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FEATURE STORY 45
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 send-
ing 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 ap-
plication called Mux way, 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 Mux way, those links were orga-
nized 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 infor mation available
on the Web, people were still hungry for good links, and they
were interested in nding out what others thought was inter-
esting. He also gured that if tagging was helpful to him, it
could make storing and nding bookmarks easier for every-
one 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 orga-
nizing not just individuals information but the whole Web.
Today it exempli es the promise of what s often called Web
2.0---websites and online applications that rely on user par-
ticipation 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 t in a "Favorites" folder. But it
took o because it o ers everyone what Mux way had o ered
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
IN NOVATOR OF THE YEAR
How tags exploit the self-interest of
individuals to organize the Web for
everyone. By James Surowiecki
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 we re really dealing with is memory and recall, and
using technology to make your memory more scalable. "
Schachter deliberately avoided imposing any r ules 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 o ," 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 e ectively 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" and
"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 collec-
tively organize infor mation 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 rst people to use the product. Ide-
ally, the system should be useful for user number one." This
makes del.icio.us di erent 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 rst 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
rst person to use del.icio.us---Schachter---it worked.
As it happens, lots of people found del.icio.us valuable
right from the start, making it a proverbial grassroots hit.
Schachter did no advertising, no marketing. But the site
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