The last time Andrew Busey came by our offices, a year ago, he was hawking his version of an arcane bit of software called RSS. We sort of forgot about him and then watched as his software—which lets Web sites and blogs send automated updates to subscribers—quickly scored 300,000 users.
So when Busey visited again a few weeks back, we paid attention. And as it turns out, he was showing off something we actually wanted to see: Internet-search software that just might help people like us remember what they've searched and where in the World Wide Web they've been. It's called Shadows, and it's part of a social bookmarking, uh, revolution, that's been gathering steam for nearly a decade.
The idea behind social bookmarking is to let humans, as opposed to algorithms like Google's, index the Web. The key is a device called "tagging" (from the slang for graffiti). You see something online, you like it, you tag it. By leaving tags with keywords and opinions, you make sites easier to find later—and you improve their relevance for everyone else, contributing to a community memory of sorts.
Shadows has an intuitive interface that lets you view tags as impromptu forums or on-the-fly blogs. The marquee feature, though, is a page-behind-the-page where you can leave comments. Essentially, it brings the functionality of user reviews (like Citysearch with restaurants, or Amazon with books) to any site on the Web. Love that new Porsche SUV? Tag the page and leave a note. Didn't buy one because of an obnoxious salesman? Say so, right on the dealership's site.
Yes, this has been tried before. A little company called Third Voice, which let people leave Post-it-like notes on any Web page, debuted in 1999 but was eventually silenced by spam, inadequate pickup, and a lot of graffiti-versus-free speech controversy. Since then, though, an army of free software products (Furl! Spurl! Del.icio.us! Clipmarks!) has emerged with less-invasive comment tools, including Yahoo's My Web 2.0, a beta product unveiled this past summer.
Indeed, social bookmarking has major implications for how people use the Web. Busey claims that Shadows, which launched in early July, picked up more than 200,000 unique users in its first 45 days. And Nick Wreden, author of FusionBranding and ProfitBrand, believes products like Shadows and My Web 2.0 represent a huge leap in consumer power.
Besides popular mainstream sites such as Flickr and Technorati, which allow users to tag and search photos and blogs, respectively, professionals in various fields are already tapping the collaborative potential of social bookmarking to sift through scientific articles (Connotea.org), rate restaurants (Dinnerbuzz), and organize news stories (Common Times). In this realm, it seems, we're all graffiti artists. And there's not a cop in sight.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.