Social Bookmarking – the Ugly Duckling of Collaboration

Blogging, Status Updates, Sharing Documents, Images and Film Clips, Pinning Pictures – all great things you can do using social tools, on the internet and sometimes also within the firewall on your intranet if you have the right employer.

One aspect of collaboration that is often overlooked is social bookmarking. To the extent even, that I feel compelled to explain the simple, yet appealing, logic behind it.

  1. Whether you use Favourites in Explorer or Bookmarks in Firefox or any of the other internet browsers, you only use them when you’re online. Right?
  2. As you only use them online, why not also save them online instead of in your local browser? Doing so may enable you to reach your bookmarks from any computer or even from your mobile device. Practical in any case, but especially when you make a hardware switch or have a crash.
  3. If you’re ok with saving them online, why not also share them with others while you’re at it. Particularly as it mean no extra effort for you.

I think we all agree that having knowledge yourself is great but becoming an increasingly impossible task with the volumes available and needed in modern society. Knowing where and how to find it has become a key quality. Expressing it differently: having knowledge at your fingertips comes in a close second to having it in your head.

Coupling that with the influence and reputation gained by sharing knowledge (or in this case – where to find it), social bookmarking becomes an obvious win-win activity. Maybe even win-win-win. You find stuff. Others find stuff. Your reputation grows.

On the internet, Delicious has been around for many years now. I have used it myself since 2004. Ownership has changed hands a couple of times and it is probably not all that easy to make money by providing the service, a probably explanation behind the apparent lack of attention to it and development of it over several years. But I greatly appreciate it although I think they could do much more with the iPhone app.

Google+’s +1’s (tricky to write, that one) wouldn’t require much additional features to become a serious competitor or even simply steamroll Delicious. Just promote it as a service in its own right, make it searchable and you’ve got it. I’m puzzled by why Google don’t.

Inside the firewall, the benefits and possibilities become even greater and more visible. As I work for IBM, I have the pleasure of being able to work with IBM Connections in my daily work life. As the primary business benefit of social bookmarking is ease of access to knowledge verified by peers, social bookmarking doesn’t face the same revenue challenges internally as it does externally. Also the benefits to the individual of the bookmarks not being machine specific benefits the company in case of crashes and hardware switches by reduced time waste.

In such a comprehensive collaboration environment as IBM Connections, social bookmarks become even more powerful. Have a look at the bookmarking dialogue below.

Social_bookmarks

As you can see, it doesn’t stop at me being able to bookmark publicly (default) or just for myself (option). I also get tagging suggestions; both recommended and used by others for this page but also, assuming that I tend to bookmark things related to favourite topics of mine, tags used recently by me for other bookmarks. Great time-savers and ways to establish de-facto standards, no?

As if that wasn’t enough, as I save my bookmark I can post that bookmark in a multitude of places: in communities I am a member of, in blogs and in any of my Activities (i.e. the in-built, light-weight task handling system that I have come to use to manage my entire work life). So, not only can I make my bookmark available for anyone who happens to search for something with those tags but I can promote it to communities, blogs and activities where I think people may be particularly interested in the topic at hand.

Topping it all up, internal social bookmarks can very well be used to improve the search function, usually a pain point of intranets. The search algorithm is supplemented by the preferences and categorization (tags, that is) made by people who have appreciated content.

And yes, of course, the social bookmarks in IBM Connections can be applied to content both inside and outside of the firewall.

There may be other social intranet systems available with social bookmarking, but I don’t know of any other, especially not with such comprehensive features.

Folders is where knowledge goes to hide

I hate folders. I hate the typical folder structure of most operative systems. I waste time building the structure, I waste time thinking of where to store things. And when I try to find them again, I waste time again trying to remember in which folder I finally did put them and often have to resort to searching. And time is to valuable for me to waste and I guess that goes for most of you. I guess my structuring challenges are not unfamiliar to many readers too.

Thank you Google for Desktop Search!

And so far, this has only been about my own hard drive. Not in social websites.

This is why I get the chills every time someone asks for a possibility to create folder structures in collaborative environments. If a single person can’t sort out his own document storage and retrieval in a folder structure, how do they suppose that an unhierarchical, loosely knitted group of people will succeed? Rather, it would be as easy as finding stuff on someone else’s hard drive, don’t you think?

Enters tags. I love tags as much as I loathe folders.

Why I love tags? Because tags are defined by each user to fit their own needs and their own way of thinking, not the view of the few. Tags are flexible and quick to respond to new concepts and trends instead of representing old news. Finally, because tags can be used across all kinds of content (at least if you have a comprehensive collaboration ecosystem, like a good social intranet) thereby linking people with shared files with social bookmarks with blog entries with wikis with discussion forum posts with …. you get the drift. By searching on one tag, I can get a complete view of all the knowledge and expertise on that topic, irrespective of how it’s documented or who has it.

But, asks the fainthearted, aren’t you overwhelmed by masses of shared files or social bookmarks? There’s no structure! And I say: Filter by tags, my friend. And when you still have too many to choose from, filter further until you find what you look for. And if you still don’t find it through filtering, they are, unlike in folders, all visible and you can still scan them without having to open one folder after another, guessing your way down the structure.

For tags to work properly there are only a couple of prerequisites:

  • A good type-ahead feature when you are tagging – presenting already existing tags – plus people who have the patience to wait the split second needed for the type-ahead suggestions to appear
  • A uniform method of tagging across the collaborative system: either separated by space (multi-letter-expressions-need-to-be joined-by-hyphens-or_underscore) or comma separated
  • Users who understand the benefits of tagging and therefore do it
  • A decent feature for searching by tag

A couple of tagging hints:

  • When thinking of which tags to use, think of which words and expressions you would use when searching for what you are tagging
  • Use spelling versions, typically both American and British spelling, or else your item may only be found on one side of the Atlantic (if you’re using English, that is)
  • Language? I don’t have any strong view, but if the item you’re tagging isn’t in one of the “big languages” it’s probably a waste to use tags in any other language. People who find it won’t understand it anyway. Unless, of course, you are bilingual like me and you tag for yourself.

Finally, a good collaboration environment should be equipped with powerful search features (often turbo-powered by tags) and make extensive use of suggestions and associations to inspire you and make you discover useful stuff related to people you know or items you see.