Bookmarks versus Favorites

Posted June 25, 2010 in software, web  |  No Comments so far

Back when Microsoft was winning the browser wars and all but a committed few were using Internet Explorer, the word “Bookmarks” was at risk of becoming a forgotten Netscape-ism. IE’s equivalent, “Favorites”, seemed set to become the generic label for saved URLs.

Netscape and IE

IE versus Netscape

Today, Microsoft is losing the browser wars again with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera eroding its market share. And interestingly enough, they all use “bookmarks” rather than “favorites”. Why is that?

On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with “favorites”. Of course, it was slightly annoying that Microsoft didn’t use the then current “bookmark” convention, possibly in the interests of creating a proprietary user experience. But so what? “Favorites” did the job.

Internet Explorer eventually annihilated Netscape, picking up over 90% of the browser market. With that level of penetration it’s surprising that “favorites” didn’t become the generic term for stored links.

It’s not because Microsoft claimed legal ownership of the word. And it’s not because people find it confusing either. Maybe the revival of “bookmark” is actually more to do with linguistics.

Languages allow us to assign different states to objects as our relationships with them change. And in real life, objects change state all the time. A person becomes your friend, or a piece of music becomes one of your favourites. Usually these states are reached gradually: you do nothing specific to the person or the music, your affection just grows over time.

But when these states are replicated in computer systems, that gradation is no longer possible. Changes in state must be made by single, deliberate actions on the part of the user. This means that the changes in state become binary – and language has to accommodate this.

These binary state changes introduce a particular challenge for the language used in computer interfaces. In real life you might stop liking a piece of music, but you wouldn’t have to do anything about it. But in a system where you had “liked” that music by clicking a button, another button is needed for you to reverse that action, and that button needs a meaningful label. This is why we end up with words like “unlike” or the OUP’s word of the year for 2009, “unfriend”.

So for “favorite” to have supplanted “bookmark” as a genericism, it would have had to go through this process, becoming not only a noun but a verb for a binary change in state. We should have felt as comfortable saying “favorite my site” as “here are my favorites”. And in fact this doesn’t work too badly:

Bookmark or favorite my site!

But what doesn’t work is when you try to use the verb “favorite” in its past tense – try saying “I favorited your site” and you’ll see what I mean. And the same goes for the continuous aspect. “Favoriting” is a dogs dinner of a word.

“Bookmark” doesn’t have that problem – just compare saying “I bookmarked it” to “I favourited it”. Phonologically, “bookmark” is better equipped to work as both noun and verb than “favorite”.

So maybe the failure of “favorite” over time has less to do with design strategy or the browser wars, and more to do with its basic phonological awkwardness. Who knows? At least it’s something to think about while lazily favoriting websites on a sunny Friday afternoon.

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