Those who went before us: Web 1.0 bookmarking sites

Since Pinboard bought Delicious and already has its own blog, I’m a former Delicious community manager back here on my old blog, commandeering it just for fun.

After Delicious and most of its clones fell apart, I got into researching its forgotten Web 1.0 predecessors: who were the people who tried to build bookmarking sites before we did? What happened to them? I put my research into Wikipedia’s article about social bookmarking. Here are some screenshots and weird quotes in case you’re ready for some very bright color schemes and the burst dreams of 1999.

itList launched in April 1996. Here it was in 1998, with a nice image map:

itlist

According to the Washington Post in 1997, it had “the ‘itList Puppy Dog,’ a small window, floating over your main browser window, into which you paste a Web address and click the ‘Submit your URL’ button to bookmark it.” Puppy dog! This review from 2000 details itList’s features, including: “You can make comments about any URL you save; you can give it a ‘Cool’ rating and also a ‘Useful’ rating.” I wish I could find that old tiny sunglasses icon that indicated a cool site. I hope this site had one. Looking around the Internet Archive snapshots, it looks like the site fell apart into parked-domain spam by 2001.

Around 1999, it was time for the dot-com bubble, and people got tens of millions of dollars in venture capital for this kind of site: Backflip, Blink, Clip2, ClickMarks, HotLinks, others.

Backflip had some purple-and-orange style. I like this snapshot from 2005 since it has a nice “win a pink Razr” ad gif:

backflip

The 2001 about page talked about their fancy investors and board, which included Ron Conway: “Backflip was founded by Tim Hickman and Chris Misner, who left Netscape to create a company that would solve a real problem and dramatically improve people’s everyday Web experiences. Backflip is a privately held company backed by some of the most successful new economy venture investors. Our Board of Directors includes 21st Century Venture Partners, Angel Investors LP and Rosewood Venture Group, who are responsible for early investments in name-brand start-ups like AskJeeves, AdForce, Avantgo and PeoplePC.”

A weird article from 1999 (not actually 2002 as dated there) mysteriously includes: “The technology is the product of 15 years of research performed at Stanford University at the behest of the CIA, Misner said. The service provides users with a list of the top 10 pages they visit and lets them upload bookmarks into their categories.”

A rather optimistic article from 2000 said “Backflip insists it isn’t a search engine. Maybe so, but it may well turn out that Backflip will be the web navigation story of 2000, just as Google blew us all away in 1999. Or, if they have their way, it will be the next big story of community – perhaps as interesting as About.com.“

This 2000 article about Backflip says: “I would chalk up the relatively low rankings for Yahoo! in many categories to the fact that most people don’t need a bookmark to remember Yahoo!!”

In 2001, “Backflip’s parent company realigned its business objectives” and sold it to “a small team of ex-Backflip employees, who, even though we no longer work there, still love the Backflip service and would like to see it survive (and thrive!)”. The status page from 2001 (at the bottom) to 2010 tells an increasingly sad story of outages, data loss, and eventual shutdown.

Blink, “The web’s favorite bookmarking community” (“We think of ourselves as Hotmail for bookmarks”) started in 1999. Here it was in 2000:

blink

In 2005, when del.icio.us got acquired, the founder of Blink wrote about why he thought Blink failed, despite $13 million in investment and 1.5 million users. He wrote about product decisions that made the site less useful than del.icio.us, but his post doesn’t say anything about money or business model.

Hotlinks was another site in this generation, started in 1999. “Where to find and keep what’s cool on the web”. Snapshot from 2000:

hotlinks

According to this 2000 article, the idea with HotLinks was to build a Yahoo-style-but-better internet directory out of people’s bookmarks, but since that wasn’t working out: “Currently, Chairman and CTO Jonathan Abrams is seeking partners and investors to help HotLinks port its functionality into the enterprise space.” (Edit: as noted by Andy Baio, Jonathan Abrams went on to start Friendster, and now Nuzzel.)

And now the shocking conclusion to what happened to all of them: lack of viable business models. Oh well.

(Edit: The HotLinks founder says “ultimately I don’t think the issue was business model, it was product market fit.” Noting that here for completeness!)