Thing 12 of 23: Delicious and putting the social into bookmarking

Fifteen years or so ago my internet bookmarks mattered to me. Enough that when I was leaving one job I spent quite a lot of time fiddling around with Netscape to save my bookmarks in a portable form, so I could take them with me to whatever my next job was going to be. I’d have loved Delicious then, but it only started in 2003.

But now it’s 2010 and my use of bookmarks has plummeted. I still have an impressive set of bookmarks on my home machine, and I might use them once or twice a day, if that. In a year in my current job, I’ve accumulated a dozen or so, and most of them I rarely use. Instead, I mainly use Google, or the auto-complete and history functions on Internet Explorer. My bookmarks are useful for the few sites I need to use regularly but infrequently (because things I use all the time will show up in auto-complete) AND which have unmemorable titles (so it’s not just as quick to Google them) AND which I can nevertheless remember the existence of. When you then exclude sites already on my blogroll, you’re not left with a lot: principally German sites, where I can’t remember or spell things correctly (though even ‘Register Imperii’ on Google will get you to the right place in a couple of clicks).

The other thing some people use Delicious for, of course, is bookmarking articles that they’re interested in reading later. But, aside from the fact that most of my ‘later reading’ is not going to happen unless I get a sabbatical decade, if there’s something I find that I think I’m really going to want to read or refer to, I either save a copy or even print it out. Web pages disappear or move – saved copies and hardcopy don’t.

So as far as my own use of bookmarks are concerned, Delicious is a solution to a relatively minor problem. I’m not sure whether it’s worth the effort of setting up an account and transferring my bookmarks, although I can see the usefulness of doing so for libraries which provide substantial lists of recommended links for their users.

What is potentially more useful is using other people’s bookmarks to find sites of interest. Even if people don’t necessarily tag bookmarks in very helpful ways, ranking bookmarks by their popularity strikes me as a potentially interesting way of finding new sites.

So I did a few tests, comparing Delicious to Google. Delicious, it turns out, isn’t very useful for uncommon terms. When I searched for Hincmar (a ninth-century bishop and author) three of the four bookmarked results were things I had written. Which, while flattering, is not an accurate reflection of the information about him out there (Google has 112,000 hits). I wondered whether Delicious might do better with something slightly less obscure, so I tried a search on “evolutionary psychology”. That’s the kind of academic topic that I might want to read up on, but wouldn’t really know where to start. Here are the results:

Delicious 1

Initially this looked quite good, but I soon noticed some problems. It’s not clear what order Delicious ranks the bookmarks in: it doesn’t seem to rank them by most bookmarked, which is annoying, and I can’t see a way of changing that. And quite a few of the links I clicked on were dead.

Yet another alternative is to search for the bookmarks of a particular person. For example, I happen to know Cosma Shalizi is interested in various mathematical techniques, such as modelling social networks, which are potentially of use to historians. So I might well find something of interest via his bookmarks. Unfortunately, Delicious requires you to enter the exact username, so I can’t easily find the bookmarks unless I can work out that he’s ‘cshalizi’ on there (or I look on his website and the link from there).

All this means that although I think you might get some results out of Delicious that you can’t easily get either out of Google or another approach, it’s debatable whether the extra effort of hunting for them would be worth it. Maybe there are more effective ways of using Delicious that I don’t know about (or maybe I need to change my working practices), but for all the potential I can see in Delicious, it seems rather a practical letdown to me currently.

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4 thoughts on “Thing 12 of 23: Delicious and putting the social into bookmarking

  1. That’s another really thoughtful post, and it makes me wonder whether my enthusiasm for Delicious is really just a way of assuaging my guilt about the fact that I’ll never get round to reading most of the things I notice and am interested in. At least if I have them filed neatly away I feel like I *could* read them: they aren’t lost forever, even though they often might as well be.

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  2. Here’s a use for Delicious: I teach the history of Islamic civilization, and have been blogging about it for nearly four years. This includes a lot of material on the contemporary significance of older events (obviously, one of the main things my students are interested in). A lot of these blog entries start out as Delicious bookmarks as do many resources and articles that never make it into the blog.

    This year I intend to throw open my links to the students after impressing on them in class how much can be found, relevant to the first assignment especially, in this semi-organized data base.

    We will see how it works out.

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  3. I went to a training session on delicious the other week, and I agree with you, M. A solution for which I right now have no problem. Were I a techie accessing the web from my pocket through a bewildering variety of devices, it might help. But I’m a historian, so I have a laptop with me at all times (so as to check whether or not I already have the information I have decided to find, essentially).

    I think that this is another instance of the ‘educational technologists who teach other e.t.s about teaching through e.t.’ problem. These people and their mates are classic early adopters, so they rapidly create critical masses within their peer groups for the Next Big Things. Us, not so much.

    Academia.edu and cite-u-like, now, _they_ look good. I’ve fallen in love with the former in the last 24 hours, and have the latter firmly planted on my ‘to do’ list.

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  4. SM – I tend to overlook the teaching usefulness for some of these tools because I’m not currently doing any teaching. Particularly with a topic like yours where there’s a lot of very partisan information on the web and the problem of unfamiliar/transliterated names, I can see the advantages of giving students a sound set of links.

    Chris – thanks for the references to academia.edu and cite-u-like – I didn’t know about them before. I think I may end up having to have a 23 Things Plus programme for myself to look at some more tools particularly useful for academics.

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