Matt McAlister brings up the problems of being popular. This is a subject I have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about the past few months. Matt has a statement that is at the core of my focus, "Popularity-driven models water down the value in those hard-to-find nuggets." I spend a lot of time with regular people talking to them about tagging and many of the newer web tools that are popular with the forward thinking web geek crowd. One of the biggest problems stated are around the popularity tools, like tag clouds and collective voting on news (e.g. digg, etc.).
The problems are related to popularity getting in the way of what they are seeking. The tag cloud is what gets noticed on pages, but most people think del.icio.us (or any other tool or service that uses tag clouds) is fully represented by the tag cloud. That is a huge problem as del.icio.us is a very broad tool, but a quick look at what is in a tag cloud or the new items on the front page has users thinking it is a very narrowly focussed social bookmarking tool that mostly attracts people with technical and web interests. This completely misses the communities that sit under that tag cloud. In popular tools most of the content and communities of interest are sitting below the tag cloud and are not represeted at all by the tag cloud.
Much of the value of human filtering, which is the capability of a social bookmarking tools (like del.icio.us, RawSugar, Shadows, and Yahoo's MyWeb 2) is in finding the those quot;hard-to-find nuggets" (as Matt states). The value in these tools is being able to follow certain people on specific subjects, which they bookmark and tag. Many of these tools are fairly good at this, but they must focus on the specific interests not just the person in that service. As the tools grow with more people using them the tools must scale to allow us to filter out the noise.
Popularity does not help filter, but it takes the fire hose of information and just focusses it. What we find with the popularity tools it that much of this information can be found elsewhere. Remember high school? Do the popular 10% represent the interests of the remaining 90%? Didn't think so. Now look at the popularity tools and interfaces and you begin to see the problems that the 95% of the web users have with these tools. They don't scale, they are tied to their interests that they celebrate as being popular. How do regular people fly below the tag cloud? How do regular people use a Digg or a memeorandum to find their interests (if these sites were that broad)? How do we (as web developers and designers) build for breadth and depths to surface that, which is lost in the regular web search engines?
Seeing how Yahoo's MyWeb 2 surfaces content that people in one's own community have found and bookmarked, it could be that tagging is one of the methods (MyWeb 2 is hands-down my favorite social bookmarking tool as it makes Yahoo Search the best search engine for me by a long shot because it focusses on my vocabulary and interests. Were my interests focussed on model railroading or knitting a tool along these lines would be far more valuble than any other tool. Finding new items, as well as the gems that are hidden, is quite tough on the web today and I don't see the popularity tools doing anything to fix this.
Does this mean that the popularity tools do not work? No, but their usage is limited.