Why bookmark?

Yesterday I came across a cool little web service called Pinboard which claims to be “social bookmarking for introverts”. It’s a simple, no-frills bookmarking service that combines a very clean design with a simple bookmarklet to do a good job at helping you save and share your bookmarks (if you want to). I currently use Diigo for my bookmarks, which I moved to from Delicious about a year ago. The only reason I moved was because Diigo let me store a longer excerpt as the description. I don’t use any of the fancy highlighting or social features that it has to offer. However, as I considered trying out Pinboard I realized that I don’t really use bookmarks at all.

In the last few years tl;dr has apparently become a major problem. People supposedly don’t have the time to read long articles or posts on the Internet. Services like Read It Later and Instapaper (which I sometimes use) have evolved to offer a way to save things they find online for later reading on the variety of Internet-able devices that are now available. To some extent Pinboard and bookmarks in general address that problem as well. However, I don’t have that problem myself. Though I subscribe to a fair number of RSS feeds and keep a regular eye on Twitter, I do manage to find the time to sit and read larger posts and articles online. Generally I do this in the “down-time” between classes or when I’m working at the IT helpdesk, when I know I’ll get interrupted and so don’t want to start anything that will require concentrated attention. I signed up for Instapaper a few months ago and have the app on my iPod, but I can’t say I’m a regular user. If I find something interesting in Google Reader that I can’t read right then, I’ll star it and come back to it later in the day or the next. When I bookmark something, it’s generally so that I can find it later and even then the only time I go back to my bookmarks is to find stuff to post on a Sunday Selection (or share with someone else). Truth be told, I’ve generally considered the bookmark bar in browsers to be a waste of screen space.

All that considered, the question I have is: why bookmark? Personally, I can’t really come up with an answer. Any site that I think I would visit regularly, I grab the RSS feed and pipe it to Google Reader. I only use a handful of web-services: Gmail, Facebook and Twitter on regular basis and with autocomplete in the URL bar on Firefox and Chrome it takes me about the same time as it would for me to type it in and hit enter as it would to click on a bookmark in the bar. The only real reason I can think about is bookmarklets for services like Tumblr and Readability and even then, I generally use a browser extension for that (the Chrome extensions are often just the spruced up bookmarklets).

I guess being able to save sites and articles you like would be a good idea, in theory. But in practice I rarely go back and look at what I’ve already read. I’d be interesting in knowing how many people who use bookmarks regularly actually go back to them. Back in the day, before I had 24/7 broadband I used bookmarks as a sort of long-time cache: instead of saving pages, I’d bookmark them in Internet Explorer with “read offline” (or whatever it was called) enabled. But since I have a rather more dependable Internet connection nowadays, that’s no longer a real use case. In the same way that I don’t really care about saving my Twitter feed, I don’t really care about saving bookmarks anymore — they’re both meant to be ephemeral and impermanent and I’m fine with that. Whenever I do need to recall something a combination of Google or Google Reader is generally enough to find what I want.

At this point, I’m really interested in knowing why other people use bookmarks. Do people really go back and check things they read before? Is it mostly just a “read later” buffer? Are journalists (bloggers included) the only people who really use bookmarks anymore (so that they can refer back to their sources)? Or is it just some form of social inertia from when there wasn’t RSS or Twitter and so having a fixed link to a website you visited often was a good idea? There must be some reason why sites like Delicious and Diigo are going strong and newcomers like Pinboard can actually charge users a signup fee for their service. If anyone has ideas, evidence or even just theories explaining any of this, do let me know.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

3 thoughts on “Why bookmark?”

  1. I have used delicious since the very early days, and now have about 5000 bookmarks there.

    I use delicious for three reasons:

    1) Bookmarking an item seems to be a very good way to remember stuff, even if you’re never going to look at the bookmark again. Just categorizing a bookmarking with tags, and thinking shortly about it, lets me remember most of the stuff I put in there.

    2) I use a special tag “later” for stuff I want to followup to later. When I have a lot of time, I browse through the bookmarks tagged “later”, look at some of them, and remove the “later” tag. I do this a couple of times each year.

    3) Sharing. Bookmarking an item lets me share it with a lot of people, some of whom are friends, some I know from the web, and some I know not all. I’ve made handful of acquaintances with people with very much the same interests as me via delicious.

    All in all, I find social bookmarking indispensable.

  2. I use bookmarks for saving links to reference articles. Of course, with Google it would only take a few minutes for me to find them again if I didn’t. Also, some links to websites which don’t have a RSS feed, or which I check very infrequently.

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