In this week’s newsletter, I ponder the value of hyperlinks on today’s Internet. Are they still worth anything in the age of real-time news feeds and content streaming?
Recently I received an invite to a new links sharing site, called Refind. It styles itself as “the home for the best links on the web.” In other words, it wants to be the new del.icio.us. If you’re unfamiliar with del.icio.us (the name switched to Delicious for a while, but now it’s del.icio.us again), it pioneered social bookmarking in 2003. del.icio.us was one of the prototypical Web 2.0 websites and eventually got acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. Like everything acquired by Yahoo! in the Web 2.0 era, del.icio.us eventually faded into irrelevance. Although frankly, I’d also thought social bookmarking as an activity had become obsolete. Seemingly the only things that get shared in 2016 are Buzzfeed listicles on Facebook, selfies on Snapchat and Outraged Opinions everywhere. Yet here is a new site, Refind, trying to resurrect social bookmarking.
Tags & Links, Then & Now
When del.icio.us arrived on the scene in September 2003, its first users were amateur bloggers and scrappy web developers. My first del.icio.us link was made on October 03, 2003. I linked to my relatively new blog, Read/Write Web and tagged it “me.” Not a very helpful tag, with the benefit of hindsight! Tagging was a new phenomenon at the time, allowing people to organise their links into categories and keywords. I tagged my next link “topic mapping,” a more useful description of the content. So I learned quickly.
Tags were key to the eventual rise of del.icio.us. When enough people had joined the site and added tags to their links, it effectively created a directory of content. That was a pivotal moment in the Web’s evolution, because for the first time there was a large scale, user-generated directory of useful links. The popular directories of Web 1.0, notably Yahoo!, had been generated top-down by employees. In contrast, del.icio.us was generated entirely by its users, a.k.a. “bottom-up.” del.icio.us prefigured the rise of YouTube in 2005 and beyond, arguably the most successful example of user-generated content in history (although I think Wikipedia is a more impressive achievement). Of course today, all the biggest social media services are user-generated – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, et al. But del.icio.us was the geeky pioneer of it all.
Fast forward to 2016. Before we even consider Refind, let’s consider the relevance of tags and links in 2016. Simply put: tags have expanded in this era, while links have contracted. In his latest book, The Inevitable, futurist Kevin Kelly suggests that “tags have replaced links.” He claims we’re entering a third digital era. The first era was the PC, which used familiar metaphors from the office (desktop, folders, files). The second digital era brought us the Web, so now we had pages, hyperlinks and browsers. The third era, which Kelly says we’re transitioning into now, is all about real-time information and “flows and streams.” In this third era, tags in the way del.icio.us pioneered them have become much more widely used – they underpin popular services like Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter. Not only that, we can also now tag people, places and things. In 2016 you can tag your friend in a Facebook post, tag your location in Instagram, and watch a tagged Uber car on your phone as it wends its way to you.
What Refind Is Up Against
So back to Refind. It seems to me there are two key challenges for this company. Not counting the fundamental challenge that all new apps have in the Attention Economy: to get enough people to not only try its service, but keep coming back. Assuming Refind gets over that hump, there’s the sad fact that hyperlinks aren’t so important in this world of “streams” that we live in. Of course we all link to the odd listicle and op-ed, on Facebook mostly. But do we want to store those links anymore, when everything is real-time?
The second challenge for Refind is that social bookmarking in 2016 is, at best, a feature and not a product. As the company acknowledged in its debut blog post, it is competing against a whole slew of different services: Twitter, Evernote, Read It Later apps, social news sites like Reddit and Nuzzle. Even Facebook, the gorilla of the Web, has its own bookmarking feature. Knowing that it can’t possibly usurp any of those apps, Refind is attempting to position itself as a complementary service (“Twitter is real-time conversation, Refind is a link archive and search” and so on).
I think if Refind is to succeed, it’ll need to address its two key challenges by:
1) Giving users a good reason to store links again; and
2) Offering something unique that all the other services (Twitter, Evernote, et al) don’t already provide.
So far in its short history, Refind has rolled out a bunch of new features. Some of them, such as email newsletters, are a dime a dozen. Nuzzel and Product Hunt both offer email newsletters, as just two examples. So I can’t see that feature making a dent in Refind’s quest for users. But its latest feature announcement holds more promise: topic feeds. As I’ve railed about before, Facebook and Twitter have an appalling record with topic-based navigation. So if Refind can create a self-organized directory of links on multiple niche topics, it’ll be offering something the other apps don’t (or at least haven’t gotten right).
Ironically, topic feeds was one of the things del.icio.us was great at. But none of the social media bigcos took up the mantle, so today it’s a market up for grabs. Facebook and Twitter favor tweaking their news feed algorithms over providing topic navigation. There are some niche sites, like Quora and Product Hunt, that do topic mapping really well. And of course, Google’s search has been so good for so long now, that you can simply search for what you want at any time. But you don’t always know what you’re searching for and you don’t always want friends to surface that content (see Bursting The Filter Bubble). So that’s an opportunity for a site like Refind.
As for the value of links in 2016, I agree with Kevin Kelly that tags are much more prevalent in the streaming era. But perhaps links just need a service like Refind to organise them again, like Yahoo! and then del.icio.us used to do.
After all it’s not just an era of streams, it’s an era of oceans. That is, oceans of content – much of it hidden away on websites and unshared (yes, including the content on this site). Curating links and ordering them into topics seems like an activity worth trying again, in 2016. So I’m rooting for Refind. I for one will continue to test it out and see if it sticks.