Jon Udell writes that with the two services, “social networking goes beyond sharing contacts and connections.”
Both Flickr and and del.icio.us address specific activities that benefit from an informal, diverse network of people. Flickr, as I would explain it to my friends and family, is a way to easily upload and share digital photos. And del.icio.us does the same thing, only for Web bookmarks.
To CTOs, though, Id say that both are collaborative systems for building a shared database of items, developing a metadata vocabulary about the items, performing metadata-driven queries, and monitoring change in areas of interest. In the case of Flickr, an item is a photo; in the case of del.icio.us, its a URL. But the same methods could apply to any of the shared digital artifacts that we create, find, and use in the course of our daily work.
Abandoning taxonomy is the first ingredient of success. These systems just use bags of keywords that draw from and extend a flat namespace. In other words, you tag an item with a list of existing and/or new keywords. Of course, that ideas been around for decades, so whats special about Flickr and del.icio.us? Sometimes a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. The degree to which these systems bind the assignment of tags to their use in a tight feedback loop is that kind of difference.
Feedback is immediate. As soon as you assign a tag to an item, you see the cluster of items carrying the same tag. If thats not what you expected, youre given incentive to change the tag or add another. If your items arent confidential and online-only access is sufficient, this can be a great way to manage personal information. But the real power emerges when you expand the scope to include all items, from all users, that match your tag. Again, that view might not be what you expected. In that case, you can adapt to the group norm, keep your tag in a bid to influence the group norm, or both.
These systems offer lots of ways to visualize and refine the tag space. Its easy to know whether a tag youve used is unique or, conversely, popular. Its easy to rename a tag across a set of items. Its easy to perform queries that combine tags. Armed with such powerful tools, people can collectively enrich shared data. But will they? The success of Flickr and del.icio.us wont necessarily translate to the intranet. You can import the global-hive mind, but you cant export the local-hive mind. That asymmetry defines the challenge we face as enterprise knowledge gardeners.