Social bookmarking: the awkward genius hopes you’ll take its ideas to parties for it.

Ma.gnolia, one of the most popular second tier social bookmarking services on the web, announced today at the Gnomedex conference in Seattle that the company has thrown itself to the mercy of the development community and is going to make its code available in open source.

Ma.gnolia is tiny compared to Yahoo’s Delicious, but in every way other than network effects, it’s more interesting. Unfortunately, that’s all pretty academic. When interesting competes with the powerful network effects that come from the huge number of Delicious users – Delicious wins. Today’s announcement may help grow Ma.gnolia quickly; at the very least it’s a daring move.

Why Ma.gnolia is Cool

There aren’t a whole lot of people using Ma.gnolia, but a lot of them are people who place great emphasis on web standards, data portability and other forward looking ideas.

The coolest features of Ma.gnolia?

  • OpenID support, so much support in fact that Open ID is the only way you can get a Ma.gnolia account now.

  • Attention Data – Ma.gnolia may be the biggest service provider that gives meaningful support to the APML attention data standard, letting you port your taste data from their service over to any other service that will import it.

  • OAuth support. You can give 3rd party apps access to your Ma.gnolia data without giving them your password, because Ma.gnolia supports the open user authentication standard OAuth. That’s great, now we’ll see how many 3rd party apps care about the relatively tiny set of Magnolia user data.

  • Customer service by IM. It’s great. The company uses Twitter and Get Satisfaction but it also offers support by instant messenger! That’s really nice. Not just any IM, either, but the OpenID savvy Pibb. Pibb has RSS feeds for chats, which means you can drop a question into the help chat, subscribe to the feed, then get notification by RSS when someone replies and jump into the chat room to IM with them. It’s great.

  • Social features. Delicious is trying to be more social than it used to be, but Ma.gnolia does a much better job of it. Sharing with groups is really easy and you can “thank” anyone for bookmarking a particular URL. That’s cool.

  • It’s pretty. Ma.gnolia looks nice and is relatively accessible (maddening site architecture aside). There’s screen cap thumbnails all over the place, including in the daily auto blog posts populated by bookmarks.

Why an Open Source Federation is Cool

The value proposition is really not clear here but I think this is it. You get a local social bookmarking system with your additional features and your branding, but with the network effect of access to all other Ma.gnolia users’ bookmarks for research and sharing. If enough people go for it, it will be cool. That’s the classic problem for social media tools and it’s not going to be an easy one to over come. Open sourcing the service is a bold step that could be a big win. We do hope it will work.

A Million Ma.gnolias Will Bloom?

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.



If a federated Ma.gnolia thrives and can capture the network effects so important to social bookmarking, it will be because of the value of open technology and in spite of Ma.gnolia’s own struggles. Network effects are key to social bookmarking because a large number of users makes these services a place where you can discover cool things quickly, where popular items for a given tag have risen out of a large number of candidates and where the things you bookmark can be seen by a lot of people. If you want to do research, you want to do it at Delicious right now, not Ma.gnolia.

We hope that this strategy serves Ma.gnolia well. It does offer a business model in charging companies for custom implementation, but we’ll see how many companies go for it. Companies may be better served by a social bookmarking service aimed at enterprise use, with solid granular privacy controls, like ConnectBeam.

Will you consider implementing a local, federated version of Ma.gnolia? The code should hit the web in December, so there’s plenty of time to contact the company and make sure it gets open sourced in a way that works for developers. Let us know your thoughts in comments.