Happy birthday, Delicious: the pioneer of tags turns ten

Ten years ago, Joshua Schachter was looking for a better way to organize his bookmarks. Schachter had stored thousands of links in a text file, complete with keywords to simplify search. But the file got too unwieldy, so Schachter converted it into a simple online database and turned those keywords into tags.

Schachter dubbed his site Del.icio.us, and launched it on September 13, 2003. Despite the less-than-memorable URL — and a complete disregard for any kind of design aesthetic — Delicious quickly started to attract a geek following as the go-to social bookmarking service for tech and internet culture topics.

But Delicious was more than just another link directory. The site became a blueprint for the future of the web, redefining how we think about categorizing information, and laying the groundwork for services like Flickr and Twitter.

Building alternative organization systems

Schachter was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley when he started to work on Delicious in his spare time. But even though the product was little more than a hobby, Delicious quickly gained enormous influence. Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield told me in 2005 that Schachter’s Delicious was what prompted his team to add tagging to the photo site, and thousands of blogs as well as services like Last.fm and Technorati started to add tags as well.


But tagging wasn’t just another feature. It represented a new way of organizing information on the web, as Clay Shirky pointed out in a 2005 talk titled Ontology Is Overrated. In an edited version of the talk, Shirky later wrote:

“It’s all dependent on human context. This is what we’re starting to see with del.icio.us, with Flickr, with systems that are allowing for and aggregating tags. The signal benefit of these systems is that they don’t recreate the structured, hierarchical categorization so often forced onto us by our physical systems. Instead, we’re dealing with a significant break — by letting users tag URLs and then aggregating those tags, we’re going to be able to build alternate organizational systems, systems that, like the Web itself, do a better job of letting individuals create value for one another, often without realizing it.”

Shirky held his talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference in March 2005, where Schachter made the announcement that he had quit his job to focus full time on Delicious. It was also the conference where rumors about Yahoo (s YHOO) buying Flickr first surfaced (the deal was eventually announced a week later). Soon after, Delicious secured $2 million in funding, and late that year, it got snapped up by Yahoo. It seemed like a perfect storm for tags.

At Yahoo, big plans and little focus

Yahoo indeed had big plans for Delicious, and was thinking about ways to use the human categorization schemes of the site for Yahoo Search. But grand ambitions collided with a corporate culture unable to fully embrace change and an often mind-blowing lack of focus.


Yahoo spent lots of energy on migrating Delicious onto its own prefered architecture, but then shied away from turning it into a mass consumer product, instead largely neglecting it for years. Schachter left Yahoo in 2008, and in 2010, rumors surfaced that Yahoo was getting ready to shut down the site.

For the tenth birthday, a relaunch

Instead, it was snapped up by AVOS Systems, the product incubator co-founded by YouTube (S GOOG) co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley. The company experimented with a number of new design ideas around Delicious, some of which backfired, and Delicious continued to lose relevance as users migrated to other platforms. But for its tenth birthday, AVOS unveiled a new look for the site. From the Delicious blog:

“With ten years of bookmarking comes ten years of community-curated links, tags, comments, and bundles — an extremely powerful resource that gets more valuable with every single save. We’re harnessing the nearly one billion links on Delicious into an unparalleled tool for search and discovery.”

Real-time conversation replaced pure aggregation

Even with a new look, it’s doubtful that Delicious will ever regain the same significance and user base it had six or seven years ago. Too many users have moved on to other platforms, and communications patterns in general have changed. Instead of collectively aggregating links, we are now talking about them on Twitter.

Conversations have replaced collections — but one thing has remained the same: tags are front and center. Twitter stumbled across hashtags by accident, with users embracing them before the company had officially added any support. Since then, hashtags have become instant memes, real-time citizen-reporting tools, sparks that started protest movements and revolutions, and of course a key part of Twitter’s business as the company is getting ready to go public.

Delicious laid the seed for this development, and in turn made the web a better place.

Delicious birthday cake image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user Nick Nguyen.  Tag cloud screenshot courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user  Wesley Fryer. Joshua Schachter image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user Peter Merholz.