Our Ephemeral Web

Image representing delicious as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

*Please excuse the seemingly ‘old news’ of this post. It’s existed as a draft as I’ve rested and relaxed over the holiday period, but I felt like it deserved to see the light of day. : )

So, another one appears to have bitten the dust. Another Web 2.0 tool that is. Such is the ephemeral nature of the Web.

Someone in Yahoo leaked a slide in December that indicated they intended to ‘sunset’ Delicious, along with other products such as ‘All the Web’, and ‘altavista’, two search engines they ran. ‘Sunset’, is Yahoo’s euphemism for ‘get rid of’. Interestingly, all the buzz has been about Delicious, the social bookmarking site they run. I remember regularly using ‘All the Web’, but admittedly, quite some time ago. I’m not surprised there has been so much outcry over the decision regarding Delicious; it’s a very popular site amongst people who understand that saving your bookmarks in a cloud based application is far more useful than storing them on your hard drive. Far more useful until they decide to ‘sunset’ it, that is.

Plenty of people have already imported their bookmarks to other sites like Diigo and Pinboard. I’ve been using Diigo for some time, purely because I forgot the password I used to set up my Delicious account! I do like Diigo, but I found the interface of Delicious really easy for student use. I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time this year encouraging my students to use Delicious as a search tool. The user base of Delicious has been larger than that of Diigo and students have been able to see how many people have saved a site. I don’t need to speak to them at length why this is important; they’ve been able to articulate to me very easily that it means something to have a large number of people bookmark a site. It means that we have a human filter sorting out the Web for us, people determining sites that are of value. It’s this form of filtering that IS important, and something that is worth fighting for.

Once again, this decision brings into question the role of libraries as curators of information. For as long as they’ve existed, libraries have attempted to be the means of making sense of information, of collating subject headings that make it possible for us to sift through book collections and find the gems within that unlock ideas and enable learning to take place. In my early years of Teacher Librarianship I remember being frustrated with Library of Congress Subject Headings, and constantly adding my own subject headings to the trusted tome that I thought were more relevant to the search habits of my student population. For the purists, this kind of thing was problematic. As the Wikipedia entry on Library of Congress Subject Headings tells us;

“The widespread use and acceptance of the Library of Congress Subject Headings facilitates the uniform access and retrieval of items in any library in the world using the same search strategy and LCSH thesaurus, if the correct headings have been applied to the item by the library.”

My method meant that my users would get used to the subject headings I would appoint and thus would find it difficult to access other collections because my subject headings wouldn’t appear in other libraries. I suppose what I was doing was applying a folksonomy to a taxonomy or ontology before I’d even heard of the word! Even then, 20 or so years ago, I was struggling with a system that I felt was too rigid and not in touch with the search habits of the young people we were teaching. I always wanted to make the library relevant. I thought it would be a more accessible place if you were using the common speak of the time, rather than the structured language of a knowledge professional.

I suppose that’s why I found tagging such an attractive option and social bookmarking made sense to me from the start. Delicious has been around for 7+ years now- that’s an awful lot of collective intelligence from savvy users of the Web sitting in one place. And that’s the reality too. Anyone who was using Delicious could be categorised as a savvy Web user I would think. It doesn’t have mainstream adoption. As I was sitting in a food court in December reeling a bit from Yahoo’s decision, I looked around me and considered that it was likely that not one other person sitting there probably had the slightest idea of what Delicious, or any other form of social bookmarking was. But that doesn’t mean that realisation isn’t going to take place as we all struggle with managing an elaborate web of millions of sites that deserve a sense of order. No knowledge professional can set about to provide a consistent set of rules to manage the Web, but the user base can, with the folksonomy of tags they apply to the sites they deem important.

This school year, one of our initiatives was going to be an attempt to have our students use Delicious to manage the Web content they use. As a library, we have a Delicious account and we were going to place heavy emphasis on building our collection within Delicious, by tagging sites that we felt were filling holes in our non-fiction holdings. As I’ve said many times now, out students are not accessing hard copy non-fiction and they go to the Web first. We can catalogue websites into our library management system, but it seems to make more sense to me that we catalogue the Delicious link to a set of tagged resources rather than each individual site. We’ll adapt and use Diigo instead if Yahoo continues with the decision they’ve made, and no-one comes to the rescue of Delicious and sustains it’s existence for the user base of the Web. Yahoo’s position regarding the future of Delicious is the following;

We’re actively thinking about the future of Delicious and we believe there is a home outside the company that would make more sense for the service and our users. We’re in the process of exploring a variety of options and talking to companies right now. And we’ll share our plans with you as soon as we can.

That was posted on December 17th. No update as yet.

Stephen Hood has written an interesting post, We can save Delicious, but probably not in the way you think. Stephen used to work for Yahoo, and spent three years running product for Delicious. One of his ideas is the following;

Donating Delicious to the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian

Now we’re getting closer.  While it is folly to assume either of these institutions could take over Delicious and keep it running as a viable service, it does seem like they would be interested in preserving the Delicious corpus and making it available for research.

I love Delicious for many reasons, but chief among them is that it is the Internet’s memory storage device.  In the 7+ years of its existence it has recorded the collective online journeys of millions of users during a time when the Web was evolving dramatically.  Those memories are irreplaceable and have enormous value both to their owners (the users) and to society.

