Friday, August 24, 2007

What happened to my bookmarks?

[If you came here trying to recover lost bookmarks for Firefox, has a knowledge base article on the topic. For Chrome, try this Google search. For IE, try this Google search. For Safari, try this one. For Opera, try this one. The Opera search also turned up this PC Today article for Firefox, IE and Opera. For Ma.gnolia (FaceBook and maybe others?), try this. In any case, please feel free to have a look around since you're here.]

Oh they're still there, but the thing is I care less and less. Just how did that happen?

Back when Firefox was Netscape, I spent a fair bit of time grooming my bookmarks list -- checking for broken links, sorting them, organizing them into folders, making sure they followed me from machine to machine. Now not so much. I'm only starting to use, so I'll have to report later on what effect that might have, but it seems more slanted towards finding cool new things as opposed to old lost things.

What changed? A couple of things.

First, browsers got smarter. Firefox (and others) will remember where you've been recently. To get to my banking site, I have to type "b-a-" into the bar at the top and then hit down arrow a couple of times. This is at least as easy as browsing through my bookmarks, even if I put my banking site at the top (at the expense of whatever else), probably because it works regardless of whether I made a particular effort to remember the site or not.

For news sources, I have RSS/Atom/whatever it is these days. Other interesting sites install themselves in the tool bar and look more like applications than web sites.

That pretty much takes care of the "remember frequently-visited sites" function. If it's frequently-visited, it's in the browser's memory pretty much by definition. If it's particularly well-used, it's probably hooked into the browser one way or the other.

Which leads me to the other bookmark-killer: Google. Early on, I sort of remember thinking that the useful web was mainly a smallish set of known sites and it was up to me to remember what to find where. In such a world it makes sense to use the otherwise memory-impaired early browser's bookmark feature to collect the main portals to the known world. Early search engines also had a higher chaff/wheat ratio than modern ones, discouraging their use somewhat.

These days I accept that I have only a dim idea of what's out there. If I want to find out about something I do what everyone does: put together a couple of search terms likely to nail it down and set Google at it (or Wikipedia, depending).

Google was probably what finally really convinced me that "dumb is smarter" could work in a big way. There's still value in hand-selected indexes and summaries, which is really what a bookmark list is, and the whole Web 2.0-style collaborative tagging thing definitely has value, but a comprehensive, frequently updated search engine will win on coverage and agility every time. That sets a reasonably high bar for anything else.

Like browser history, searching works without any explicit help. I could try to remember whether the Murky News is (nope) or (the actual domain) or (redirects). I could bookmark it and find the bookmark. Or I could just Google "san jose mercury" and get it.

Searches also don't go stale. Bookmarks tend to rot over time as things get reshuffled and relocated, even though the document itself is still out there somewhere. I'm not yet sure how adaptive tags can be. Having one's site prominently tagged will tend to discourage one from moving it.

If bookmarks are not that useful in remembering frequently-visited sites or as a starting point for research, what are they good for? For my money there is one core function they still perform well, namely remembering particularly memorable pages, things you're glad you found but probably won't be revisiting on a daily basis.

I do use bookmarks (and now for that, though I don't find myself referring to them much. That's probably because I just don't find myself wanting to replay the greatest hits very much. There's too much interesting new stuff on the web. Old bookmarks are more for rainy days, and it hasn't been raining much lately.

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