From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 31, 2003*: Bye-bye Bookmarks

As of this writing my Favorites folder on my home computer holds 966 bookmarks in 131 different folders. These have accumulated over a period of at least eight years - I've saved bookmark files from all of the computers I've known since I started using a web browser. It's fair to say that for me bookmarking web pages has become, over those years a daily, perhaps almost hourly, activity. It is, perhaps, the defining activity of web use.

Bookmarking has become ubiquitous. Found a site that you don't have time for at the moment? Bookmark it, and get back to it later. Want to tell some friends about a few nice sites you've found? Bookmark them now, and send them all the URLs together at the end of the day. Received e-mail with a URL from a friend who says "you have to view this site!" but don't have time at the moment? Bookmark it. No wonder that our bookmark files balloon up out of all proportion. And yes, we're dealing with files - in the plural.

My Backflip account, which I only rarely, if ever, access today, has 1356 bookmarks. Does this may mean that I've thrown out about 300 bookmarks? Perhaps. I'm not really sure, though it's a good guess that whatever URLs aren't in my home computer's Favorites have still been saved in some only slightly misplaced folder. It probably also means that the rate at which I bookmark URLs has decreased since the time when I used to use Backflip (about two years ago), but on the whole it's simply a case of having stopped, quite a while ago, coordinating between those two files. And not only between those two files - the two work-related computers I use have a similar number of bookmarks, but although they overlap in numerous places they're far from identical. How could they be? I almost randomly bookmark a URL whenever it even slightly interests me, and by the end of the day (or night) when I might spend some time coordinating between those files I've probably forgotten what I've bookmarked. (My account on, opened perhaps half a year after my account on Backflip, doesn't give me the number of items I've saved, but it's probably a similar number to those on Backflip. This doesn't mean that I later found a vast quantity of URLs to bookmark into that tool, but instead that when I discovered this tool I simply uploaded all my bookmarks to it as well. But from that point on the two files started to diverge. I also opened an account on Blink, but they changed their business model and stopped offering online bookmarking well before I noticed that I'd more or less stopped bookmarking, and well before they stopped offering this service I'd let that account lapse.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yes, I seem to have stopped bookmarking (meaning that instead of perhaps ten new bookmarks a day I'll make only about three) but I don't yet want to examine that issue in this column. After all, shouldn't I first establish that bookmarking is a central part of the World Wide Web experience?

Or perhaps that's a given. Yes, we can surf freely to wherever we choose, and yes, sadly too many people stay close to a pre-determined MSN home page, but once someone starts branching out a bit, starts examining the territory to see what's there, he or she also starts to need to stake a claim, to mark that territory - either to say "this is mine", or to be able to find it, and explore it, again. Bookmarking is the basic tool that makes that possible.

Just what is the proper metaphor for bookmarks? They're not exactly equivalent to the books I've got on my shelves, or say, the order in which those books are arranged so that I can easily find the one I want. But they're also not the slips of paper that mark particular passages in some, though no longer very many, of those books, making those passages easier to find. Though deep linking permits me to mark a precise spot in a text, more often than not the web pages we bookmark are general sites, and today the technology doesn't really permit us to pinpoint a particular spot in an online text. No doubt about it, bookmarks are reminders, but just what sort of reminders, and just what they remind us, is unclear. At the most basic level they're markers that make it easy for us to get back to a page or a site that we want to view again. But although I often find that I want to return to a site I've previously visited, more often than not of late I haven't done this with the help of my bookmarks.

It's not that I don't have any need for the items I've already bookmarked. Every few months, for instance, I'm reminded of a site that I'd like to view again. Perhaps it's the information on that site, or perhaps some rather unclear recollection tells me that there's something there I'd like to view again. What we're really dealing with here is less a case of getting back to a particular site, and more the creation of an orange peel trail of our thinking process. In this way my bookmarked pages truly are similar to the books on my shelves which may rarely get opened, but I still need near me.

So my retreat from bookmarking doesn't stem from a loss of interest, from a lack of desire to get back to certain pages I've visited in the past. Instead it's that I no longer use my bookmarks as my main method of getting back to those pages. Searching through my almost 1000 bookmarks, even if they are in only 131 folders (which carry what are most of the time rather self-explanatory titles) has become a daunting task, and it's easier to simply run a new Google search on the particular terms that interest me. More often than not the page I'm looking for shows up in the first page of results.

So though I'm not logging on less, nor clicking over to less pages, nor searching less for various materials, nor (and here's the important point) not accessing previously viewed pages less, I am bookmarking less, and turning less to my bookmarks in order to again find those pages. To a certain extent this is a Google success story: finding the sort of thing that I'm looking for via Google has become pretty much as easy, if not in some cases easier, than finding it within my bookmark files. But of course it's more than that. I've discovered that my bookmarking is less a case of planning ahead, of making a note of something now so that I can more readily find it later, than it is a case of focusing in the here and now. I bookmark, and I'll undoubtedly continue to bookmark. But when I do so it's not really with any intent of needing, or intending to need the page I'm marking, but instead a means of arranging my desk, of adding to my clutter because that clutter helps me organize (and disorganize) my thoughts. Yes, 1000 bookmarks certainly become rather unwieldy, but that's only if we intend to actually view them. Once we realize that what's important is the activity of bookmarking rather than the bookmarks themselves, the vast amount of them that continues to accumulate ceases to overwhelm us, and we can continue to bookmark without feeling compelled to access them sometime in the future.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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