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Monday, January 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Yahoo! wants you to share, not just search, on Web

Knight Ridder Newspapers

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Professor Marc Davis has dedicated years of his life to studying how the Internet is changing people from passive Web surfers to active content creators who post their own text, video and audio online.

But like any professor, Davis longed for the ability to test his theories on a wider, real-world audience.

Now he has his chance.

Davis, a media professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been given the keys to perhaps the biggest real-world lab in the world — the vast network of Web sites at Yahoo! and the hundreds of millions of people who use them.

As head of the Yahoo! social media research lab in Berkeley, just a brisk walk from the UC Berkeley campus, Davis has been asked to help Yahoo! chart a course through the rapidly evolving world of "social media" — from blogs and social-networking services to interactive mobile devices.

"As a professor, my lab is now Yahoo.com," said Davis. "How many professors get to say that?"

The lab is the latest move by Yahoo! to try to position itself as the leader in social media. The phrase now permeates the Sunnyvale, Calif., company's culture, and it is becoming one of the cornerstones of its business model. More than its competitors — Google, Microsoft or AOL — Yahoo! is aiming to build a technological playground where individuals can create and share their own content, from audio podcasts and blogs to message groups and photo albums.

Rethinking search

The concept is reshaping its view on Internet searching. Traditionally, search companies have worked to build the biggest index holding the largest number of Web pages, the idea being that Web searchers want access to the most information possible. But Yahoo!'s focus has expanded to a "social search" concept. It allows people to search the subset of Web sites that friends and acquaintances have found interesting and annotated with their thoughts and comments.

"The opinions of my friends can be an important model for discovery," said Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo! director of technology development. "We want to create a platform so that the knowledge in people's heads flows onto the Web for the benefit of others."

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Yahoo! is moving quickly. In just a year it has assembled several pieces of a complex social media puzzle. Most prominent was its March acquisition of Flickr, a photo-sharing site started by a husband-and-wife team in Canada.

Photo-sharing Web sites are nothing new — Yahoo! has had a service called Yahoo! Photos for years.

But Flickr layered on key features that set it apart from the Ofotos and Shutterflys of the world. For starters, the assumption of the Flickr service is that you want your photos to be public. People comment on each other's photos, even those of strangers, using the digital images as a communal bond. This approach taps directly into the same cultural instinct that drives blogging — the urge to create and share content online.

"Our natural instinct was to put things online that were public," said Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake. "Eighty percent of the photos on Flickr are public. This is a big change from other photo-sharing sites."

Tagging is another important piece of the Flickr puzzle. People can add keywords that describe the photos' content, making them instantly searchable and groupable. Motorcycle enthusiasts could find 5,048 photos tagged "motorcycles" in mid-November. Butter sculpture fans? Nearly 1,400 photos were tagged "butter."

The tagging movement ushered in by Flickr and other sites has prompted new thinking about how the Web is organized. Tagging allows Internet users to cluster content into their own categories, collectively building a grass-roots index of the Web. And tags can be the glue that binds groups of people together. Flickr users, for example, will often create tags around certain events, offering a way for attendees to collectively organize photos.

The concepts that form the core of Flickr — tagging, sharing and community — are spreading through Yahoo! Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake and her husband, Stewart Butterfield, visited Yahoo! departments to understand how a Flickr approach might help their products by involving users more. It's what Yahoo! executives are now calling the "Flickrization of Yahoo!"

"We're taking a culture in a petri dish," Horowitz said of Flickr, "and dropping it into the ocean of search, taking Flickr's principles of design and tagging to the rest of the company."

Says Fake: "So much of it has to do with openness, making the media open to users and allowing people to connect with other people. If you can create a condition for that happen, there's a magic about that."

New service

Yahoo!'s attempts to "Flickr-ize" its search engine have also given birth to a service called My Web 2.0, which lets people bookmark and tag Web pages that interest them.

Although My Web 2.0 is useful as a personal stash of bookmarks, Yahoo!'s hope is that people will use it to share their online discoveries with friends, colleagues and the world. When searching for restaurants or shopping spots, friends can search each other's collected storehouses of information.

The company's embrace of social media and user-generated Web content is evident elsewhere, too. The company launched a social networking and blogging service called 360 this year. It recently acquired Upcoming.org, a Southern California Web site whose events calendar is assembled entirely by the public. It has plans to let people create and share their own audio podcasts. And it recently began including blog content in its news section, elevating grass-roots journalism and writing closer to mainstream media.

"Increasingly, you're seeing the barriers to entry, to creating content, being lowered," said Jeff Weiner, Yahoo! senior vice president of search and marketplace. "Increasingly, technologies are allowing people to create, develop, produce, market and sell content in ways heretofore unimaginable."

Universal vision

Weiner has a vision that someday nearly everyone will use the Web to share their knowledge or creative works.

"To enable people to share what's up here," he said, pointing to his head, "with those around them. ... We need to provide the technologies to let that happen."

For Davis, Yahoo!'s embrace of social media aligns nicely with his interests. He and his students have been studying how mobile devices are evolving into social media tools that allow people to share photos and post content to the Web.

Now they'll be able to observe and analyze how millions of people use Yahoo! — how they interact with each other and create content — and use that information to design new products.

"We're connected instantly to hundreds of millions of people in the world," Davis said. "It's a fertile ground to work in."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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