With the news that Delicious has indeed been acquired, and will thus survive, this blog post really deserved a follow-up hurray!! On a practical note, I also encourage anyone who uses Delicious — or has ever used Delicious, and might want to access those bookmarks again someday — to login and update your account before the end of the month. You need to accept the new user agreement so that your bookmarks are preserved when Delicious transfers to its new owners.

The announcement that Yahoo! is trying to sell Delicious may sound like good news to those of us who panicked when the rumor of a shut-down emerged yesterday. As I write today on the Harvard Business Review site, there is a lot at stake not only for Delicious users, but for all those who contribute to or participate in social web sites.

Look over the past 24 hours online, however, and you’ll see why this late-breaking news does not resolve the question of what’s going to happen to Delicious. Faced with the prospect of the social bookmarking service being shut-down Delicious users have been swirling around Twitter and the blogosphere, exchanging opinions about which bookmarking service to migrate to, and tips about how to export or back up your bookmarks. It all reminds me of the scene at the end of Fiddler on the Roof, when the Jews have been chased out of their village and are comparing notes on their new destinations, knowing all the while that they’ll never again see the friends and family they’ve known all their lives. But Rob points out that this observation takes me dangerously close to Godwin’s law, so I’ll walk it back and focus instead on the real stakes of the delicious (non)decision.

So what’s the big deal about a prospective delicious shut-down? After all, delicious has always had a robust option for exporting your bookmarks (one of the reasons I’ve always recommended it!) and there are at least a half-dozen credible alternatives for storing your favorite links. And social bookmarking isn’t what it once was: as I wrote almost a year ago, Twitter has displaced Delicious as the primary way I share URLs or find new sites to check out.

But Delicious is still a crucial part of my life online, and the ways I use it say a lot about what makes it uniquely valuable, and hard to replace:

  1. Bookmark storage: It’s true that these days, I rarely store a bookmark directly on Delicious. Instead, I use packrati.us and tweecious to automatically Delicious any link I tweet. Using Twitter search to find that link I shared months ago is all but impossible, but I can usually find it by searching through my own Delicious bookmarks.
  2. Research: Want to jailbreak your iPhone so you can install non-Apple-approved apps? Good luck using Google to find the most trustworthy options. Use delicious to search on “iphone jailbreak” and you can quickly see the approaches that have been bookmarked most frequently (though not as quickly as you used to, since it’s no longer possible to see the most popular bookmarks for a tag intersection [jailbreak+iphone]).
  3. Synchronization: As much as I love Delicious, sometimes it’s nice to have my bookmarks accessible from my browser’s own bookmarks menu. Xmarks syncs Delicious bookmarks to Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Explorer, so that you can have the same user experience you would with your browser’s bookmark system — except backed up online and available in all your other browsers, too. And it’s only one of many such options: you can find Delicious synchronization tools for just about any browser.
  4. Private link collection: I know this sounds improbable, but occasionally I do things online that I don’t want to share with the entire world. The Delicious “make private” option makes it useful in ways Twitter can never be. For example, this week I was doing research on a client project, and bookmarked a bunch of academic articles; if I made those links public it would be very obvious what I’m working on, so I create a private collection of bookmarks that I can refer to in my confidential work.
  5. Social media monitoring: My Google Reader account includes subscriptions to a number of Delicious feeds, and my iGoogle homepage — which I refresh throughout the day — prominently displays both the Delicious hotlist (links that lots of people are storing right now) and the latest nptech bookmarks (nonprofit tech resources) as a way of keeping on top of the latest news. When I set up clients and colleagues with RSS readers, I always encourage them to track the key Delicious tags in their field as a way to crowdsource the job of staying up-to-date.
  6. Content aggregation: Over the years I’ve set up a number of sites that use a Delicious RSS feed to add related links of interest; it’s even possible to configure a website to choose relevant links for specific pages by comparing the subject of a blog post with related tags on Delicious. And you can limit those inbound links to just the bookmarks you or your team have stored personally.
  7. Blogging and tweeting: When I first started blogging, I set up a system that let me use Delicious to automatically post short blog posts simply by adding a description to a bookmark and tagging it with a specific tag that got aggregated onto my blog. I later set up a similar system that let me automatically tweet a link by tagging it “tweetthis”, though that was superceded by Delicious integrating a tweeting option directly into their posting interface.
  8. Networking: If you store a lot of bookmarks with a particular tag or two, and keep an eye on the global collection of all bookmarks that use that same tag, you’ll start to notice other Delicious users who consistently use those same tags. Following their bookmarking habits is a great way to keep up with resources in your field, and also a great way to identify experts on a particular topic (yet another way journalists could use Delicious).
  9. Inbox preservation: Nothing clutters up your inbox faster than colleagues who e-mail you individual web links. We’ve long used Delicious to share links instead; all someone has to do to share a link with me is to tag it “for:awsamuel”.
  10. Collaboration: Choosing a tag to use with a group of colleagues is a great way to build up a common resource collection. When I teach a workshop on social media, I often select a unique tag as a way of building a content collection that students can then access, like Web 2 and You. And I have encouraged many companies, organizations and sectors to choose a tag they can all use as a mechanism for lightweight knowledge sharing.

