Can Delicious Solve Our Information Discovery Problem?

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Yahoo said today that it isn’t killing its Delicious social-bookmarking service after all, as some suspected it might when it was included on a list of Yahoo assets marked for “sunsetting” late last year. Instead Yahoo is selling the service to Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, two of the co-founders of YouTube. Although the new buyers say they are planning to maintain the service as is, it also sounds like they have something much bigger in mind — and they obviously know a thing or two about building a small service into a major web property. So what could Delicious become? The key to answering that question is information discovery, one of the meatiest problems in media right now.

In a statement about the acquisition, Hurley and Chen’s new company (known as AVOS) hinted at this future by saying that their plan is to “build a world-class team to take on the challenge of building the best information-discovery service on the web.” The company also said that it wants to solve the problem of information overload, which is a problem “not just in the world of video, but also cutting across every information-intensive media type,” according to Chen. Hurley left YouTube last October, and Chen left in 2009.

So how could a bookmark-sharing service — which never really cracked the mainstream web-user market when it was a standalone business run by founder Josh Schachter, and didn’t come any closer to big time adoption after its acquisition by Yahoo in 2005 — solve that problem? The answer lies in how we consume information now, and how that is changing. One of the biggest changes is the social nature of content; how we share it and also discover it via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and the increasing amounts of content coming not just from those networks but from apps and services like Instagram.

In many ways, services such as Instapaper and Evernote and Twitter’s favorite feature have taken over the space where Delicious used to be a player: they are all ways of keeping track of those web links and photos and other bits of data that we don’t want to lose as the real-time information stream flows past us at a hundred miles an hour. But they are disconnected from each other — my Instapaper doesn’t know that I favorited something on Twitter, and vice versa. Evernote is close to being a “backup brain” in that sense, but there is still plenty of room to solve that problem of tracking what we have read and shared, and helping us make sense of it. This also arguably something that Google should have — or could have — done using its RSS reader as a foundation, but hasn’t.

And so far, even the existing players have only started to scratch the surface of what they could do in terms of information discovery and smart recommendation, which I have argued in the past is the Holy Grail of media. Instapaper has added features that let you share with others, and see what your friends have shared, and that’s a step in the direction of discovery; so is News.me letting you look over the shoulder of others as they read, and Zite’s explicit recommendations.

But think about the vast amount of content that has already been sucked in by Delicious over the years — arguably the single biggest asset that the company has, and the one Hurley and Chen were likely willing to pay up for. Those millions of shared bookmarks are a kind of social graph of content in a way: they are implicit signals from all the people who shared those links, or stored them for later, that there is valuable content there. Some of those links may be dead or changed, but it’s still a fairly substantial foundation for an information-discovery service to build on.

Search Engine Land says that Hurley and Chen might be trying to take on Google, and in a sense they are: the way we find information is changing, and Google is trying to catch up to those changes too. It’s mostly failing so far. The new kings of social information discovery are Twitter and Facebook — and the Delicious acquisition is a sign that YouTube’s former founders would like to join that race.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user retinafunk

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