Millions of people use and rely on “social search” systems. Millions more are hazy about what such systems are and why they might matter. That can change!
Social search is one more way to add subjective, human judgment to the process of finding information on the Internet. You can see why this is useful if you consider the experience of using search systems that lack the human element. Even the best tools for finding data on your own computer’s hard drive (like X1, my favorite for PCs, available free at X1.com or, in a different and to me slightly less useful form, from Yahoo) tend to be all-or-nothing operations. If you remember the exact name or keyword in a given document, and either spell it correctly or misspell it in a way that matches what’s in your files, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you won’t. And if your keyword appears in too many files or e-mails, you’ll have to sort through a flood of results.
In the Internet’s early days, all searches operated on the same mechanistic, keyword-only principle. Searching gained wide popularity only when, starting mainly with Google, it became both fast and relatively smart. In subtly different ways, Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and other leading search engines apply formulas to figure out, from the few words you type into a search box, what you’re really looking for, and return a ranked listing of pages likely to match that request. The subtleties of these formulas constitute the companies’ trade secrets, but in one way or another all attempt to detect and use the signals by which page creators indicate the meaning and importance of what is on a Web page. For instance, words that a site’s designer has set in boldface or used in section titles might get more weight than those in ordinary text, and the other sites linked to a page might indicate whether its references to “China” are more likely to concern crockery or a country.
Social search is a further step in the same direction. The idea is to rely on cues not just from a site’s creator but also from the people who have read and reacted to it, and the cues come mainly from something anyone viewing a site can do: “tag” it with a label, a category, a reminder, or another note that will tell you and other viewers what makes the site interesting.
“Tagging is the very least-effort way to organize things,” I was told by Joshua Schachter, who five years ago designed a site now called del.icio.us, to keep track of interesting Web sites he had seen. Note that its full address is del.icio.us—no .com or .org suffix. When Web sites ending in .us were opened for registration several years ago, Schachter locked down many of them ending in icio.us, because he had calculated that a very large number of “real” words ended with those letters. After del.icio.us had become by far the most popular site of its kind, Schachter sold it last year to Yahoo, for which he now works.
“The objective in saving things is to be able to get them again, not to get tied up building a structure,” he said. “Even people who try very hard to keep all their stuff organized end up with a nice hierarchy of folders—and a whole lot of uncategorized stuff at the top level. Tagging is the way to organize the stuff you don’t have time to organize.”
Here’s how it works: At del.icio.us and similar sites, virtually all of them free, each user creates an account, with user name and password. Most browsers can be configured to log you on automatically whenever you connect to the Internet—and to add a small button or icon to your browser’s task bar. Suppose you are thinking about a vacation and come across a blog entry about the best hotels in Venice. You click the button labeled “post to del.icio.us” for that site, or for another like it, “Mark in Ma.gnolia” (s.igh), and a screen comes up asking how you’d like to categorize, or tag, the page you’ve just seen. You type in as many terms or phrases as you think apply to the site—Italy, vacation, Italian vacation, must-read—plus any extra reminder or description you’d like to save. You click again, and del.icio.us stores the site’s address along with its tags. (Ma.gnolia and some others store a snapshot of the site’s contents, which is useful in case the saved Web address later goes bad.) The next site that catches your eye might have a set of statistics, or a recipe. You save those too, with appropriate tags.
Then from any computer, anywhere, you can log back on to del.icio.us (or a similar site). It will show you a list of all the tags you’ve created. You click on one of them—Venice, anniversary presents— and it will bring up a list of all the matching sites. It’s as if you were doing a normal Web search, but with categories you defined yourself. This is better than programs that store Web content on your computer, programs like EverNote or Net Snippets, in that you don’t need to copy files from laptop to desktop. (It’s worse in that you can’t get at the information when you’re offline.) It’s far more flexible than storing Web bookmarks in the familiar set of “folders”: in a browser, it is tedious to assign a bookmarked URL to more than one folder, but with a social-search program, you can quickly give a bookmarked site as many tags as you want.
Even if tags did nothing more than this, most people who tried using them would find them handy. Schachter says that he created the program for “purely selfish” reasons—he wanted to keep track of his own collection of Web addresses—and some other people I have interviewed about the program say they use it strictly as their own filing system. (“For me it’s a dumping ground of Web sites I want to revisit,” says Brad DeLong, the economist and prolific blogger from the University of California, Berkeley.) But additional power arises from the social nature of such sites, which lets them draw on judgments made by many people.
Del.icio.us and others like it keep track of the sites and tags you have saved—and those saved by millions of other users. So, apart from retrieving the Italian vacation sites you have already seen and stored, you can quickly see which sites other people have found worth saving under the same or similar tags, plus indications of how popular or informative they are. For instance, when I was trying to find jazz performances in Shanghai, Google’s first hit on Shanghai jazz was a club by that name in New Jersey, while del.icio.us instantly brought up a blog about acts coming to my new neighborhood in China.
Collective judgments (which in other contexts, especially Internet contexts, are best viewed with some skepticism) can be all the keener when exercised by people who share an interest or expertise. This concept is familiar to anyone who has been on an e-mail list connecting people with some affinity: college classmates, triathletes, experts in Australian wine or Russian politics. I am on several e-lists concerning aviation. If a neighbor tells me that she likes a TV weather show, I nod and do nothing; but when I hear from pilots about a great new weather site, I check it out. “It is within circles of ‘friends,’ or people with common interests, that tagging becomes most relevant,” says Chris Pirillo, who operates a site called TagJag, based in Seattle. “It’s not that the whole world is tagging a certain term, but that people whose judgment you trust are. As our tools become smarter and the process of developing communities gets easier, the importance of shared knowledge will only increase.”
No site makes creating such communities as easy as it should be. But at Flickr (for sharing and tagging photographs), Technorati (for tagging blogs), Slashdot (for keeping up on technology), and hundreds of others, the process is under way.