I left Yahoo over two years ago, but prior to that I spent three years running product for del.icio.us.  Since then I’ve remained a loyal user and supporter.  To this day I keep in touch with former del.icio.us colleagues and consider many to be friends.  And though I’ve felt that del.icio.us has been frustratingly slow to evolve in recent years, I’ve always wished the best for the product and the remaining team members.

All of this has made last week’s news especially saddening and painful.  First the del.icio.us team was hit by layoffs.  Then it emerged that Yahoo is either shutting down del.icio.us or trying to sell it. As I write this it is still not entirely clear what the real story is, but regardless del.icio.us is in peril.

An online debate has already begun about various ways that del.icio.us might be “saved”.  As someone who was on the inside for a while and who wants very much to see del.icio.us live on, I thought I’d chime in. For the record, what follows are opinions based on my own experiences. I have not spoken to anyone inside Yahoo about this and I do not have any special knowledge about the current situation.

Convincing Yahoo to keep investing in del.icio.us

This is unfortunately a non-starter. Last week much of the team was laid off and my guess is that the product is now at best staffed for “maintenance mode”. This sends a fairly clear message and it’s not something Yahoo can easily reverse because they have lost already-scarce expertise in both the product and the complicated technology stack that underpins it.

Selling del.icio.us to a third-party

This certainly seems like the best option for del.icio.us and its users, and I hope that Yahoo is able to pull it off. But it’s not a straightforward proposition.

As mentioned above, most of the team is now gone. Last week’s leak (and the subsequent fallout) also did unfortunate damage to the del.icio.us brand, sending panicked users to competing products.

But ultimately the real challenge here will be the technology. During my time at del.icio.us we rebuilt the entire infrastructure to deeply leverage a number of internal Yahoo technologies. It’s all great stuff but not exactly easy to remove or replace.  Yahoo may have to license some of this technology to the buyer. I’m not sure they’ve done that before.

Open sourcing del.icio.us

This is a seductive concept but doesn’t make much sense.  As in the case of a sale, they would need to unwind a bunch of proprietary technologies before this could happen.  And open sourcing a complex product isn’t as simple as switching your GitHub repository from private to public.  It involves a lot of work to clean up and document the source.  For del.icio.us this would add up to a huge effort that would be hard to justify purely on a financial basis. Even then, it’s not clear how an open source social bookmarking system would work, given that much of its value comes from being centralized.

Donating del.icio.us 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 del.icio.us and keep it running as a viable service, it does seem like they would be interested in preserving the del.icio.us corpus and making it available for research.

I love del.icio.us 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.

And so this is where we end up: del.icio.us may or may not have a future as a service, but regardless we can still “save it” by extracting and preserving its collective memories.  There are two ways to do this:

  • Yahoo could proactively release the corpus of publicly-shared bookmarks and tags. This could take the form of a mass data dump into the public domain, or it could be via an agreement with an institutional partner (much like Twitter did earlier this year).
  • The del.icio.us user community could organize to save the data themselves via a coordinated harvesting project.

The second approach could produce valuable results but would require no shortage of cleverness in order to avoid triggering rate limiters and other abuse mitigation mechanisms.  Even then it’s not clear that the entire corpus is currently accessible in this manner. The first approach would be much more direct and complete, and would likely earn back for Yahoo some of the goodwill it has recently lost.

Separately from the public data, there is the issue of personal user data. While del.icio.us has long had a bookmark export tool, other pieces of personal or private data are not easily exportable, notably the user’s Inbox (links shared with them by other users) and their Network (links saved by users they follow, as well as the list of those contacts – it’s basically Twitter for bookmarks). The user community has already started working on this problem: former del.icio.us engineering lead Josh Whiting has written a Ruby script that exports your Inbox. Ideally Yahoo should provide official tools for exporting this data.

In conclusion, releasing the public corpus is the right thing to do for del.icio.us, for Yahoo, and for the Internet. If a sale proves difficult – or even if it succeeds – I hope Yahoo will take this path and I would strongly encourage them to do so.