community sites, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma,” he says, noting that a strong community attracts more community activity. Live Labs’ technology previews are meant to be even more raw than most products’ early releases, Daley says, and are very much works in progress. “We try to release early and release often,” he says. As a result, many changes to Listas are on the way.

Some of those changes will be aimed at increasing the usability of the interface. For instance, using the toolbar to clip information could be a more streamlined process. Other changes will advance the philosophy of the service, such as Flake’s plan to change the way comments are structured. With most of today’s blogs, Flake says, if you post a comment, that information no longer belongs to you: you often can’t edit it or delete it, and it’s hosted on someone else’s page. Flake says that he plans to give Listas a system that structures comments as simply another list–one belonging to the person posting the comments.

If Listas does well, Microsoft may integrate it with products or develop it as a product, but for now, the researchers say, there is no effort to make it profitable. “Listas is at the beginning of the experiment,” Daley says.

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