The Internet makes a great library but a lousy school.

Why Social Bookmarking Will Always Suck

Date/Time Permalink: 08/16/08 01:37:10 pm
Category: Prophecies

You see it over and over again. You find out about this new social site that's just starting up. You join it. And it's so unbelievably cool! It's down-home and quirky and attracts that great eclectic mix of oddballs just like you, and you all chat it up and love it. Then time passes.

And what always happens? It gets more popular, more people join. And then, as if it were manifest destiny, the social network goes to hell. One day you look up - who are all these people? When did your progressive hipster site suddenly become the domain of asstroturfers? What happened to moderation? Why is college_horny_18 and casino_pokerroom_2384 spamming you and why doesn't anybody care? When did the front page become a mirror copy of the exact same stories on every other social bookmark site's front page?

You're saying to yourself right now, "Hey, I thought I was the only one who saw that!" I used to think that, too. But recently I've been hearing it from all around me as well. Which is my cue to announce that I've found a new law of the Internet: Social bookmarking sites will always deteriorate into slums.

It's time we applied some social studies to social bookmarking. You can see a lot of things that virtual neighborhoods have in common with physical real estate developments, and some things that are treated differently, but shouldn't be. Such as...

Small neighborhoods are better than big neighborhoods.

After all, isn't life nicer in the suburbs than it is in the big city? When a social bookmarking site gets too big, it degenerates into the same kind of social problem that a big city has: too many strangers and too much activity. Which will never be fixed because...

Social bookmarking sites only brag about big numbers.

They never brag about how well-behaved their members are or how high-quality their bookmarked links are. It's all about how many users you have, and therefore how many impressions your ads make per hour. And then when conditions become too crowded...

Bad neighbors drive away good neighbors.

If only it could be the other way around! But you see this both in the physical world and the virtual worlds online. Bad neighbors move in, good neighbors get fed up and leave, more bad neighbors tend to move in after that because they're the only ones who can stand it. The 'broken window theory', applied to social networks. And the converse of that is...

New members behave better than old members.

This is because old members have had time to test the limits and find out exactly where the boundaries lie. They're less shy about telling somebody else off. New members learn all of the bad examples and none of the good. And while this is going on...

Spammers and asstroturfers drive away good citizens.

This is just like how you want to move out of a city when the crime gets too bad. When a social network gets so saturated with spam that you can hardly find a real, live person any more, you want to move on. And if there's one thing we've learned from the Internet by now, it's that...

We will always have spam and asstroturf.

We've all racked our brains and tried to solve spam, and the spam has kept coming for 20 years now. In the case of a social bookmark site, nobody does anything about it, because...

Social bookmark sites are slumlords.

When you have a problem and wonder why somebody up there doesn't solve it, ask yourself this: Does the problem cost the webmaster money? If not, you have a better chance of spinning a coccoon and turning into a butterfly than to get this problem solved. I've never seen something so unresponsive as the administration of a social website. Besides, after a certain point it can be argued that the site administrators couldn't fix it anyway, since...

Social bookmarking doesn't scale.

Because people who start social bookmarking sites go into it thinking that it's just like running any other site. When the membership gets into the seven-figure numbers, the staff of the site will still be poking along with the same six guys they started with in their garage. They'll scale up the server farm, sure. They'll hire more people for that. But policing the membership? Hell no. There just isn't enough money in it to make a difference to them. And we can't fix the problems of spamming and asstroturfing by voting it down, because...

Voting is an economy, and it's affected by inflation.

On a small site, your individual vote counts for more. You're in a substantially greater bargaining position when your vote is 1/300th of the site's clout, than you are when your vote is 1/300,000th. But when a site gets so huge that a story can get thousands of votes within one hour of being posted, it's out of most people's hands. Big blocks of user nicks are bought and sold on the social bookmarking black market for pennies apiece. Huge private interests get their pet story voted to the top. Spammers can run amok.

And the final nail in the coffin:

There will never be enough perceived value in social bookmarking to fix it.

Who would pay for it? Even if the fee were a dollar for joining, that's still more expensive than the sites that let you join for free. Social bookmarking already requires a serious investment of time. You gain some sort of intangible brownie points, usually "karma" or another numerical score, for submitting the best stories or making the best comments. But that makes a difference to about 20 people at the top of the list, who have to work 12-hour days just to get that score and stay ahead of the pack.

And there goes another great idea of the semantic web, ruined by the worms.

it's the Cube!

Update: 9/22/08 To put a finer point on the lousy resource situation: today there's a Reddit posting for a job opening, in which it is revealed that Reddit is just FIVE people. Second biggest SB+forum site on the web. Five people. A fast food restaurant staffs better than that. So now you know why reported problems get ignored.

Update 2/16/10 A year and a half later, Wired wakes up to something close to what I'm saying here. Stay in the back of the class, Wired!

Update 12/28/12 Now that I have a prophecies category, I've realized this post belongs there. So I switched it to the new category.

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