Joshua Schachter didn't plan to organize the Internet. Back in 1998, all he wanted to do was keep track of those sites on the World Wide Web—then barely a decade old—that he might want to visit again. On his blog, Memepool, he asked readers to "send your good stuff." He ended up with 20,000 Web addresses or links. Schachter, then 23, labeled every link with a one-word descriptor, or tag. Then he wrote a program that let him publish all the labeled entries. "I was saying, here's my bookmark folder," he says. "And I left that open to the world. Eventually I was getting 10,000 daily readers. And I thought, hmm, that's interesting."
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Schachter thought that other people might like to organize their bookmarks the same way. He'd studied electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and was then working as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York City, with Web programming an after-hours hobby. He rebuilt his Web site and named it "del.icio.us," a clever play on the Internet domain that ends .us. By early 2005, the site was attracting so many users that Schachter left Morgan Stanley and turned del.icio.us into a company. In December of that year, with the site attracting 300,000 individual users daily, the search giant Yahoo! bought the company for an undisclosed amount, rumored to be about $30 million. Today, Schachter works for Yahoo! but is still in charge of del.icio.us. It now has 2.5 million individual visitors a day.
Del.icio.us wasn't the first Web tool to use tags, or labels, for a particular site or entry, but it has made tagging easy and flexible. And it let users make their personal tags public. Say one person tags this magazine's site, Smithsonian.com, with "magazine." Another might say "history." A third, "Americana." A fourth, "awesome." And so on. It might seem like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, but if you combine many of the tags, you end up with a pretty good approximation of what the site is about.
That's what turned del.icio.us into a powerful tool for finding information on the Web. If you're trying to find something online, of course it's impractical to search every Web site one by one. So you can go to the del.icio.us Web site and type what you're looking for into its search box; it then kicks back all the sites that del.icio.us users have tagged with your search word—a shortcut. Or you can just look at all the tags other users have applied to something—a "tag cloud," such a list is called. "It's not just that tagging is good, but that it works better when all you want to do is recall stuff," says Schachter. "You're not cataloging, like a librarian. You just want to find it later."
The tagging approach differs from search engines that break down content into hierarchical categories, with "entertainment," say, divided into "movies," "black-and-white," "foreign," and so on. (Yahoo! started out this way.) Google, for its part, uses obscure mathematical algorithms to rank a site based on various criteria, including how many users or other sites link to it. In contrast, del.icio.us has an egalitarian spirit very much in keeping with the free-for-all with which the Internet began. Everyone pitches in, and no single authority has devised the organizing criteria. Because it's a naming scheme—a taxonomy—put together by the many, Internet theorists say it's an example of a "folksonomy."
Del.icio.us "makes the web look like a practicable, semi-organized, thoughtful, warmly cooperative civilization, rather than a boiling, semicriminal chaos of ultra-disposable pirate spamjunk," says futurist author Bruce Sterling. "That was bound to be seen as a welcome advance." For his part, Schachter says the key to del.icio.us is that people tag sites out of self-interest, so they do a good job.
Schachter, a Long Island, New York, native, now lives in Palo Alto, California, with his wife of four years, Anja, a computer scientist. Within Yahoo!'s massive organization, his role in addition to managing his four-year-old brainchild is...what? "Good question," he says. "I attend a lot of meetings. ‘Visionary,' I guess." He doesn't mean to sound egotistical—but, then, organizing the Internet is a big job.
Adam Rogers is a senior editor at Wired magazine.