It’s a great idea, but it does have to move beyond that. While there’s point to preserving the last 7+ years of collective intelligence stored in Delicious, it’s the potential it has for doing this in an ongoing capacity that is its true value. It seems somewhere along the way, the library profession has missed the boat. There SHOULD be a representative library body, a body that represents libraries worldwide, with the wherewithall to maintain a service like Delicious. Where’s the budding philanthropist, the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or Larry Page or Sergey Brin, who’ve made copious millions from the Web and know that it’s time to give back and ensure that the Web has the ability to make sense to those that use it. Perhaps someone like Robert Darnton, who has contributed to so much discussion about the future of the book and digitised libraries, could weigh in on the matter and lead action that would help create the Library of the future; the tagged web, a creation of the people who use it.

The Web is ephemeral. Things come and go, just like businesses come and go, like television series come and go, like life really. In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen xtranormal begin to charge for their services, and DimDim be acquired by another company. Things change. Perhaps Jaron Lanier is right. Free as a model doesn’t work, and micropayments for services is the future of the Web if we want to see longevity with the applications we want to use. Where once I was the advocate of free, now I see a new way. A micropayment system, where we as users, along with the Venture Capitalists, fund the startups we find useful, and support them in their quest to monetise their services. If we don’t start to look at services on the Web differently, we risk losing more of the great products that help us aggregate web content, and we will all lose in the long run.

A change in the Ning – Free takes its toll

The networks are all a flutter today with the news from Ning that they have slashed jobs and will be charging for use of their networks in the very near future. Read this from Jay Rosenthal, newly appointed CEO of Ning;

When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.

My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks like Friends or Enemies, Linkin Park, Shred or Die, Pickens Plan, and tens of thousands of others both drive 75% of our monthly US traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product to capture this big opportunity. We will phase out our free service. Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning. We will judge ourselves by our ability to enable and power Premium Ning Networks at huge scale. And all of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.

Although I have to admit to being taken aback by this news, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised.

I’ve been speculating for quite some time on the ‘free’ model of enterprise many of us are familiar with and expect from the Web. This is a model that I don’t think can be sustained, proof of which came with this announcement today. So what will it mean for those of us running Ning networks?


Do we continue the networks and pay the fees? Do we lobby Ning and ask them (implore them!) to do as Wikispaces do and provide a free platform for education that doesn’t include ads? Do we export the data and look to a platform like Elgg to fill the gap? Do we wait and see who might see this this as an opportunity to launch a platform that will see large take up from disenfranchised Ning users? Do we sit back and wait to see the plans that Ning have promised they will send to network creators in the next two weeks?

All things we need to consider. I’m waiting to see the message from Ning for creators. I’m hopeful they will not been driven by monetary incentive and will see a need to support the education community. I’m not entirely confident this will happen however. I suppose we all need to get on the Ning discussion forum and do our bit to lobby Ning to think of the education sector and the good work they can do to support student learning with the use of their networks. Chris Champion has said it very well with this comment he left in the Ning forum discussion;

I am a creator of both free Nings and a “Premium” ad-free point my domain ning. The premium Ning represents a conference with paying customers – for a $360 annual cost, we have a network that we don’t have to host. Is it cheap? No. We could have done Elgg and dealt with more administration issues, plus about $80 in hosting. But Ning is nice because people who are already Ning members don’t have to create new accounts, learn new things. It works because people are comfortable with it. Unfortunately, we might find that the ONLY place people use the Ning is our premium site. So be it. As long as it doesn’t cost our users additional fees (we build in the fees when we price the conference), they won’t mind.

The other side is that I work for a school. I as well as another teacher use Ning to provide a protected social network in which students can share ideas, projects, and learn appropriate behavior and candor on a social network. This particular use is far more important to me than the Premium ning I manage.

I call on Marc Andreessen and Jason Rosenthal to follow the model of Wikispaces: grant K-12 schools the continued use of Nings for the classroom without ads, and at no charge. Do I think Ning is worth a few $ monthly? Yes. Would my school pay? Absolutely not.

Marc – I paid for Netscape way back before it was free. I was one of the few who paid because I am a developer (and computer science teacher now) and I recognize the value of hard work. But I also recognize the opportunity to provide teachers and students with great resources. I hope you do too.

Effectively, the message from this is that free can’t work. We have to become accustomed to the fact that if we want the Web to work for us, we have to outlay something to make it happen. I’ve been reading the work of Jaron Lanier and he extols this message. We need to be paying attention and we need to accept that this is the playing field we are operating in. Open source software has risks associated with its use, and we may find this is what will happen to other platforms we use that are currently free. The monetisation of the Web is an issue we all have to face, and it may be that it is time for us to start outlaying the cash to make it work.

The pity of all this, is that once again, it will be those that can least afford to lose out who will lose out. The schools whose budgets are tight will not be able to sustain their networks, and kids and their learning will suffer. It’s also a pity for all those educators out there who have stuck their necks out and successfully used Ning networks to assist their students. They’ve often had to lobby school administrators to move out of walled gardens to do this. This move by Ning provides grist to the mill to all those skeptics out there who will gleefully redirect them back to platforms like Sharepoint that don’t support the collaborative learning that you can achieve in a Ning environment. I do hope Ning is listening and will do their bit to support the education sector.