As you can see from the list above, there’s a lot to Delicious beyond simply storing your bookmarks. Yes, I can set up shop on a new social bookmarking platform, but it will be hard for these to match what Delicious offers today.

And yet the same factors that make Delicious hard to replace also mean that the past 24 hours have done possibly irrevocable damage.┬áThat’s because so much of the value of Delicious comes from the size of its user base. ┬áBecause Delicious has been way bigger than its rivals, it’s become a de facto standard. That means you can usually bet that any colleague who is bookmarking their favorite sites online is doing so with Delicious, and if you’re asking colleagues to start using a bookmarking system so that you can share knowledge, it’s reasonable to suggest Delicious as your common platform. In the absence of a leading option it’s not obvious how you could encourage a group of collaborators to converge around a common tool, let alone search a particular bookmarking site and expect its most popular bookmarks to reflect the leading expertise in any field.

The other reason the large Delicious user base has been so important is because it’s encouraged the growth of a large developer community. It’s the ecosystem of developers who create Delicious plug-ins, apps and extensions that ensure there’s usually a tool — like packrati.us and tweecious — to do whatever I need to keep my Delicious collection working. How many? Well, you can get a sense by looking at any of the collections of Delicious add-ons that made my top 10 list. That large collection of developers is partly the result of a solid API, and partly the result of Delicious starting out with a very developer-friendly culture and aesthetic. But the large user base is certainly the overwhelming driver.

If it still seems like no big deal to replace Delicious with another social bookmarking tool, just imagine what would happen if Twitter or Facebook vanished. Yes, you could still find another social network that would help you keep track of your friends — but how would you know where to look? What would it be like to keep track of your high school pals on one network, your colleagues in your current field on another network, your conference collaborators on a third, and so on? The fragmentation would greatly diminish the value of that networking feature. And the fragmentation of the social bookmarking community will do just as much to diminish the value of sharing bookmarks.

Yes, it’s great news that Delicious will (hopefully) be sold rather than dismantled. But the damage has already been done. By leaving the rumor undisputed for a full day, Yahoo! has precipitated the beginning of an exodus that will see many Delicious users migrate to other sites. As they (we!) test out Pinboard, Diigo and the like — all while wondering whether Delicious is going to stick around — many Delicious users will simply drift away from the platform.

That’s not only bad news for a prospective sale — the value of Delicious is surely much lower than it was 24 hours ago — but bad news for us, the users. Our bookmarking ghetto has already started to break up, and many of our friends, colleagues and neighbors have already moved to a new world.

Originally published December 17, 2010.