Everybody processes a ton of email. And nowadays, some of us also process a ton of RSS feeds. In both cases, inbound items fall into three categories:
Must be acted on immediately.
Can be discarded.
May be of future interest to ourselves, our colleagues, or others.
Option two: tell someone else about it. Various motivations govern the impulse to send an FYI (for your interest) email to a group. Maybe you'll simply inform the group; maybe the group will act on something you can't; maybe the group will respond with information that's new and valuable to you. But the FYI email is a blunt instrument at best. It requires the sender to know, a priori, something that is unknowable -- namely, who should receive the alert.
Option three: tell your subscribers about it. In other words, blog it. That way, the self-selected group of people who subscribe to you will be alerted. And the search engines will ensure that everyone can find the item later. The problem here is that the item is not categorized unless...
Option four: blog it to a topic. Now people can subscribe to that specific category or topic. The problem here is that when you subdivide an individual blogger's output into topics, the flow for any specific topic will be thin.
Option five: blog it to a shared topic. This is what del.icio.us enables. It supports the operation "route item to topic," which is distinct from "send item to individual or group" or "post item to blog" or even "post item to blog topic."
It's hard to know how this notion of routing items to topics will evolve, but it feels interesting and useful. Suppose you are researching some topic, let's say Unicode. Today you're likely to start with a Google search, which will turn up some good resources. Where do you go from there? A likely next step is to identify bloggers who speak authoritatively about Unicode. But how do you construct a view of what those Unicode-savvy bloggers have said about Unicode, over time? And how do you subscribe to what they will say about Unicode? It's not easy to federate a group of sources with respect to a topic.
We can see the beginnings of a solution in del.icio.us. Here are all the items tagged 'unicode'. As I mentioned the other day, that flow can easily become chaotic. But if you inspect a topic, you'll find that there's a kind of power law in effect: a few individuals will likely stand out as the most reliable contributors of valuable links. In the case of http://del.icio.us/tag/unicode, Patrick Hall (http://del.icio.us/patfm/unicode) seems to be one such person. Others will emerge.
The del.icio.us system doesn't yet explicitly support the union and intersection of sets of items routed to topics by authoritative sources, but it's pretty easy to do. (Hint: here is Patrick Hall's RSS feed for the Unicode topic.)
I've got a hunch some really interesting things are ready to happen in this space.
It helps enormously that purely selfish interest is a sufficient reason use del.icio.us. This sets up the virtuous cycle that Dan Bricklin has called "the cornucopia of the commons":
We've heard plenty about the tragedy of the commons --in fact, it pops up in several other chapters of this book. In the 1968 essay that popularized the concept, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin wrote:Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.In the case of certain ingeniously planned services, we find a contrasting cornucopia of the commons: use brings overflowing abundance. Peer-to-peer architectures and technologies may have their benefits, but I think the historical lesson is clear: concentrate on what you can get from users, and use whatever protocol can maximize their voluntary contributions. That seems to be where the greatest promise lies for the new kinds of collaborative environments. [Dan Bricklin: Cornucopia of the Commons, Peer-to-Peer, Chapter 4]
So for example, as I process my daily RSS inflow in Bloglines, it's very much in my own interest to put the few items of most value in a place where I can find them later. That I'm also putting them someplace where you can find them, that you may be doing the same thing for me, that we may collectively move toward standardized use of shared topics as we iterate this process, that reputation-based filtering may then begin to operate on the emergent set of topics -- all this is goodness, and may ultimately matter, but my participation (and yours) does not depend on these outcomes. Pure self-interest is a sufficient driver.
To further my own self-interest in keeping track of things, I've made a minor extension1 to the del.icio.us bookmarklet, so that selected text on the target page is used for the (optional) extended description of the routed item. This makes the items I route easier for me to scan. And for you too. Of course if you did the same, the items you route would be easier for you to scan. And for me too.
1 Standard version:
To install the modified version, drag this link -- del.icio.us post -- to your toolbar. Then edit the properties of the bookmarklet, using whatever method your browser requires, and change YOURNAME to your del.icio.us username.
Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/08/16.html#a1060