Most of us have way too many bookmarks (favorites) in our web browsers. Bookmarks that we’ve accumulated over the years, bookmarks that we haven’t visited in ages, bookmarks that we jealously hoard from the prying eyes of our friends and co-workers. Well, ok, maybe we’re not actively hoarding them, but the way our browsers are designed we might as well be. Our bookmarks are a great example of what conference keynote visionaries like to call “vertical information silos” – they contain really useful information, but it’s stuck there.
So naturally, contrary people are trying to open these silos up and let information do what it does best, which is to get together with other information and make even more information (“You see Timmy, when two bits love each other very much…”). I’m going to differentiate here between social bookmarking and business bookmarking.
On the social side of things, Joshua Schachter has been doing it the longest and best at http://del.icio.us. Go sign up for an account: then you can add your own bookmarks, categorize them with whatever tag helps you organize them, reach them from anywhere on the net, and then see what other users tagged with the same phrase. It’s like Amazon’s “people who liked this book also bought…”, only for the web. Joshua’s even added an open API, so you can program whatever weird and whacky app against it that you desire. Now if only he would stop blowing me away on XBox Live…
Ok, so you have business bookmarks too, and you’d really like to share them with your team, but not with the entire world. Until peterb’s wish for private del.icio.us areas is granted (or until some bright company buys the whole thing out from Joshua and starts selling it as a corporate intranet service), we’re left with homegrown solutions. I’ve tried both SharePoint and wikis, so that’s what I’ll talk about.
SharePoint makes a great structured way to share bookmarks. But first you’ve got to understand the Zen of SharePoint, which is this: it’s just like SQL, but without the agonizing pain. Yup, under the hood beats good ol’ SQL Server. That means SharePoint is all about lists. Lists of anything you want, with any categories you want, normalized any way you want. The absence of agonizing relational pain is due to the slick web interface on top, so that you never so much as smell a query. And then you can slice and dice those lists to your heart’s content. If you’re a control freak, you can even say who gets what access to those lists.
Now replace “lists” with “lists of bookmarks” and you start to understand SharePoint’s power. I’ve got well over 200 bookmarks about Exchange and C# in SharePoint. Put that many bookmarks into a browser hierarchy and you’ll end up losing stuff. Plus, when it comes to sharing those bookmarks you’ll rapidly find that your idea of the most obvious way to organize a hierarchy is completely alien to your co-workers, so they’re even more lost. In SharePoint I can tag those bookmarks with whatever categories we come up with — which version of Exchange, whether C# information is internal or external, the date a blog post was published — and then everyone can construct their own views to see just the information they want, and exactly how they want it.
Of course, you can have too much structure. If all your bookmarks are trapped in tabular straitjackets, it’s a lot harder to spot relationships between them and make connections. This is where a wiki beats SharePoint hands down. Wikis are all about emergent connections and information refactoring. Slap those bookmarks down into a simple unnumbered list, indent and rearrange it a little to show some relationships, add comments to the ones you think are important, and then let your team gradually add more structure and content. Of course, you might end up with something that looks more like a story than a list, so it’ll look nicest if you use wiki software that lets you make words into arbitrary links whilst hiding the URL, such as David Ornstein’s FlexWiki.
What’s next? Like Greg Hughes, I’d wish for a great wiki add-in for SharePoint. With SQL under the hood and ASP.NET on top, it’s already got all the functionality we need for a wiki, we’re just waiting for someone to step up to the plate and write a great solution. Or is it already out there somewhere, and we just haven’t heard about it?
Update: Jacob Carpenter has written an ASP.NET control to show your del.icio.us links.