Friday, August 22, 2008

Magnolia goes open source? That’s great, I guess.

image Magnolia is going open source, and will allow any site publisher to use their platform in building their own personalized version of the feature-rich social bookmarking engine. Every story I’ve read suggests the company wants to become the Wordpress.org for the social bookmarking set.

My take: I think it’s kind of neat. I especially like the fact that bookmarks saved to user-hosted satellite installations can also be sent back to the Ma.gnolia mothership. It offers niche publishers and groups a more personalized social bookmarking option with enhanced control over their data. And, if it takes off, it could allow the company to gain market share in a field that’s dominated by Delicious and otherwise crowded with a lot of pretenders.
Nevertheless, I’m skeptical about the proposition’s overall value for two reasons.

Solving a problem that may not exist

First, is there a need for this sort of thing? Yes… and no.

Yes, I do think collaborative bookmarking for groups is a nut that needs to be cracked. Employers and other groups who share similar interests could certainly use a more focused and flexible social bookmarking environment. Delicious doesn’t offer a feature for groups, and this opening has encouraged companies like Social|Median, Twine, Reddit, and Mixx to approach the problem from different angles. The efforts in the space are at such an early stage, it seems the perfect time for Ma.gnolia to offer itself as a kind of white-label alternative to Delicious.

On the other hand, the analogy to Wordpress raises some red flags. Wordpress offered publishers and companies something that was already in the Web’s DNA: Blogging. Content management. An all-in-one Web site. But the idea of a self-hosted, user maintained bookmarking service doesn’t seem to meet the same unmet need. Why would I say that? For the same reason there aren’t a ton of group blogs out there.

Lots of people will build and host a blog for themselves or their small business. Significantly fewer people will create a blog that has multiple users. It happens, but I will unscientifically suggest that group blogs hosted on Wordpress or Moveable Type are more rare than single-author blogs. Rarer still are the individuals who host their own wikis or social networks, especially with hosted solutions like PBWiki and Ning available. Finally, Ma.gnolia and Reddit offer users a self-hosted bookmarking option? “This will be great for my friends / coworkers,” says E. Adopter! “They will love it!”

As soon as you explain it to them.

And that’s the sad truth. I have 254 friends on Facebook. I follow 90 on Twitter (with 144 followers). I’ve got 24 people in my Delicious network. Mileage may vary, as they say, but what is your gut telling you? Not a lot of people need this.

Ma.gnolia isn’t all that exciting

Second, is Ma.gnolia your first choice for an open source bookmarking service? Read Write Web’s coverage of Magnolia’s open source announcement was very positive, but it ended on a sour note:
Will communities all over the web download, customize and participate in a federated Ma.gnolia? Maybe. It's hard to know. Unfortunately, Ma.gnolia founder Larry Halff's presentation announcing the open sourcing of Ma.gnolia here at Gnomedex illustrates the problems the company will continue to face. Just like the service Halff created, the man himself seems like a brilliant guy who you know has great ideas but communicates them poorly enough that it frustrates people pretty quickly. The value proposition is unclear, the site architecture is frustrating - right now it's a service for standards true believers. This author uses it personally, though almost every time I do I grumble and ask whether I should go back to using Delicious.That’s been my experience with Ma.gnolia, too. It looks great on paper. It’s got tons of features. It’s a model for all sites that want to embrace open standards. It’s…still not a viable alternative to Delicious.
I touched on Delicious.com’s dominance in earlier post, but it’s worth repeating. The Delicious API makes it super easy to take your bookmarks to another service that has more features (e.g., Diigo and Ma.gnolia). Indeed, both those services allow you to seamlessly populate their service with your Delicious bookmarks using just a few clicks. And still, despite lagging in social-ness and open-ness, Delicious continues to dominate. Why? Because Delicious is better. Users can easily try out alternatives, but they keep coming back.

Ma.gnolia going open-source means you can start your own inferior bookmarking service. For people who’ve been wanting to build and maintain their own social bookmarking site, I guess that’s all they’ve got. But I can’t help thinking they’d rather be running Delicious on their servers.

Conclusion

Despite my skepticism, I do think an open source Ma.gnolia will be a great option for companies, groups, and classrooms that want their own little slice of social bookmarking. An open source Ma.gnolia will be especially compelling if it works on corporate and university intranets. It will also be interesting to see if the Ma.gnolia architecture will be extensible and themeable the way Wordpress is. That would be unequivocally cool.

Nevertheless, I believe that individuals who want to share bookmarks with like-minded people are better served using an existing social bookmarking hub that supports groups, which I think is just about every other bookmarking site but Delicious. The network effects, such as they are, will be more powerful than on a self-hosted site.

The fact that Delicious remains the most popular bookmarking service, even without a group feature, should tell you one of two things:
  1. No one has done groups in the right way yet. The service that perfects group bookmarking will fill a much-needed niche.
  2. Hardly anyone cares about group bookmarking.
I really hope it isn’t number two.

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