Since the Web first came online in 1991, it has grown and improved beyond anyone's predictions. Unlike the gray background, mono-spaced text and ugly graphics on the Web in those early years, today's Web is rich with video, interactive applications and other useful and distracting goodies.
But even after all these years, the way we find, navigate and save content on the Web works pretty much like it always did. Here's a page with text. Some of the words are hyperlinked, so when you click on them, you open another page. If you want to save something, there's a wide variety of tools that help you do so, but most people use the bookmarking feature built into their browsers, or social bookmarking sites.
But now there's a conspicuously innovative new option. A service called Pearltrees from a small company in Paris gives you a new way to organize your stuff online. Instead of bookmarks organized with long lists, Pearltrees puts your links into a dynamic, sharable web of connections.
The service is functionally similar in some ways to social bookmarking sites, but its core function is "curation," which Wikipedia defines as the "selection, preservation, maintenance, and collection and archiving of digital assets."
Described by one blogger as a social bookmarking tool based on "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," Pearltrees looks a bit like Google's "Wonder Wheel," but it isn't used the same way.
The Pearltrees interface is appealing and intuitive to use. Round objects called "Pearls" form the basic unit of content.
Let's say you're following the World Cup soccer tournament. When you find World Cup-related articles you like, Web sites you enjoy, Twitter feeds from fans attending the event or Wikipedia pages of your favorite players, you can save these links in Pearltrees. Each link is represented as a "Pearl." Put related Pearls together and you might create a container circle, called a "Pearltree," and name it "World Cup." When you click on it, you see your collected Pearls, which fly out and organize themselves into a halo of content around the organizing Pearltree.
Maybe you follow several sports. In that case, you might create a Pearltree called "Sports," then inside that Pearltrees called "Soccer," "Basketball," "Bowling" and so on. You could then go ahead and drop your "World Cup" Pearltree into the "Soccer" Pearltree.
Sports could be just one of your many interests. You might also have Pearltrees for "Politics," "Work" and "Music" -- whatever your interests are.
This structure is a lot like nested folders -- the kind you might have on your PC. It can be as complex and deep or as simple and shallow as you like. It's up to you.
Once you've got this going, you can simply drag any Pearl and drop it on any Pearltree. You can move things around however you like. New connections are formed automatically and instantly. You can get rid of Pearls by dropping them into the trash can.
As you collect hundreds or thousands of Pearls, you begin to see the value of Pearltrees' navigation. You can navigate through all of those pieces of content through a set of connections you created yourself. Drill down, or expand out with intuitive ease.
Collecting and organizing links is the basic functionality. But Pearltrees does a lot more.
For example, you can go Pearl-diving to find other people's Pearls through searches. When you do that, your search results appear in the form of other people's content Pearltrees, which come flying in from all sides of the screen. The hits aren't chosen at random. It's a popularity contest. The "most connected" Pearls are most likely to be offered up.
It's easy to find people who are doing an amazing job of curating the kind of content you're searching for. By dragging and dropping whichever Pearls you like into a "Dropzone" (which is a tray to hold Pearls so you can drag them later into your own Pearltrees) you can collect experts or superfans or enthusiasts who share your interests -- along with the great content they've collected. Later, when they update their Pearltrees, yours will be updated as well.
In essence, Pearltrees turns you into a "meta-curator" -- a curator of curators, along with their curated content.
Pearltrees doesn't have Facebook-like "friending" or Twitter-like "following" features. But you can, if you like, create one or more "people" Pearltrees, and drop interesting people or people you know into it.
Pearltrees also has a "Twitter Sync" function, which creates a Pearltree surrounded by Pearls representing Web pages or online content you've tweeted.
Embedding Pearltrees is super easy. Note that you don't have to embed the whole thing -- you can choose any branch, and that will be represented as a stand-alone Pearltree wherever you embed it. Just right-click on the Pearltree of your choice, and choose "embed this Pearltree." You can pick the size of the container box your Pearltree will live in, or you can customize the size. Then you just copy the code and drop it into the blog post, Web page or wherever you're embedding it. That Pearltree will function just as a Pearltree does on the main site, but it will work directly in the page you put it in. Here's an example on the Huffington Post site.
Although the Pearltrees user interface feels like the future, the service stands firmly in the Web 2.0 world. The value of the site is ultimately derived from the actions of users.
If you're a casual Web surfer looking for general content, Google, Bing, Yahoo or Wikipedia are probably your best options for finding content. If you care mostly about what your friends think, then Facebook or Twitter or any number of the new social content-sharing tools might satisfy you. But for deep, savvy content, Pearltrees might be the best resource out there. It offers an easy way to find a large number of people who are very passionate about a variety of subjects and who have collected the kind of online content that true aficionados are seeking.
Pearltrees is currently in beta and is scheduled to "ship" later this year.
The company has a whole lot planned for both before and after the launch. In the meantime, the service is open to the public and free of charge.
A new "prefetch" feature is expected to roll out next month. This will invisibly load content on peripheral Pearls so that when you click on one, the content will appear instantly.
The current version is written in Flash, so you can't use it on an iPad. However, an HTML5 version is planned for sometime in the near future. A Facebook app should be available in a few months.
Pearltrees is planning some new features that make a lot of sense. For example, you'll soon be able to add simple text messages and protect Pearls with a "private zone" tool. These features will enable you to use Pearltrees for mind-mapping, note-taking or creating decision trees.
After the first version exits the beta cycle, Pearltrees plans to start working on an open API, which potentially means integration with just about everything, including RSS readers, Evernote -- you name it.
Will Pearltrees become a popular new way to discover, organize and share content? Who knows? But even in beta, it's already a powerful resource that also happens to be really fun to use.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter, or read his blog, The Raw Feed.
This story, "Why Bookmarking Is Obsolete" was originally published by Computerworld.